A new era of conservatism
Jamie Speka reflects on the key features of conservative political ideology pertaining to human rights, the effects of its rising prevalence around the world, and the future of the political landscape in the new era of conservatism.
In October of 1931, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) saw a shift in political ideologies as two relatively centrist justices – Hughes and Roberts – began assenting to conservative policies. Since then, historical events and movements have demanded a general liberal trajectory for the court in social and economic legislation. President Franklin Roosevelt implemented ground-breaking policies such as the New Deal during the Great Depression. World War Two made way for a cultural awakening to the detrimental impacts of fascism on human rights. The 1960s brought transformative change through the collective consciousness of the Baby Boomer generation, which went on to shape many overtly progressive ideals of the latter half of the 20th century. Since the dawn of the internet age, changes in the public sphere have introduced even more liberal ideals into policy conversations. Despite this 90-year trajectory, conservative appointments to the SCOTUS have led to the most conservative court since the Hughes Court era.
This push toward the ideological right shines a light on conservative influences and their wish to return to values that conflict with the national landscape that has evolved over these decades. To combat the rapid social change of our time, conservative policymakers have been taking great strides to slow down–or in some cases turn reverse – the rapid social change of the modern era. We are entering a new era of conservatism that relies on the past to define the present. One in which human rights are becoming precarious.
The tide of conservatism is not only confined to the U.S – which bears a great responsibility in influencing politics worldwide.
The effects of rising conservatism
The well-publicised overturning of Roe v Wade is symbolic of the current state of the Supreme Court as it falls more towards so-called “originalism”. Additional examples include expanding public funding for private, religious schools (Carson v Makin, 2022) and allowing the right to pray in public schools (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District). In an article for NPR, Nina Totenberg notes that “conservative and liberal scholars alike describe the current court as unusually aggressive.” Columbia Law professor Jamal Greene commented, “the court is going backwards in overturning generations of modern law and returning to legal understandings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
The tide of conservatism is not only confined to the U.S – which bears a great responsibility in influencing politics worldwide. In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right policies, in the form of banning hijabs in public spaces, were closer to fruition than ever before in the recent French election. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, a self-proclaimed champion of “illiberal democracy”, was embraced by U.S conservatives in Dallas for a conference in August. Moreover, the United Kingdom’s recent move to repeal the Human Rights Act of 1998 and implement the Police Crime Bill and Priti Patel’s UK Borders Bill, all illustrate a threat to Human Rights in democracies.
So, why is the right rising everywhere? In an age of rapid change based on material conditions, it is simple to see the state of transition we are within. In a 2018 article, Noah Millman writes, “anxiety about order traditionally pushes the public to embrace parties of the right, who most credibly promise to restore order, whether we’re talking about fighting crime or preserving a familiar culture.” Wanting to maintain a sense of comfort through order is a natural trait of older generations which are becoming the majority as Western populations age.
The fundamentals of conservative political theory
Opposing viewpoints may differ altogether. It can be argued that conservative values are in play to protect human rights; that they are simply exhibiting this through a different lens. Conservative professor of Political Science, Patrick Deneen writes, “This conception of [human] rights must be rooted in the existence of a community–a real community, not the abstraction of ‘humankind’. A real community entails reciprocal duties, situated in institutions that can enforce them and mediated by the conventions of people who know each other and share a common culture. This is the nation. We derive our rights from our citizenship (or more properly, our subjectship).”
Through a conservative lens, human rights are developed through shared traditions that teach “subjects” moral codes for unity. Rights are rooted within the community and shared generationally. Importantly to this mode of thought, they are determined on a community basis rather than a universal doctrine.
It is unclear how conservatism defends rights if a community is in constant flux with drastically different definitions of what ‘common culture’ is
This would of course imply that relegating citizenship to “subjectship” pulls power away from the masses which governments are responsible for serving. Years of shifting power struggles have allowed for human rights to be widely promoted as an indicator of citizens having the ability to instruct their governments. Even if one were to accept a conservative view of human rights, it is unclear how conservatism defends rights if a community is in constant flux with drastically different definitions of what ‘common culture’ is. And further, rights rooted in a community are acknowledged by those within the community who have the power to promote their ideologies, which in turn encourages the oppression of those who do not fit the mould. Ultimately, rights under these circumstances are granted to few, rather than inherent to all.
Conservative political theory adamantly promotes the idea of individualism – the right to individual thought and action. However, there is a strong counterargument that individualism neglects marginalised communities. Without collective agreements to ensure equal opportunities for all to conduct themselves freely, conservatism disregards inequalities that are systemic and persistent. In addition, conservative individualism falters when people want to use their individual rights in a way that counters ‘traditional’ rights. The banning of the right to abortion in the U.S and discussions in the United Kingdom on reforming the Gender Recognition Act exemplify this trend.
The political and legislative future
This push for conservative action will lead to a greater rush for more policy and legislation changes. Legislation concerning how race affects college admissions, challenging anti-discrimination laws, and prohibiting gerrymandering, are all on the chopping block for the next term. With the conservative majority in the Supreme Court, it is likely these rulings can counter many laws within the International Bill of Rights, threatening freedom from discrimination and the right to participate in public affairs. The UK’s governmental policy mirrors the trend within the U.S: redefining what basic rights are, based on extreme partisan policy.
With Millennials and Generation Z set to dominate the voting landscape by 2026, the future of human rights appears to have been placed in our hands
As for the future of human rights, Ben Rhodes, a political commentator, suggests that it will be left to younger generations to transform the world we live in: “There’s a lot of reasons to be concerned that the overall trajectory of society globally is still moving in the wrong direction. What makes me optimistic, though, is that I don’t believe that that’s how most people want to live. If we can hold the line and weather the storm for the next few years, and begin to figure out some structural issues, I do think we can come through to a place where the pendulum starts swinging pretty hard in the other direction.” Generation Z is on track to be the best–educated generation in history and the most likely to want an activist government; one that listens to the needs of its citizens and works together to build a balanced society. Millennial and Gen Z voters are also on track to dominate elections for the foreseeable future, with projections reaching 60 per cent of the voting landscape by 2036. The future of human rights appears to be placed in our hands.