Christian democracy and conservatism, as ideologies, are less familiar and less clearly defined than socialism, environmentalism, communism or fascism. Apparently journalists, politicians and other voices in politics have a general idea of what, say, ‘socialist family policy’ entails, yet they find it very hard indeed to conceptualise a Christian democrat-inspired health care system. Some do not consider Christian democracy to be an ideology at all, or define conservatism simply as a striving for or legitimisation of the status quo. Moreover, in the wider context of political de-alignment or ‘de- ideologisation’, focusing on differentia specifica is perceived to be an obsolete approach. Irrespective of whether such claims are justified, it would seem there is a need in contemporary politics for a better understanding of Christian democratic and conservative thought.(1)


2.1. The New Right and Neoconservatism

During the 1970s, and starting in the Anglo-Saxon world, there was renewed interest in conservatism as a political ideology.(2) This neoconservatism manifested itself politically as the New Right. The phrase New Right was coined by Kevin Phillips, a political publicist and aide to president Richard Nixon, and the author of ‘The Emerging Republican Majority’ (1969). The name was intended to distinguish the new leadership from the ‘Old Right’ leadership of the ‘East Coast’, which had previously dominated the Republican Party. Although neoconservatism and the New Right do not coincide entirely, they are often regarded as exponents of the same ‘movement towards the right’. Likewise, neoconservatism is not entirely synonymous with conservatism, and the New Right, moreover, contains not only conservative but also libertarian elements.

Characteristic features of the neoconservatism of the 1970s are its opposition to communism, its striving for minimal government, a belief in the free market as the key to liberty and progress, its dedication to the traditional moral order and its rejection of ethical libertarianism. In the moral sphere, there is an important role to be played by government. Neoconservatism is opposed primarily to social policy initiatives by the public authorities, arguing instead that private enterprise should play a more significant role in society. A minimal, yet strong State should concern itself exclusively with domestic and international law and order. The New Right is, in very general terms, the political translation of this neoconservatism, although it is more populist and anti-intellectualist, and radicalises the conservative outlook on man and society from a religious (i.e. Christian) perspective. In terms of economic policy, the New Right concurs with neoliberalism, which peaked during the 1980s.(3)

In the United States, neoconservatism arose as a response to the disappointment with evolutions since the late 1960s. Domestically, the Keynesian New Deal and the Great Society characterised by, among other things, positive discrimination of minorities were criticised, and there was growing protest against the trend of ‘moral disarmament’, i.e. the permissive society, with women’s liberation, environmental and peace movements following in its wake. In the foreign policy field, the debacle of the Vietnam War had left deep traces; there was a full-blown economic crisis to contend with; and the Cold War détente was coming to an end as the arms race seemed set to accelerate. Various conservative intellectuals and politicians were intent on tackling the malaise. From the late 1970s, their dissatisfaction was translated politically into the emergence at the New Right. In Western Europe, and in the United Kingdom in particular, a similar evolution unfolded. May 1968 was, for instance, criticised because of its libertarian character. Certainly in the party-political sphere, there are very clear parallels to be drawn. After the ‘leftist experiments’ of Labour in the UK and the ‘unsuccessful’

presidency of Jimmy Carter in the US, the two countries saw the almost simultaneous rise to power of respectively the Conservative Margaret Thatcher and the Republican Ronald Reagan.

This ideological revival coincided with resistance from neoconservatism and the New Right against ideology as such. Ideology was, after all, regarded as something ‘of the left’. The anti-ideological discourse of English philosopher Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) was well-received among neoconservatives.(4) More generally, since the publication of ‘Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays’(5), Oakeshott is regarded as one of the most significant exponents of conservatism in the 20th century. In this, his magnum opus, Oakeshott lays bare the shortcomings of rationalist politics and criticises ideological blueprints for reforming society according to supposedly ‘scientific’ or rationalistic principles.(6) Such abstract notions ignore the wealth and variety of human experience. From a (neo)conservative point of view, ideology is pernicious, yet, paradoxically, Oakeshott is widely regarded as the ideologist of Anglo-Saxon neoconservatism in the late 1970s.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the spotlight is very much on neo-conservatism, a movement whose origins clearly lie in the United States of the late1960s. What is new, however, is that, besides the characteristic laissez faire approach to the economy and limited view of government, security and foreign policy are now also put forward as key concerns. These areas are no longer dominated by Realpolitik and pragmatism, but rather by neo-conservative ideas and principles (idealism, if you will), as has become particularly apparent since the events of 9/11. The Iraq war, for example, was justified primarily on ideological grounds. If nothing else, this change of tack has certainly compelled critics to reflect on which principles should constitute the basis of security and foreign policy.(7)

