What Theresa May's Defeat Means for American Conservatives

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Until last Thursday, Theresa May was the poster girl of "responsible nationalism," which in the eyes of its proponents had tamed the electorate's nationalist impulses and integrated them into a promising form of center-right conservative politics.

In December last year, John O'Sullivan predicted that "if she sticks to her guns," she "may lose a few parliamentary dissidents in the coming year, but her reward would be millions of new voters."

According to Ross Douthat, Mrs. May is "basically the leader the US Republican Party needed […] 2 years ago." And on the day of the UK election, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry praised Ms. May's "patriotic conservatism" and hypothesized that her "political success in her own country," just like Margaret Thatcher's, "sparks off a wave of imitators around the world."

After last Thursday, that wave of imitators seems like a distant fantasy.

While Ms. May captured a higher share of the popular vote than David Cameron in 2015 because of her success in attracting many United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voters, the outcome of the election is a sore disappointment compared to "the impending landslide – the only real question [was] about its magnitude" – predicted just a few weeks ago.

Judging by the outcomes, there was nothing "responsible" about Ms. May's embrace of hard Brexit, heavy handed industrial policy, and harsh rhetoric directed against "the citizens of nowhere."

If anything, the new Conservative posture empowered the regressive hardline left, which has successfully colonized the Labour Party, bringing an unreconstructed, 1970s-style, far-left authoritarian dangerously close to power.

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Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May at a general election campaign event in Norwich, England, 07 June, 2017. BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty

The central reason for the fiasco is that Ms. May's message did not resonate among younger voters. The Labour lead among 18 – 24-year-olds was 51 percentage points larger than the national average of a 3-point lead for Conservatives.

RELATED: Theresa May Promises Economic Uncertainty and a Hard Brexit

Likewise, Tories performed poorly in constituencies with higher shares of university-educated voters. Those demographics were leaning Labour in previous elections too, but what makes last week's election so stark is the magnitude of the polarization, especially by age.

Unless one thinks that the new generation has suddenly become infatuated with Trotskyism, the triumph of Labour among younger voters must be explained by the Conservatives' failure to reach out to them effectively.

Compare that to the French experience, where President Emmanuel Macron's new political formation, La République en marche (REM), is on track to actually win the country's National Assembly by a landslide.

In the presidential election, Mr. Macron's has secured a majority in every age group – notwithstanding the economic plight of the younger generation in France, which his nationalist competitor, Marine Le Pen, sought to exploit.

None of this should be read as an uncritical endorsement of Mr. Macron's platform. His recent trolling of President Donald Trump seems a victory of form over substance. And as I wrote elsewhere, his European agenda is fuzzy.

It is also an open question whether he can deliver the politically contentious labor market reforms that France needs.

RELATED: May v. Corbyn: Where Did the Tory Landslide Go?

However, there is one big thing that Mr. Macron got right and that Theresa May, along with the many advocates of "responsible nationalism" on the conservative right, got wrong. He understood, to use the vocabulary from Virginia Postrel's prophetic 1998 book, that the central political conflict of our side is being fought between the forces of economic dynamism and of "stasis."

What the world, and Europe in particular, needs is not leaders who (like Ms. Le Pen or Mr. Trump) promise a return to a simpler, more predictable past, nor those who (like Ms. May) are trying to strike a bargain with such a nostalgia.

Instead, what is needed are political leaders who will stand up firmly for economic dynamism, creative destruction, and openness – including openness to immigration – and who can build an optimistic vision of the future instead of offering nostalgic promises which are bound to go unfulfilled.

There are different ways of translating the "dynamist" argument into an effective policy agenda. Voters might be keener to embrace globalization, free trade, and unfettered entrepreneurship if effective social safety nets protect the less fortunate ones among them.

The case for immigration would certainly have wider appeal if complemented with policies that promote integration as opposed to creating social and cultural ghettos – not to speak of a strategy that would bring an end to the terror-spreading jihadism, propelled by conflicts and instability across North Africa and the Middle East.

We know from examples of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan that forward-looking messages can come from the political right. It is time for conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic to reconsider their current flirtation with nostalgia-driven nationalism.

Otherwise, they risk making their brand toxic not only to young voters of today, but also to those of the future.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a visiting junior fellow at the Max Beloff Centre for the Study of Liberty at the University of Buckingham in the UK and a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London.