Liberals and Conservatives can be friends

Why it is so difficult to be conservative today

What does «conservative» mean today? Or “right”, “left”, “liberal”? It only takes a few shifts and the political compass will soon begin to spin.

In the age of satellite-based navigation systems, location determination using a sextant and chronometer has become superfluous. To be able to read the compass rose, to distinguish south from north, east from west, seems an old-fashioned art. For orientation in political traffic, however, location determination by means of coordinate differences is still useful.

But here, too, the matter becomes difficult. What does «conservative» mean today? Or “right”, “left”, “liberal”? - That someone is ready to reject Chancellor Merkel's refugee policy outright? One is no less used to hearing it from the AfD than from the FDP or the left-wing sociologist Wolfgang Streeck.

Is the “right” belief that statutory paternity leave destroys traditional family morals? Wouldn't one then also have to be in favor of the cancellation of a great many other welfare state benefits? And does one not become, faster than one would like, the libertarian minimalist state advocate who is for the dismantling of as many barriers as possible to individual freedoms - which doesn't really fit with conservative ideas?

It only takes a few shifts and the compass will soon begin to spin. This is not a coincidence, but the result of elementary processes in our contemporary modernity.

Loose consensus

According to a plausible thought by Norberto Bobbio, right and left - at least on the common ground of the liberal and democratic constitutional state - can be determined according to their respective position in the context of decisions between (individual) freedom and (social) equality.

Some, the right-wing, are indeed the "friends of freedom", but ready to agree to the principle of "as much freedom as possible, as much equality as necessary". The others, the left, behave in reverse, their motto is “As much equality as possible, as much freedom as necessary”. Within the framework of constitutional democracy, which is recognized by both sides, the dispute about the right measure is moderated and turned into a more-or-less conflict, which is procedurally settled from election to election. It cannot be denied that this worked to a certain extent and ensured stable conditions in the western nation states (compared to previous times) for more than half a century. It is also clear that the prerequisite for this is a basic consensus of the large majority of citizens (with regard to the necessary constitutional conditions).

But its own anchoring is no longer a matter of course for reasons of elementary social changes. What these reasons consist of can be seen most clearly on the other axis of the political wind rose, in the contrast “conservative versus progressive”.

The rule for conservatives

Political conservatism, like the distinction between right and left, is a result of the French Revolution. “Liberté” and “égalité”, both demands provoked the party of those who defended the legitimacy of what has become and the existing political system. Their spokesmen warned against the frenzy of unfettered arbitrariness, against malicious resentment as the origin of egalitarian slogans, and certified the value of "good old law". The years after the wars of the Napoleonic era were their great times.

Conservatives are not guided by a comprehensive ideology like liberals, socialists or nationalists, their competitors in the 19th century. Its core idea is to remember the meaning and usefulness of conventional orders when their validity has become questionable.

In this way, conservatives are time-bound. That is why the conservatives of today should not be confused with apologists of the «ancien régime»; To be liberal and conservative at the same time is no longer a contradiction in terms for them. It is characteristic, however, that liberal conservatives - against progressist furor - rely on the rationality of a rule of burden of proof: it is not the valid that has to be justified, but the new to be introduced.

Because, according to Hermann Lübbe, "nobody can avoid starting from a rebuttable presumption for the reasonableness of the existing (...) If the existing is so bad that it is easy to refute its reasonableness, the protective effect of this principle is also low." The liberal-conservative position knows that belief in the future without trust in one's origin turns dangerously quickly into the ruthless self-empowerment of revolutionary destructiveness. But like any defense of the given, it remains contextual.

A hyper dynamic world

Conservatives need to refer to what already exists that is old enough to be understood as an established tradition; on institutions and habits, the value of which is evident even where promises are opposed to them, which promise, but only promise, better things.

“Calculate with the stocks” is the conservative imperative. Its logic fails where what is there no longer has the chance to grow old enough to prove itself. Exactly this is the problem of current conservatism: The basic process of the present is the incessant production of new, highly effective, scientifically proven techniques to transcend previously existing limits of human control; productivity that is called disruptive because it overrides what has recently been established so quickly that there is no more time to continuously adapt it.

Examples? - Reproductive medicine could enable offspring à la carte if there were no - still - legal and moral barriers. The media society of the present cannot be described with the public concepts of the 20th century and normatively only inadequately grasped. The financial capitalism of the 21st century owes its enormously increased power less to politically induced deregulations than to the use of the latest computer technologies. And we are just beginning to guess what the self-driving electric car means for conventional large-scale industry and the associated supplier industry. In this way, new potential is created every day that goes beyond the usual limits.

All of this makes it clear that the discrepancy between a secure space of experience and an open horizon of expectations in the accelerated change in civilization of the present is alarmingly large and must continue to grow. Because every previous barrier to human activity becomes the driver of the next scientific-technical and economically usable progress. The conservative balance between the real good and the promised, perhaps better, no longer finds the ground to use its criteria.

The expansion of technological productive forces is linked to all those structural shifts that are revolutionizing the orientations of the 20th century in the 21st century; so quickly that we hardly notice what is happening to us. Keywords are well known: global networking of economic systems, the complementary disempowerment of national democracies, migration movements that can hardly be controlled.

The consequences of the constantly accelerating change in civilization are, however, paradoxical. What will apply in the future is on the one hand as unpredictable as the results of the next disruption. On the other hand, the repeated experience of the last seventy years shows that the really big crises have not materialized. The world of the West is confusing, but also remote from civil war and somewhat stabilized by the welfare state. It seems that there is no credible alternative to the given-in-flow.

Displeasure therefore shapes the collective consciousness, the feeling of a peculiarly dull, at the same time polyphonic lack of alternatives. A mixture of resentment and indifference, nervousness and sometimes hysterical confidence, of bustle and pessimism, which does not simply break open the binding basic consensus of the free-democratic world of states, but causes it to tremble constantly. It can therefore be explained that the old compass of the political registers such tremors underground. The more difficult question is what that means for the development of democracy.