The tropes of conservative thought
The Conservative Party leadership election feels like it's taking place on another world. So here's a handy list of tropes that can help make sense of some of the madness.
I've been on holiday and glad to tune out of the ongoing Conservative Party leadership election.
But what little I have heard of the whole business has revealed to me just how off the ranch Sunak and Truss are when one pits their leadership ideas against the problems we face.
I find it hard to make sense of these people and I’ve found myself constantly asking:
"What do they want?”
Or in darker moments:
“What is it that they are seeking permission to do?"
A book that always helps me answer these questions, is The Rhetoric of Reaction by the liberal economist Albert Hirschmann.
You should read it too, it's here for free.
Hirschmann argued that conservatives rely on three tropes to frame their thought and rhetoric. Once you understand them, a lot of conservative political ideas, campaigning and policy suddenly starts to make a bit more sense. The tropes are:
“Perversity”. This is the idea that any attempt to change the social world for the better always leads to the opposite of what was intended.
For example, in the 19th century conservatives argued that extending the right to vote would backfire and even lead to tyranny. The perversity trope has its roots in the idea of a divine, natural or metaphysical providence, or “way of things” that we interfere with at our peril. "Best not to meddle, or we’ll regret it.” The trope is usually sauced with a patronising admonishment of the social reformer's “naivety” for even trying to proactively change the world. “I know you mean well but…"
“Futility”. At least the perversity trope acknowledges that humans have the agency to change things, not so the trope of futility. Futility is the dismal, disenchanting, cynical, Borg-like brother of the perversity trope. Futility arguments posit that trying to change the world is a pointless exercise. Instead we should "leave things to the market" or accept that, while human made climate change is real "there's nothing we can do about it”. All the candidates in the leadership election have made claims to be the heir to Thatcher, which is apt because Margaret Thatcher's “There Is No Alternative” speech at the Conservative Women’s conference in 1980, is about as pure an example of the trope of futility you can get.
“Jeopardy”. Jeopardy is the idea that something good or worth conserving will be put at risk if we try to change the world in some way. The trope of jeopardy is often paired with the phrase "slippery slope". You see it commonly used in conservative rhetoric about social security. Conservatives are fond of arguing that social security puts individual freedom at risk. The implication here is that if people were given financial security they’d be corrupted or become lazy or something. One interesting thing that’s become regularly apparent amid the crises we've endured since the start of covid, is the way Conservative politicians have been forced to reckon with this weird conception of jeopardy. The belief in a slippery slope is surely part of the reason why they've continuously acted slowly: to lockdown at the start of the covid pandemic or act on the cost of living crisis. In a crisis like the one we face right now this tension between reality and the idea of jeopardy keeps playing out on repeat.
English / British exceptionalism. This isn't one of Hirschmann's tropes, but it's definitely a defining trope of conservatives. Remember at the start of the covid pandemic when Dominic Cummings briefed the press that we wouldn't be copying the example of Italy by locking down? The implication being that to do so would have been "un-British". Remember Johnson boasting about the UK's "world beating" vaccination programme. See also "the Mother of all parliaments." Conservative rhetoric is full of tropes about how the British (usually meaning English) are superior to others.
Obviously Hirschmann’s tropes aren’t exhaustive, but the frames of perversity, futility and jeopardy are never far away from the way conservatives talk.
For a more in-depth discussion I’d recommend listening to this lengthy Know Your Enemy podcast discussion of Hirschmann’s book.
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