This paper critically pushes forward Ziblatt’s insightful thesis in Conservative Parties and The Birth of Democracy. Specifically, I argue that Ziblatt’s innovative teaching on the organizational strength of conservative parties as a crucial determinant on the fate of democratization, should be revised in two ways to become more theoretically coherent and powerful: first, it is not only the organizational but also the ideological strength that mattered in keeping conservative parties relevant in the electoral games, therefore keeping the balance between democratic contenders and defenders, which led ultimately to democratic consolidation; second, it is not only the absolute strength of conservative parties but more importantly its relative strength vis-à-vis its competitors, mainly the liberals and the socialists, that had an influence on the trajectory of democratization. Therefore, it is essential for us to put party strength in comparative perspectives, both in the sense of organizational versus ideological and absolute versus relative, when doing cross-country studies on democratization. I begin the paper by evaluating three flaws of Ziblatt’s treatment of the British case, then move on to apply the findings gained by these critiques to the German experience, before wrapping up.
First, Ziblatt didn’t seem to appreciate fully the importance of the ideological coherence maneuvered by the British Conservative Party after the Victorian Realignment. The overlapping in religion (Anglicanism), territory (center) and foreign policy (empire) made sure that the disagreements within the Party is purely technical and could be resolved relatively easily. The power of this ideological consensus explains two phenomena otherwise unaccounted for: the absence of a separate right-wing party even when the organizational reform was contested and unfinished, and the Party leadership’s flexibility in attitude towards the reforming measures themselves despite their initial reluctance. Because the Victorian Realignment has bounded the British Right together with a strong enough base for cross-class mobilization, its political elites did not have the space to divide itself, therefore leaving sufficient time for the new organizational tools to take effect. By taking the Realignment seriously, one can also appreciate the broad sociological basis of the Conservative Britain while recognizing the timeliness of party transformation at the same time, thus having a more nuanced understanding of history.
Second, the Ulster Crisis, an important turning point in British political development that contributed enormously to the demise of the Liberal Party and the strengthening of the British democratic regime nevertheless, seems to have been exaggerated by Ziblatt. To be sure, Ziblatt uses the bond market’s reaction as a promising proxy for identifying the volatility that the incident brought about, and the subversion of the British army in Ireland against the parliamentary orders is a clear sign that the constitution is in jeopardy. Yet it is also the case, as conceded by Ziblatt, that both the Liberals and the Conservatives were certain that a compromise would be reached. The crux of the matter is that both leaderships were not ideologues who would be willing to sacrifice the entire constitutional order for Ulster, especially for the Liberals who had already alienated some of their voters by granting Home Rule in the first place. By reading history forward, it is unclear to me that things would really spin out of control, especially at a time when the Liberals and the Conservatives were neck-to-neck in their parliamentary presence. The crisis, in this view, is really not so much of a “near-miss” in the Capoccian sense that would lead to an authoritarian Britain; after all, even the Conservatives would know they can no longer keep the south of Ireland, and it seems like a stretch to me to claim that either parties had considered playing hardball on this issue, for the Liberals to unconditionally cede Ulster or for the Conservatives to agree to unrestrained violence. If I am correct, the Ulster crisis should be read as a piece of proof of the tenacity of British democracy instead of a potential case of breakdown.
Finally, one fundamental reason behind the formation of the Post-First World War political landscape of Britain, the failure of the Lib-Lab coalition, seems to have eluded Ziblatt’s explanation completely. This way of portraying the continued momentum of the Conservative Party in the 1906-1922 period makes it seem like a heroic, single-handedly achieved outcome, which cannot be right. The Conservatives are entitled to feel threatened at the beginning of this phase since the progressive reforms that had been laid out and the misgivings of the Boer War have coincided with major demographical changes that favored the Liberals. However, the precarious Lib-Lab coalition crumbled in light of the structural incompatibility of two different strands of interests, which took the Liberals decades to reconcile, divided the party and eventually led to its demise. The fact that a united Conservative Party fared better in this period also has much to do with an internally quarreling counterpart, which had bought the Tories time to respond and reform.
