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Why Do American Conservatives Look So Different From The Rest Of The World?

In countries like New Zealand, conservatives love the welfare state and fight climate change

What if I told you there's a national capital where mainstream conservatives vigorously defend universal health care, support marriage equality and paid parental leave, believe that climate change is real — and win major elections? Though different countries have different definitions of right-wing, left-wing, and moderate, conservatism — broadly defined as support for limited government and private enterprise — exists around the world. But in places like New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden, the parties most similar to the American Republican Party when it comes to limiting governmental power look wildly different on virtually every other issue.

In New Zealand, a country made up of two main islands in the southern Pacific Ocean with a population of about 4.5 million, the center-right National Party has led the government for eight years. John Key, whom pundits have called the "world's most successful conservative," served as prime minister from 2008 until he voluntarily stepped down in 2016. While he was in office, conservatives in New Zealand pushed to limit the size of government, cut taxes, privatize some state-owned enterprises, and put a cap on the number of government officials on staff in Wellington, the nation's capital. But that's where similarities between American and New Zealand–style conservatism ends.

Key also supported a marriage equality bill in 2013, saying that he couldn't see how same-sex weddings would affect his own marriage. Under Key, New Zealand had one of the world's highest rates of renewable energy use, and the National Party has launched a campaign to cut greenhouse emissions in New Zealand by 50 percent over the next half-century. Key even supported major government funding for a national bicycling path. The money the government received from selling off state-owned energy companies went to building new schools and supporting more than 200 new classrooms — at a time when Donald Trump and American conservatives routinely deny the existence of man-made global warming and want to cut education funding.

Global conservatism doesn't just look like this in New Zealand. In Sweden, the largest right-wing party — and the one that's the closest analogue to American conservatism — is called the Moderate Party. (From 1952 to 1969, it was called the Rightist Party, but it changed its name to seem less extreme.) The party supports marriage equality, wants to spend more on the welfare state, and believes that the wage gap between Swedish men and women is a major problem, saying on its official website that "wage differentials, the glass ceiling, and labor market segregation hold back talented people who have more to give in our society."

In the United Kingdom, even the right-wing U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), the leading campaigners behind the U.K.'s exit from the European Union, firmly supports the National Health Service and universal health care. French conservative writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry told MTV News, "It's true that, in general, the limited government tradition is stronger in the United States than elsewhere. It's not just the conservative movement. The U.S. left is still 'to the right' of the left in many other countries."

The differences between right-wing political views in the U.S. and elsewhere come down to two major factors: size and states. In short, America is too big, too decentralized, and has too long a history of individualism to embrace the same kind of government control at the local level that conservatives in many other countries find commonplace. Tom Rogan, a conservative journalist and columnist for the National Review, told MTV News, "The United Kingdom and New Zealand are smaller and have traditions of centralized government. That feeds into a public expectation of and political consensus around big government programs. In contrast, the American tradition is one of wild frontiers, state authority, and individualism. Americans are far more skeptical of government power."

The size consideration is more critical than you might think. For example, the capital and second-largest city of New Zealand, Wellington, is about 400 miles — or an hour-long flight — from Auckland, the country's largest metropolis. Sweden's capital, Stockholm, is 290 miles from Gothenburg, Sweden's second-largest city. By comparison, Washington, D.C. is 2,669 miles away from America's second largest city, Los Angeles. The state of California alone is 1.57 times larger than the entire country of New Zealand.

The U.S. is home to 323 million people, and most of them live far away from the country's capital. That matters, because the majority of Americans might never cross D.C.'s borders or meet the federal lawmakers who live in its suburbs. That means they're less likely to want the federal government to have control over their local affairs. As Rogan argues, "Decisions that are made [farther] away from one's location are presumed to be less amenable to the needs of an individual in that faraway location." In other words, Oregonians and Montanans, living thousands of miles from Washington, D.C., might be less than willing to trust their federal government than a Kiwi living within a day's drive of Wellington would be.

More important than size, however, might be the power that American states have to make their own laws and set their own policies. Sweden, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, like the majority of countries around the world, are unitary states, in which the central government holds the most power and dictates how much counties, cities, or local governments get. But that's not the way things work in the U.S., where power is shared equally between the federal and state governments. Individual states have unitary systems, but the country as a whole has a federal system — one in which power is divided between a central entity (the government in D.C.) and different political units (states and state legislatures). That's why states like California, Tennessee, and Texas can all have very different laws. Article V of the Constitution, which requires a three-fourths majority of states to vote for a new amendment to be added to the country's governing document, means that it's much harder for D.C. to dominate the country than it would be if the U.S. were more like, say, New Zealand.

To Gobry, that's by design. "I think part of it comes from ... the original founders, who came to the United States to flee government oppression and so embedded a strong skepticism of the government in America's founding ideals." As a result, American conservatives don't have to convince every single person in the country of their policy ideas — just their neighbors and constituents. And those constituents might be more likely to listen to a state representative than to a government thousands of miles away in a city that looks nothing like their own.

Another factor shaping our specific breed of conservatism: The U.S. is one of the world's more religious countries, with 56 percent of Americans considering themselves religious (compared to 19 percent of Swedes, for example). New Zealand, in contrast, is one of three countries where the number of people who describe themselves as nonreligious will outnumber those who describe themselves as religious by 2050. Former Prime Minister John Key himself told interviewers that he is agnostic, and the response was minimal. Nikki Kaye, a member of parliament in New Zealand from the National Party, told MTV News, "We've had very little religious involvement in the political sphere [in New Zealand]. That's something that I feel is quite different when I look at some center-right politics across the world. I would say that in New Zealand, more [conservative politicians] are socially liberal and fiscally conservative." The role of religion — or, more accurately, the lack of it — in conservative politics in countries like New Zealand means that debates over topics like abortion and marriage equality are held in an environment without the religious pressure points we have in the U.S. In other words, the "religious right" barely exists in New Zealand.

American conservatism has many of the same influences as other conservative parties around the world, but the differences are critical. With a bigger country to govern, states as influential as the federal government, and a constituency more likely to be religious (and thus, in many regions, more likely to vote for conservative candidates), American conservatives don't look anything like the conservative parties of Europe or the Pacific. What's more, American politics and political structures wouldn't let them even if they wanted to; in the U.S., winning elections isn't about winning the country — it's all about winning the states. And when every state (and voter) wants something different, it's no wonder American politics is more partisan and divided than ever, especially when compared with our friends on the other side of the world.