The conservatives are shedding their skins. Across the world, politicians on the right are abandoning bellicose rhetoric, stepping out of their battle dress and working hard to present a friendlier image to the public.
It is a change long in coming. US President George W. Bush campaigned as a "compassionate conservative" in 2000 only to become a president who will be most remembered for terms like "Axis of Evil," pre-emptive strike and "Guantanamo." Now, Senator John McCain has picked up the torch that Bush long ago abandoned and is doing his best to paint himself as a Republican with a human face. Even as he vows to continue trying to stabilize Iraq, he has vowed to close Guantanamo and to forbid the CIA from engaging in torture. He even promises to support climate protection measures.
He is far from alone. The young David Cameron, leader of the conservative Tories in London, has as much in common with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as Germany's current military has with the Wehrmacht of World War II. If the Iron Lady were still in politics, she would deny being part of the same family as Cameron.
A Uniquely Challenging Project
The themes of her battle cry were flexibilization, deregulation and privatization. "There is no such thing as society," Thatcher once said. Cameron, on the other hand, believes that the world has become richer while British society has become poorer. "A modern aspiration agenda means helping the have-nots to have something, and if we do not succeed in that mission then I tell you frankly that we will all be poorer," Cameron says. "Poverty is not acceptable in our country today."
The same makeover is taking place everywhere in the West. Aggressive conservatives like former German politician Franz-Josef Strauss, one-time Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and former Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy have been deleted from their parties' collective memories. In Sweden, the conservatives have taken to calling themselves the New Moderates.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has even undertaken the transformation while in office, a uniquely challenging project. When she led the opposition in German parliament, she considered the painful welfare cuts and business friendly reforms pushed through by the Social Democrats under Gerhard Schröder to be insufficient. Now though, her government has shown a willingness to soften those reforms. Not long ago, her mantra was to cut spending wherever possible. Today there is more money for retirees, for recipients of housing allowances and for those on the dole. In the past, she demonstrated toughness. Now, she seems intent on showing her soft side.
One doesn't have to look hard for the motor behind this global transformation taking hold in all affluent Western societies. Indeed, three cities symbolize the change: Baghdad, Beijing and New York.
In Baghdad, conservative military strategists experienced their Waterloo. Five years after invading Iraq, the world's most expensive and technologically advanced army is still having difficulties pacifying the country. The message is clear: The military is important, but it cannot replace diplomacy. And now America's electorate is looking for someone who can master both.
Looking for Protection
In Beijing, a rapacious form of early capitalism is forcing half the world to make adjustments. Faced with a country where starvation wages, rampant pollution of the environment, intellectual piracy and an inadequate social safety net are par for the course, the West sees itself competing with its own past. And now that middle class families are beginning to feel the pinch, they are looking for protection.
In New York, the subprime crisis and the hedge fund boom have once again shown the city to be the home of speculation. But this time around, millions have experienced firsthand that an investment on Wall Street can be unreliable. It can sparkle like a diamond, or it can reek like a dead cat. Given the ongoing financial crisis, it comes as no surprise that voters now favor the type of politician who knows how to combine the market's invisible hand with the iron fist of the state.
Will the left profit more from this shift in political winds than the right? Not necessarily. In fact, conservatives may even be better prepared to adapt to the change. They have always defended the status quo -- their genetic code makes them the party of slowness.
The population does not expect a counter-revolution against the inevitable changes, but rather a steady had controlling their effects. Today, perhaps more than ever, people reject anything that smells of radicalism. There are plenty of changes to cope with, and few are interested in sweeping societal shift. The change people are looking for is not a change in their lives, but a change in the forces that are causing turbulence in their lives. Cameron, says one of his advisors, seeks to promote "reassurance, not radicalism."
By no means have voters become convinced leftists overnight. Instead they have worried their way into the leftist camp. They fear competition that overburdens them. They fear a war that they cannot win. And they fear a damaged environment that could come back to haunt them.
Does this mean that the movement toward a moderate and to some extent opportunistic conservatism is irreversible? Certainly not. Every movement carries within it the seeds of a counter-movement. Within the world's conservative parties -- in Berlin, in London, in Washington -- not everyone is satisfied with the leftward drift.
If the move toward the middle is not rewarded with victory at the polls, conservative parties will face internal days of reckoning in the not too distant future. What is seen as clever politics today will then be labeled as betrayal.