All of the three arguments are part of a greater thesis: it is not the sheer strength gained by the conservative parties after its organizational reforms but really the party structure, or, in other words, the Conservative Party’s strength vis-à-vis the Liberal Party’s, that determined the outcome of British democracy. This relational view looks at not only the mobilizational and professional improvements on the part of the Tories but also the inability to manage fundamental disagreements within the Liberals, especially their utter structural incompetency in dealing with the labor question, to explain the persistence of the Conservative Party. Creating a more integrated party of its own, the Conservatives thrived after the First World War while contributing to a more or less “determined” democratic path also because its enemies have been relatively weak. They were able to withstand the challenges of the Liberals in earlier years while simultaneously coming to terms of the necessity of adapting to mass politics since their competitors, for one reason or another, undermined themselves as well.
This perspective is particularly useful when one looks at the Conservative elites’ decision to ditch the Lloyd George Liberals and show acquiescence, if not outright invitation, to the Labour Party’s ascendancy. The Conservatives are certainly no democrats; they don’t care for the enfranchisement of the workers and would undoubtedly like to have them sidelined entirely, if the situation permits. Yet when the Labour was already around the horizon, the Conservatives chose to allow for its inevitable incorporation in hope of, correctly when examined in retrospect, marginalizing the Liberals and constructing a monopoly of their own. Here, it is perhaps imperative to clarify two meanings of democratization to which the Conservative Party has been important: first, the direct political process of parliamentarization, expansion of suffrage, and the reorientation of civil rights; second, the indirect political process of the preservation of the democratic rules, practices, and organizations, or in other words, democratic consolidation. For the former, Conservatives by virtue of their ideological affinities usually opposed vehemently at first and sought ways to circumvent them later; for the latter, Conservatives were neutral by default and more receptive if the prolonging or strategically reorientation of the current configurations of the political games are in their favor. Therefore, the Conservatives, due to their ideological and organizational strength, did not fear the rise of the Labours as much as their long-time nemesis, the Liberals, do, whose sudden death were not as puzzling as it may seem if party strength is evaluated in a more comprehensive and long-term manner.
How much of these arguments travel to the German case, another central point of reference for Ziblatt? I contend that their underlying logic applies to the constant failure of Germany’s electoral reforms and the fateful breakdown of the Weimar Republic quite well. Three crucial points come to mind.
First, the weakness of the German conservative parties springs from not only their organizational capture by external interest groups and political entrepreneurs, as emphasized by Ziblatt, but also the inherent fragmentation within the German right. The inability to forge a cross-class coalition is not simply due to the lack of organizational and mobilizational expertise or awareness; it is an overt manifestation of the cleavages that cannot be resolved. The confessional divide has haunted the German right before the First World War, making the DKP a regionally “hegemonic” party only in name, only able to retain its status via electoral fraud and undemocratic institutional arrangements. Disagreements in other issues like foreign trade and agrarian policy coupled with proportional representation have created a fractured party system, in which the DKP is but one option (another notable choice is the Reichspartei) for right-wing voters. Lacking an ideological core as well as appeal, the DKP was easily captured and manipulated by interest groups like the BdL, who by switching their endorsement had enough credible threat to get the Conservatives in line even without their indispensable organizational structures. As a result, the DKP had to stall electoral reform because they, as only one among the many conservative parties, would lose out easily if their vote share is not guaranteed by systematic engineering.
