What today's GOP could learn from Benjamin Disraeli
The 19th-century British lawmaker paved the way for decades of conservative dominance
"We must stop being the stupid party." So Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal told Republicans assembled at the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee last week. Breaking the stupidity habit, Jindal continued, means more than avoiding unforced errors like Mitt Romney's 47 percent remark or Todd Akin's reflections on gynecology. Although Jindal's speech was remarkably light on details, the governor argued that Republicans have outright failed to appeal to the problems and perspectives of most Americans.
By describing the GOP as "the stupid party," Jindal evoked the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. In 1866, when he was serving in Parliament, Mill confidently asserted that "the Conservative Party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party." What Mill did not know was that Conservatives would, within a few years, be transformed from a reactionary rump into Britain's natural party of government.
Jindal and other Republican reformers could learn something from the mastermind of this transformation: Benjamin Disraeli. Although his times were different than ours, Disraeli provides a model of how conservatives can learn to win in a changed country.
Disraeli's accomplishment is more easily appreciated if we consider the Conservative Party at the time of Mill's statement. Although several Conservatives served as prime minister in previous decades, the party had not won an absolute parliamentary majority in years. The basic reason was its hostility to electoral reform. After the 1832 Reform Act increased the number of middle-class voters and eliminated "rotten boroughs" controlled by great landowners, the Conservative base among the rural gentry was seriously outnumbered.
The problem was exacerbated in the 1840s, when Prime Minister Robert Peel led pro-free trade Conservatives into a coalition with the opposition Whigs. With the exception of Disraeli and his patron, the Earl of Derby, almost all the party's luminaries followed Peel into the alliance that became the Liberal Party. The Conservative bench was so empty that the short-lived government Derby formed in 1851 was dubbed the "Who? Who?" cabinet in imitation of the Duke of Wellington's response to the members' names.
The Conservatives' situation hadn't improved much by the time of Mill's remark. In 1866, they were working against another reform bill, this one extending the franchise to what we would now call the lower-middle class. Led by Disraeli in the House of Commons, the Conservatives managed to defeat the bill despite its popularity with the public. Too small to govern but unwilling to compromise, the Conservatives looked like the Victorian "Party of No".
But opposition to reform in 1866 was just the first stage in Disraeli's strategy to revive Conservatism. The following year, Disraeli successfully introduced his own bill, which extended the franchise even more broadly than the previous proposal. Rejecting Conservative resistance to mass democracy, Disraeli argued that not only should the people be allowed to vote, but that they would vote Conservative if given the chance. It was a revolutionary argument at the time. It was also correct.
Disraeli was proved right in the election of 1874, which yielded the first Conservative majority in nearly 30 years. Serving as prime minister with his own mandate, Disraeli secured passage of pioneering measures for improving public health and increasing workers' rights. For Disraeli, these measures had nothing to do with hostility to wealth. Inspired by Romantic conservatives like the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he believed that the "Two Nations" of the rich and the poor could only be reconciled when the privileged few accepted responsibility for the welfare of the many.
This belief had a utopian aspect. But Disraeli was correct that workers and small-business people preferred cooperation with an elite that showed concern for their welfare to the harsh laissez-faire associated with 19th-century liberalism. What's more, Disraeli did not hesitate to base this alliance on religious affinity. In Victorian Britain, both the working class and gentry tended to be members of the Church of England, while entrepreneurs were disproportionately members of dissenting churches.
Disraeli's domestic populism was accompanied by renewed activism around the world. Disraeli, more than any other politician, deserves credit for the transformation of Britain's ramshackle collection of dependencies into a formal empire. His pursuit of international prestige was mocked by Liberals. But it was exceptionally popular with new voters enfranchised by his reforms — and managed to secure most of Disraeli's aims without war between great powers.
Indeed, the revitalization of the Conservative party with a base in the "respectable" working class, rather than any specific policy, was Disraeli's greatest achievement. Disraeli's sustained term in office lasted only six years, from 1874 to 1880. But Conservatives were the government for much of the next century — and beyond.
So: What lessons can Republicans today draw from Disraeli's career?
Number one: Successful parties seek popular majorities rather than clinging to procedural advantages. From the early stages of his career, Disraeli argued that Conservatives had to show that they represented "one nation" rather than a single class whose influence was exaggerated by unequal representation. In the present context, that means Republicans should reject attempts to rig the electoral college in their favor. Gaming the system may help win the next election, but it will never win a mandate.
The second lesson: Republicans must show that they care about solving the problems faced by voters outside the most comfortable classes. In addition to developing credible responses to wage stagnation and unemployment, that means helping Americans acquire and keep health insurance, and make safe investments for their retirement. As I've argued before, Republicans should reform Social Security and Medicare with the aim of preserving, not privatizing, them. The idolatry of market forces that such proposals reflect is historically rooted in Mill's utilitarianism rather than in traditional conservatism.
Finally, Republicans must retain their assertive nationalism, which resonates with what Walter Russell Mead describes as the Jacksonian tendency in American politics. Nevertheless, they should learn to temper it with prudence. Disraeli was among the 19th century's most outspoken advocates of "British exceptionalism". At the same time, he recognized that other nations are also proud of their achievement and traditions — and that Britain could often achieve its aims by cultivating common interests rather than hectoring or bullying. The same is true of the United States.
A Republican Party that learned Disraeli's lessons would still be recognizably conservative. But it would be a governing party with the potential to appeal to voters in a variety of demographics and regions. Hope for an American counterpart to Disraeli's "one nation" Conservatism may seem anachronistic. It shouldn't — because it's essentially the triumphant Republicanism of Nixon and Reagan under an unfamiliar name.