Making Liberal Democracies

Lessons from Europe

A Conservative Party poster, circa 1900, the year the precursor of the Labour Party first participated in a general electionPoster from Getty Images

Conservative Parties and the Birth of  Democracy, by Daniel Ziblatt (Cambridge University Press, $99; $34.99, paper)

In the wake of Brexit and last November’s U.S. election, with many citizens and scholars fretting over the fate of the liberal order, a Harvard government professor is offering a novel argument about how that order arose in the first place. According to Daniel Ziblatt’s Conservative Parties and the Birth of  Democracy, the continent’s liberal democracies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries lived or died not as a result of rising living standards, the agitation of the working and middle classes, or quirks of national character, but rather due to the factional strength of the countries’ old-regime elites.

Democracy menaced the socioeconomic power and basic moral ideas of these notables. But the elites themselves were hardly monolithic, navigating different options with different implications for democracy in different countries. Where conservative factions developed parties that could win at the ballot-box, old-regime elites tolerated the extension of voting rights and the expansion of political competition. Where this proved difficult or impossible, they thwarted political change, causing democratic transitions to collapse into far-right or fascist regimes. 

Ziblatt focuses the bulk of his analysis on two test cases, democratic evolution in Britain and Germany, though he applies his conclusions to the whole of Western Europe.

In the first case, he argues, the United Kingdom’s Tories built a robust party organization that attracted the votes of middle- and working-class people drawn by nationalist and religious appeals. British conservatives spent critical decades in the mid-nineteenth century cultivating social clubs, interest groups, and grassroots activists that drove success at the polls.

Theirs was a difficult road, and some worried they might be the country’s last conservatives. Both elites and their opponents suspected mass voting would upend class relations and lead to land reform—or, even worse, revolution. And political competition contained a paradox for conservatives who believed influence and money were theirs by right. As Ziblatt writes, electoral appeals, in grounding old social relations in a new language of consent, “would alter the very inegalitarian and hierarchical world that mid-century conservatives sought to preserve.”

But the party’s central leaders achieved mastery of mass politics sufficient to risk the extension of the franchise and the edging out of undemocratic institutions like the House of Lords. And their bet paid off: Conservatives crushed their Liberal and Labour opponents in the two decades that followed the 1884 adoption of near-universal manhood suffrage. 

Germany, Ziblatt asserts, presented a reverse image. After the country’s 1870 unification, all males had the franchise, but that mattered little. The German Conservative Party, the voice of the semi-authoritarian kaiser, managed to hold onto power through an elaborate scheme of electoral manipulation and tiered voting systems that overvalued the voices of elites. That permitted conservatives to run the country until the First World War, even without much of a popular mandate.

But their power in the Reichstag belied their organizational impotence. Lacking much central structure or electoral machinery, the party was a bottom-up affair, with local grandees getting out the vote and determining office nominations. And because it lacked facility in mass politics, the party refused to countenance slight measures to expand democracy. 

It also rendered the German Conservative Party vulnerable to the predations of the outside interest groups it relied on for votes: the country’s Agrarian League and, far more dangerously, anti-Semites. Gaining leverage for a brief spell in the 1890s, that second constituency inserted a denunciation of Jewish “influence” into the party platform. Weakness on the right outlived the Second Reich, overthrown in 1918 and replaced with the Weimar Republic. And Ziblatt argues that, as much as structural forces, this failure to build a healthy right or center-right party created space for the Nazis to fill. 

He posits that much of the divergence between German and British conservatives had to do with timing. The Tories laid the groundwork for their party structure in the middle of the nineteenth century, prior to the working class getting the vote and socialists incorporating them into their new political networks. German conservatives scrambled to organize themselves while facing an organized Social Democratic Party in the 1880s and ’90s, a far more daunting prospect. Tories also had more incentive to adapt to the new age. Their leaders did not enjoy the capacity to coerce votes and rig elections that ultimately damned German conservatives.

Ziblatt marshals an impressive set of evidence to argue his point, tallying statistical analyses, sorting through the ancient Tory political memos—even using bond rates to discern the attitude of old-regime elites: volatility in markets for government securities, in his view, reflects elites’ level of confidence in the survival of a regime. As the British working classes began to demand greater rights in the 1830s, for example, the markets appeared far stormier than usual as Parliament enacted the First Reform Act expanding suffrage. A few decades later, the securities exchange hardly registered the Second and Third Reform Acts­­—which Ziblatt asserts bears out his thesis that the elites grew less worried about democracy as their ability to compete at the polls increased. 