The same logic also explained the weakness of the DNVP in the Weimar era. Granted, the DNVP is organizationally weak because of the bottom-up approach through which it was forged, as Ziblatt indicated. Yet, it seems that Ziblatt didn’t address satisfactorily the question on the DNVP’s surge in organizational power after Hugenberg came into power; after all, his argument entails that by successfully claiming the party leadership, Hugenberg should have transformed the DNVP in terms of its organizational strength since that is precisely how he obtained power in the first place. His efforts at initiating effective purges also illustrate this point. However, an organizationally strengthened, media-controlling DNVP started to lose votes and eventually acquiesced the rise of Hitler. Why is that? The answer, to me, lies in the inherent ideological conflicts of the German center-right. The battles between the “pragmatists” and the “fundamentalists” already illustrated the existing ideological divides that weren’t settled by the electoral victories during 1924-1928 since the “fundamentalists” didn’t see them as their victories but defeats; the further fragmentation and radicalization of the party is already underway. The DNVP didn’t prevent the rise of Hitler, but it has very little to do with its organizational weakness (which certainly is apparent when compared with the Nazis); it is because it was not able to present itself as an ideologically appealing contender. The fact that Germany has become an industrially advanced state in the early twentieth century, something Ziblatt stresses from time to time, also meant that a strong conservative party would be naturally hard to build, and only by mobilizing people through populist rhetoric can a right-wing party take over SPD, just like the National Socialists did.
My second observation is that the DKP’s special connection to the King and the Chancellor, particularly under Bismarck’s rule, provided the Conservatives with an external source of strength not enjoyed by other parties, making it unwilling to address the problem of its internal fragmentation. Its peculiar position as a “governmentalist” party, something absent in the British constitutional and electoral system, has given the DKP extra weight in executive decisions, which was solidified by its unfairly strong presence the peculiar German institution of the Bundesrat. The unaccountable executive and the three-class voting system are indeed interrelated, as Ziblatt argued, and they offered the Conservatives a combination of perpetual influence, if not dominance, despite rapid changes in socioeconomic conditions. The system seems quite stable without the DKP, assisted by the localized interest groups and organizations, playing by the rules of free and fair elections; however, the votes secured by undemocratic means would evaporate, along with the party’s influence in the executive, when reforms are in place. Thus, the DKP resisted any kind of reform because they know they would be crushed if these institutional guarantees were gone, which was in part confirmed by the experience of Germany’s political history.
Here we have reached the final point: the relative strength of the SPD compared with that of the Conservatives is critical in explaining their unwillingness to give in when electoral reforms seem inevitable. The DKP protested vehemently against the idea of changing the status quo because they were indeed facing an existential crisis: the SPD had already earned a plurality in the Reichstag time and time again despite their disadvantage in Prussia where the majority of the seats are contended. Considering the demographics of Germany, the equalization of suffrage would spell no good result for the Conservatives, which they feared with reasonable causes. The fragmentation of the right due to various ideological and material cleavages in the face of a united proletariat party did not elevate the confidence of the DKP in any way as well. The fact that the SPD overwhelmed both the liberals and the conservatives rendered the stake of changes too high to risk and further contracted the birth of the German democracy.
By placing the British and the German cases in tandem, one begins to realize that the ideological as well as organizational unity of the British Conservative Party is a luxury never tasted by its German counterparts, in the plural. The opponent of the British Tories, a bourgeois party struggling in search of its identity under the eventually collapsed Lib-Lab coalition, is also much less formidable both in ideological and organizational terms compared with the SPD at first and the National Socialists later on. The unorganized DKP and DNVP have only themselves to blame for not stepping up for the modern democratic games and halting the democratization of Germany, and I agree with Ziblatt in that. But that is not the whole story. Viewing party strength in the doubly comparative perspectives as I indicated can account for more facts and yield more theoretical implications, as I have tried to show. By trotting on the terrains hinted by Ziblatt (see, for example, pp. 338-339), political science has much more to say about how conservative parties contributed to or undermined the efforts of democratization, even sometimes against their wishes.
 Of course, Ziblatt’s point that the professionalization and institutionalization of the Conservative Party have given it more strength to tame intraparty dissidents is very insightful, but this logic cannot explain why such insurgents cannot resort to establishing their own parties, especially considering the rise of the Labour, another institutionalized contender, later on in British parliamentary politics. Here, the logic I put forward made more sense: because in general there’s a lack of political space due to the ideology of the Right, no efforts of creating a new party will be successful. This has nothing to do with the fact that political conservatism may run into internal challenges; what is at stake is that such conundrums will never effectively lead to any successful attempt of establishing a new party on the right.