Common-Good Conservatism is Crossing the Atlantic | Opinion

In the second half of the 20th century, and for much of the first two decades of the 21st century, conservatives in the Anglo-Saxon world—and the U.S. in particular—had little affinity with conservatives in Continental Europe. They saw each other as firm allies in the face of the Soviet menace during the Cold War, but philosophical differences remained, leading to an uneasy suspicion on the Continent that those across the pond were moving things a little too fast, and perhaps not quite in the right direction, while the American Right saw the Europeans as somewhat backward, in some cases verging on reactionary. Notably, it often seemed that Republican administrations in Washington worked better with left-liberal governments in the Old World than with conservative ones.

In recent years however, that dynamic has been changing. The American Right is taking a second look at Continental Christian conservatism, in Hungary and Poland especially, and seems to be liking what it sees—much to the chagrin of the Left, moderates and even some self-described Republicans. But what brought about this change of heart?

First, let us examine why conservatives on the two sides of the Atlantic were not natural allies to begin with. Recall that conservatism is not an ideology, but an attitude. Ideologies attempt to offer template solutions to problems of governance. The ideology of liberalism holds that an increase in individual freedom will resolve most dilemmas. Whenever an issue arises, liberals will look for stakeholders who are not sufficiently free to assert their rational will to balance the system. Socialism, meanwhile, will look at issues through the lens of the means of production, identify where capital and labor have come out of balance and interfere to restore equilibrium. Individual liberty is liberalism's hammer that turns every problem into a nail, just as the means of production is socialism's.

Conservatism, however, is not a proposed solution to problems of governance so much as it is a general attitude toward the purpose of governance itself. In the eye of a conservative, that purpose is relatively simple: maintaining social tranquility, as society organically develops through time. But if conservatism is not an ideology, then conservatives, by virtue of being politically minded people, necessarily adopt ideologies even as they remain conservatives.

And indeed, that's what happened. American and Anglo-Saxon conservatives adopted liberalism and individual freedom as their guiding ideology, while Continental conservatives tended towards Christian democracy, which emphasizes solidarity between individuals, and that the community as a whole must prosper, so the common good enjoys priority over the individual's room to maneuver. No wonder American and European conservatives had trust issues; liberals and Christian conservatives have much to distrust about each other.

Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks on during the investiture ceremony at the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on May 16, 2022. - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party had won a fourth straight term at the parliamentary elections on Sunday, April 3, 2022. Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP/Getty Images

So, what changed? What has brought U.S. and European conservatives so close that Tucker Carlson, Rod Dreher and others went to Budapest in search of answers to problems that ail America? The answer, as it so often is, is the rise of a common threat. Modern identity politics—the church of wokeness, critical race theory (and I could go on)—threaten to dismantle or deconstruct fundamental pillars of Western civilization: traditional religion, particularly Christianity; national memory, through attacking history itself; and the institution of the family, by undermining traditional gender roles and sexual mores. Upon these pillars social tranquility rests, and consequently the postmodern Left aims to strike at the core of conservatism.

This new threat explains why a conservative intellectual bridge is being built across the Atlantic. What it does not explain however, is why it is Americans who are growing closer to the tenets of the Continental Right, and not vice versa. The answer to this question lies in one particular element of the woke cultural revolution. Identity politics encourage the creation of distinct groups within society that engage in a dynamic form of temporary alliance building, oath breaking, friction and outright conflict within the wider community. This phenomenon is more acute in North America than in Europe, and conservatives understandably loathe it. The counter to this process of societal fragmentation is to remind people that the larger community of the nation is where they primarily belong. Their group identities should be subordinated to their primary allegiance, which is to the common good of the entire society, of which they are a single representative, with the same rights and inherent worth as every other member of the nation.

This view, which more and more Americans are adopting as a response to identity politics and the social tensions stemming from it, is very close to the core tenets of European (especially Central European) conservatism: love your country, love your countrymen and realize that you share a common purpose, which is to protect your country and make it better. Or "Great Again."

It should come as little surprise, then, that the first European iteration of the largest American political gathering, the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is taking place in Budapest. Hungarian conservatives were naturally eager to host this impactful event after crucial elections in which the Right won a sweeping electoral mandate and improved on its two-thirds majority, and in which a referendum on child protection received more votes than any previous proposition put to plebiscite, including NATO and EU membership, garnered.

But picking Budapest also fits the battle plan of American conservatives focused on attacking the church of wokeness. The eyes of the world are on Hungary this spring. Leftists' hope of unseating Viktor Orbán, whom they fear as a great disruptor of their dreams of "progress," ended in bitter disappointment. The Right celebrates the continued success of a leader it's come to see as one of its champions. Indeed, many leading conservatives are arriving in Budapest to cheer the triumph of Mr. Orbán's Fidesz, but also to draw lessons from it, and to strategize about adapting the Hungarian model to their own national situations. Hungarians realized that democracy need not be exclusively liberal, and provides an exciting example for many.

Miklos Szantho is Director General of the Center for Fundamental Rights.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.