Previous writings have traditionally focused on other explanations to make sense of democratization, such as a rise in society’s wealth or the formal institutional design of a country’s political system. Ziblatt’s work adds to a nascent literature that explores how informal structures, i.e., parties and interest groups, exert strong influence over democratic evolution, and is part of an ever-more critical field of political science: the study of democratic quality and transition.

Still, Ziblatt’s theory has its limitations. He emphasizes that differences in national wealth between Britain and Germany could not explain their variable outcomes for democracy, because both countries were almost equally prosperous. But his argument appears harder to sustain when he applies that logic to Western Europe writ large. He judges that Belgium, Holland, Britain, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark succeeded in their democratic transitions, whereas Italy, Germany, Portugal, and Spain failed. France, he avers, moved from the second to the first category in the 1880s. 

But with the exception of Germany, an industrial powerhouse with a high standard of living, the second group was considerably poorer than the first, as southern European nations lagged their northern peers on most indicators of economic and social health. As Ziblatt himself acknowledges, his theory works best when it explains “specific and important anomalies” that a wealth-based account of democracy would not clarify. It might help us grasp disparities in democratic evolution between Germany and Britain, or Germany and Sweden. But the wealth explanation remains critical when examining Western Europe as a whole. 

Ziblatt also comes up short in treating religious cleavages within Western Europe. Protestant sects dominated in Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany, while Catholicism was the religion of the vast majority in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France. Religious establishments in these countries resisted the march of liberal democracy to various degrees. But it’s important as well to recall the Catholic Church’s unique role in stymieing and reversing democratic transitions in southern Europe. Pope Pius IX forbade Catholics to participate in the new Italian state’s parliamentary elections and denounced liberalism in the 1864 document known as the Syllabus of Errors. France’s post-1870s democratic consolidation owes significantly to the steps leaders took to remove the Church from its role as a provider of education and other services. More than a half-century later, Spanish clerics actively helped Francisco Franco overthrow republican government in the run-up to World War II.

Despite these gaps, Ziblatt’s book resonates in the present context of democratic retreat in Europe and the United States. As the author points outs, both “face a ferocious right-wing populist politics, which threatens to swallow older, self-identified conservative political parties.” Calling this development “ominous,” Ziblatt expresses a hope that “the age of democracy’s birth may serve as a vital and cautionary tale for our age of democratic crisis.”

And indeed, it’s difficult for the contemporary reader not to see disturbing parallels between Donald J. Trump’s co-opting of today’s Republican Party and the far-right takeover of the turn-of-the-century German Conservative Party. But Ziblatt also reminds readers that a nation’s fate is rarely sealed on a single election night. Even the most robust democracies have experienced backsliding; one must be wary of reading too much into the headlines. In his words, “[I]t is a fool’s errand to be “chasing ever-changing facts with ever-changing explanations.” 

Britain experienced its own democratic scare, brought on by the Tories, right before the First World War. As Irish Catholics pushed for more autonomy from the central government, the Tories’ Unionist activists threatened to swamp the party regulars. And for a time, as the then Liberal majority pressed its pro-Irish legislation, the Tories’ leader Andrew Bonar Law flirted with violence and extra-constitutional measures. In one speech, he announced that he could “imagine no length of resistance” that he would not support in the drive to defeat the bill. 

Drawing on their experience within the system, the Tories managed to avert a crisis, freeze out extremists, and broker compromise once world war broke out. Their actions did not spare Ireland from bloody conflict over independence, but their restraint saved Britain’s liberal democracy. One hopes that mainstream conservatives in the United States and Europe will be able to exercise a similar restraint.


Updated 4/18/17 to reflect the published book’s title change from Conservative Political Parties: The Birth of Modern Democracy in Europe.

Daniel J. Solomon ’16 is a writer at The Forward in New York City. 

Read more articles by Daniel J. Solomon

You might also like

Former Women’s Hockey Coach Sues Harvard

Katey Stone alleges gender bias in handling of abuse allegations that led to her retirement.

Remembering Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan

On a Radcliffe-Harvard memorial to remarkable figures

Harvard Confers 11 Undergraduate Degrees

Protestors now found in “good standing.”

Most popular

Is Teach for America Good for America?

Recent Teach for American alumni share reflections on the controversial program.

Harvard’s Ties to Slavery

A long-awaited, unsparing picture 

Jens Meierhenrich

A very long bookshelf in Jens Meierhenrich’s Harvard office holds a complete transcript of the Nuremberg trial of major war criminals, in...

More to explore

Broadway Director from Harvard Adapting Disney

Broadway music director Madeline Benson on art and collaboration

How Political Tension on Campus Creates Risk Aversion

How overheated political attention warps campus life

Harvard Professor on Social Psychology for Understanding War

Two scholars’ extracurricular efforts in the Middle East