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So what’s wrong with the Right? Despite a steady diet of expanding government, foreign debt, and runaway welfarism from the Left, the Right finds it difficult to excite the electorate enough to be voted into power. Failure breeds internecine conflict, further weakening the Right. In India, for example, despite nine years of criminally poor governance by the incumbent party, the Right does not yet have an assured victory in the upcoming general elections and even that chance seems based more on an anti-incumbency sentiment than a genuine embrace of the Right political platform. Describing the woes of the Right, as a friend put it, the issue is not that the Left is so powerful but that the Right is not loved.

Why is this? Part of the reason lies in the agglomerated nature of the Right. More than a coherent and uniform ideology, the Right is fundamentally a reactionary political movement. As Thomas Sowell argued in Intellectuals and Society, it is “simply the various and disparate opponents of the Left.” These opponents of the Left are bound by nothing beyond their common disagreement and can come in all hues and colours, from Islamists to libertarians. In the cacophony of ideologies, a clear and unified platform is lost.

From this Right jumble, two broad themes emerge: a Right motivated by economic ideals, and a Right grounded in cultural certitude. Economic conservatives have not been able to capture the electoral imagination; their message is too abstract for the average voter. Preaching long-term fiscal responsibility to an impatient electorate not used to institutional stability and good governance is like lecturing an obese person on his way to a triple bypass on the benefits of yoga. Furthermore, quotas and entitlements are an emotional argument, not an economic one. It is difficult to argue against feeding a hungry man, or providing medical aid to sick child. The misery of an individual moves one far more easily than lofty principles of governance and economics.

It is for this reason that the economic Right has usually had to seek allies among the cultural Right. Such partnerships are quite common – the Parti chrétien-démocrate and its association with the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire in France, Republicans and their Christian fringe in the United States, the Cornerstone Group within the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, the and the revolving door relations between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in India. However, social conservatives are not necessarily fiscal conservatives; whether due to their cultural mores, national pride, or religious beliefs, many on the cultural Right have greater sympathy for socialist policies than their fiscally conservative allies. This dissonance creates an ambiguous political platform that leaves the centre of the political spectrum confused.

Language, religion, ethnicity and all those other strands that make up the web of life are just as tangible as government dole. The average voter can relate as easily to soft loans and subsidies as the razing of a nearby temple or a gradual change in the lingua franca due to the influx of outsiders into his/her village. However, cultural protectionism militates against socialist practices, making the cultural Right natural foes of the Left and pushing them into the arms of the free-market libertarians. The social conservatives offer the economic Right not only the advantage of their mass appeal, but also the benefit of their well organised cadre at the grassroots level. The cultural Right thus becomes the base of the entire Right. As a result, most economically right-of-centre parties find it difficult to jettison their cultural agenda and still remain a viable political force.

Unfortunately for the Right, cultural protectionism is an inherently divisive message that can mobilise the excluded as easily as those included. Be it the Ten Commandments in government buildings or a ban on beef, such issues guarantee fierce opposition as much as rally the base. The economic Right loses ground among their own, who may otherwise have been persuaded by a fiscal argument but are forced away by the cultural agenda. The wisdom of the political pundits so far, however, has been that people moved primarily by fiscal conservatism are less likely to vote and wooing the social conservatives is a electorally more rewarding tactic.

Beyond the fissiparous difficulties of the Right, the Left has one more advantage – they understand humans better. While the free marketeers repeat the mantra of self-interest incessantly, the Left seems to understand human beings in context. One interesting term psychologists use that may apply to quotas and entitlements is “social trap.” It is a situation in which a group of people act to obtain short-term individual gains that leads to a loss for the group as a whole in the long term. Given the uninspiring institutional integrity in India and an environment of lack, people are understandably tempted to seek advantage when possible rather than invest in a future. Another way of looking at it is, as Prospect Theory explains, how people understand risk and reward – the outcome of an entitlement is guaranteed immediately while the benefits of the market are in the future and probable at best. Other selfish and self-serving beliefs and behaviour such as psychological entitlement feeds into these traits as well.

So is it the end of the road for the economic Right? Perhaps, if they cannot package  their beliefs in a more enticing cover. Fiscal prudence must supercede narrower personal, regional, or communal sentiments.  This is easier achieved when the state is stable and impartial in the dispensation of services and justice. As the powerful story of the 9-year-old boy from Fukushima illustrated, people also have a capacity for remarkable fairness and generosity if they trust the system. Yet it is difficult to reform the system if one is not in power, or if one is bogged down by socialist impulses within one’s own ranks…and power is difficult to achieve if one is viewed merely as an anti-incumbent alternative. It is a pretty little vicious cycle the economic Right finds itself in.


This post appeared on FirstPost on March 25, 2013.

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