2.2. ‘The End of Ideology’

Much like neoconservatism is not entirely new, the ‘endism’ of the early 1990s is, to an extent, a throwback to the 1950s, when the phrase ‘the end of ideology’ was coined. ‘The end of Ideology’ was the title of a book published in 1960 by Harvard-based sociologist and political scientist Daniel Bell (1919-).(8) Although Bell’s book deals specifically with the America of the 1950s, his thesis was interpreted globally. According to Bell, politics after the Second World War is characterised by a general consensus between the principal political parties and the absence of ideological differences or debate. The great ‘accidents’ of the 20th century have brought political ideologies to exhaustion.(9) According to Bell, the humanisation of capitalism, the absence of anti-system opposition and the triumph of the welfare state all point in this direction. In a sense, he expresses a feeling that is shared by broad sections of the American population, intellectuals included. Nonetheless, Bell’s thesis has come in for quite a lot of criticism, especially from the left. He has been accused of legitimising the status quo, of disseminating Cold War propaganda, and of ignoring the shortcomings of Western capitalism, especially in relation to the Third World. Bell is generally regarded to be rightwing, a neoconservative. Although he denies this, he does believe that ideology is ‘of the left’ and that it is (therefore) objectionable.(10) History, including the ‘revival’ of endism, has shown Bell to have been mistaken. The student protests of the 1960s and the rise of such new ideologies as feminism, Third-World nationalism and environmentalism all serve as counterexamples. Still, Bell’s sharp analysis of American society postulates the emergence of a so-called post-industrial society, of which he is invariably regarded as the ideologist.

From the late 1980s, and particularly in the 1990s, the discourse on the ‘end of ideology’ was picked up again: in the name of postmodernism, it was argued that all the great ideologies, especially the political ones, had run their course. An influential publication in this debate was ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ (1992), by American philosopher and policy advisor Francis Fukuyama (1952-).(11) His book was in fact a popularised elaboration on an article entitled ‘The End of History?’, which he had published in 1989 in the journal The National Interest.(12) In this essay, Fukuyama takes a very utilitarian, pragmatic and somewhat tautological approach to political ideology: fascism and communism, he argues, perished because they ‘did not work’, while economic and political liberalism has survived because it is successful. Fukuyama feels the political revolutions of the late 1980s illustrate his thesis. Three years on, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, Fukuyama had become even more convinced that he was right. Hence he dropped the question mark from the original title. Fukuyama interprets the end of the Cold War in the light of a ‘general history of the world’, the ‘end’ of which is not regarded as a demise, but rather as a completion. In his linear, Hegelian analysis, history is completed in the shape of liberal democracy and the free market. In this ‘posthistorical’ era, all fundamental oppositions have been resolved. All that remains are issues that are limited in time and space and that are therefore resolvable. Fukuyama would continue to defend his thesis up to the attacks of 9/11/2001.(13)

Despite its success, ‘The End of History’ met with quite a lot of criticism. Like endism in the 1950s, it was, first and foremost, attacked for being (too) pro- Western and pro-American. According to the left-leaning version of this criticism, the combination of a liberal economy and a liberal democracy generates economic inequality, and thus perpetuates certain cultural and societal differences, as well as any associated lack of freedom and/or inequality. The right-wing variant takes aim at the notion of recognition, which occupies a central place in Fukuyama’s book. Fukuyama, unlike Bell, does not present an exposition on ideology. He makes no explicit mention of the ‘end of ideology’, although ‘the end of history’ inevitably has a similar connotation.(14) Still, the absence of any explicit reflections on the status of contemporary ideology has not prevented characterisations of the book as ‘ideological’. After all, the West’s triumphalism vis-à-vis the now defunct communism is void of critical analysis of its own democratic and economic liberalism.(15) According to critics, the ‘end of ideology’ may therefore itself be regarded as an ideology. This conclusion ties in closely with a second point of criticism: as in the 1950s, the prediction of the ‘end’ of history has failed to materialise. The discourse of ‘endism’ is itself tributary to and an expression of the time and place in which it emerges.(16) The end of the great stories is not the end of all stories; it is merely the end of the dominance of a particular ideology or history. The actual passing of history which has seen democratic and economic liberalism subjected to a rapid succession of changes and, moreover, to unusually fierce attacks, including by the antiglobalist movement has proven lethal for the credibility of Fukuyama’s theory. ‘The End of History’ fitted perfectly into the Zeitgeist of the early 1990s, so that the hype surrounding it was as intense as it was short-lived.

(1)  See the conclusion and, for instance, the opinion of Hanns Seidel in his Weltanschauung und Politik, cited in H. Möller, ‘Hanns Saidels christliches Menschenbild’, H. Zehetmair (Hrsg.), Politik aus christlicher Verantwortung, 2007, p. 91: “Wir leben in einer direktionslosen Zeit, Es würde zur weiteren Auflösung wohltätiger Bindungen beitragen, wenn die Parteien das einigende Band weltanschaulicher Prinzipien zerreißen und die Menschen auch in dem so umfassenden Wirkungsbereich der praktischen Politik noch mehr einem platte Materialismus preisgeben würden. Eine weltanschauliche Richtschnur ist im Interesse der Parteien selbst wie auch im Interesse der Allgemeinheit wertvoller als die rein technische, von weltanschaulichen Vorstellungen losgelöste Beherrschung der Macht, die sehr wohl ’Staatskunst’ sein kann, die aber ihre Ratschläge in Staatsangelegenheiten allen gibt (...).) The fact that there was indeed a (sudden) revival towards the end of the decade is apparent from the pessimistic predictions about the future of conservatism in the mid-1970s. See for example: N. O’Sullivan, Conservatism, 1976, pp. 119-153.
(2)  The fact that there was indeed a (sudden) revival towards the end of the decade is apparent from the pessimistic predictions about the future of conservatism in the mid-1970s. See for example: N. O’Sullivan, Conservatism, 1976, pp. 119-153. 
(3)  Ch. Funderburk and R.G. Thobaben, Political Ideologies. Left, Center, Right, 1994, p. 144 ff.
(4)  A. Heywood, Key Concepts in Politics, 2000. p. 23.
(5)  M. Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1977, 333p.
(6)  Ibid., p. 58: “Politics is not the science of setting up s permanently impregnable society, it is the art of knowing where to go next in the exploration of an already existing traditional kind of society.”
(7)  P. Schumaker, From Ideologies to Public Philosophies. An Introduction to Political Theory, 2008, p. 86.
(8)  D. Bell, The End of Ideology. On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fif-ties. 1988, 501 p.
(9)  Ibid., p. 16: “In the last decade, we have witnessed an exhaustion of the nineteenth-century ideologies, particularly Marxism, as intellectual systems that could claim truth for their views of the world.” (italics by Bell) 
(10)  Ibid., p. 405: “The end of ideology closes the book, intellectually speaking, on an era, the one of easy ‘left’ formulae for social change.”
(11)  F. Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man, 1998, 418p.
(12)  F. Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16(5), 1989. pp. 3-18.
(13)  F. Fukuyama, ‘Has History Started Again?’. Policy, 2(18), 2002. p. 3.
(14)  S. Sim, Derrida and The End of History, 1999, p. 13: “(...) when ideology ends, so does history (...).”
(15)  A. Vincent, Modern Political Ideologies, 1991, p.13: “The ‘end of ideology’ was an ideological position committed to a form of pragmatic liberalism. There was a clear failure, which permeated the ‘end of ideology’ perspective, to analyse liberalism as ideology.”
(16)  See for example the now famous quip by Derrida: J. Derrida, Spectres de Marx. L’état de la dette, le travail de deuil et la nouvelle Internationale, 1993, p. 38: “Comment peut-on être en retard sur la fin de l’histoire? Question d’actualité.”

Excerpt from the book, CES 2008  

Steven Van Hecke