A powerful and controversial trend has emerged in global politics: the rise of social conservatism. This is a phenomenon that spans regions and cultures. The term refers to the defense of traditional social beliefs and attitudes, in particular those associated with order, religion, and national identity.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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This values-based backlash against progressive liberalism takes many different forms. In Russia it is encapsulated in President Putin’s offensive against Western norms. In the European Union it is reflected by Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary and the recent electoral victory of the Law and Justice party in Poland. In Turkey, social conservatism serves as the foundation of President Erdogan’s apparently enduring political preeminence. In Asia, it is a phenomenon with firm roots in countries like Singapore and Malaysia, and which also underpins current governments in India and Indonesia. In Africa, it drives the assault on individual rights in countries like Ethiopia and Uganda.

The implications of social conservatism for global politics are a matter of growing importance. But they are also complex and hard to read. One prominent view is that social conservatism, almost by definition, goes hand-in-hand with a pushback against democratic norms. Others argue that liberal values must be defended against this new threat even by undemocratic means. Curiously, both social conservatives and their critics are sometimes drawn to rather illiberal political measures in support of their cause.

Both of these assertions are overstated. The core of social conservatism should be perfectly compatible with democracy. Western foreign policies need to work to ensure that those pursuing socially conservative agendas do not give grist to authoritarian mills. And for their part, liberals should resist the temptation to resort to non-democratic means of pushing back against social conservatism.

As global power shifts, a broad category of liberal values associated with the West is taking a battering. These norms include tolerance for divorce and homosexuality, the embrace of secular morality, relaxed attitudes towards drug use, a loss of hierarchical deference, and an insistence on the full extension of women’s rights. It’s not hard to find people around the world who believe that Western liberal democracy has come to prioritize individual values too strongly over those of the community. Many denounce Western liberalism as irreligious amorality.

Authoritative opinion surveys reveal growing adherence to traditional values on religion and family, along with skepticism about liberal principles such as the freedom of expression, in countries including Burkina Faso, Indonesia, Jordan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal, Tanzania, and Vietnam. And social conservatism is rising not just outside the West — it is gaining adherents in parts of the West, too. A few decades ago, the global political marketplace was dominated by Westerners trying to export liberal models to other parts of the world; today, by contrast, many Western political parties and movements seek close relationships with illiberal leaders like President Putin.

Social conservatism is both widespread and varied enough to pose vital and intricate political questions. One concern is whether some of its elements are inherently hostile to democracy. In a number of countries, social conservatism has become associated with a broader resistance to aspects of the liberal democratic order. In Russia, it underpins political ideas that are clearly authoritarian. In other cases, it is becoming part and parcel of illiberal democracy — a type of political regime that combines many elements of basic democratic competition with seriously abridged personal rights. Examples include Malaysia, Turkey, Hungary, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Reform packages that governments have introduced in these and other countries typically lump together socially conservative provisions on rights issues with illiberal restrictions on political freedoms.

In short, while conservative social values might in themselves be seen as perfectly benign, they are sometimes being used to justify notably illiberal political projects. Rising social conservatism appears to be nourishing political agendas that are either authoritarian or point towards limited, bowdlerized forms of democracy.

Analysts have been writing about illiberal democracy for many years. But today, many argue that this type of regime is set to become even more prevalent because it fits with people’s locally generated values, and is not just being imposed in a top-down fashion by power-hungry leaders. As a result, however unpalatable this might seem, some illiberal political projects have a strong degree of popular support. Despite their many failings, the likes of Presidents Putin and Erdogan retain support for the core conservative visions they articulate.

In the Middle East, civic rights have deteriorated in similar fashion across nearly all states even as political rights have moved in diverse directions. Some observers insist there is a swell of popular opinion that wants a modest degree of competitive politics but nested within sharia principles that curtail individual freedoms. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party has mapped out a majoritarian vision of limited democracy. During its brief stint in power, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood tried to do the same. Islamists might have become more genuinely democratic over the last decade, but — say skeptics — mainly in the sense of seeing democracy as the source of a popular mandate to implement strict moral, social, and religious agendas.

These trends are certainly complex and varied, and pose searching questions about where we locate the dividing lines between democracy-compatible social conservatism and illiberal intolerance. As a general rule, though, arguments that make a direct link between the social and political spheres should be viewed skeptically.

There is a confusion or mental merging between social conservatism on the one hand, and the assorted ills of illiberalism, authoritarianism, nationalism, and exclusive chauvinism on the other. These are clearly separate phenomena with select points of overlap that sometimes appear to blend into a single global trend away from liberalism. Often they are mistakenly conflated; sometimes they are deliberately melded by leaders who seek to profit from their fusion. If we are to resist such nefarious instrumentalization of social trends, the different challenges to liberalism need to be clearly distinguished.

Many conservative values that are on the rise in opinion polls are perfectly compatible with open, pluralistic forms of liberal democracy. It is important not to deride all aspects of conservative values as a supposed menace to liberal democracy. Social conservatism should not be regarded as the automatic ally of illiberal politics.

Politicians are being disingenuous when they insist that restrictions on fully open, democratic politics are required to push back against Western-style liberal values. Their arguments are inconsistent: if such a commanding majority of Asians, Arabs or Russians support conservative social values, why is it necessary to constrict citizens’ ability to express their preferences? It is too sweeping to see permissive social values as an inevitable product of liberal politics.

In a number of liberal democracies, populations express a preference for conservative values. Chile, Poland, and South Korea are examples. Admittedly, opinion in some non-Western states is not easy to read. Polls might show strong support for conservative social agendas but they also often indicate robust support for core individual freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly. Many Arab states fit into this category. Moreover, while in many countries around the world there is undoubtedly extensive support for socially conservative values, there is also resistance to such values from within the same societies. Think of the current divides within Turkey. In such polarized settings, values need to be argued out through openly competitive debate in pluralistic institutions.

In Asia, there is regional support for social traditionalism, but there are varied opinions about political models. Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia all have populations that strongly support traditional values, and this support is clearly not specific to a particular type of political regime. There are also non-Confucian cultures in the region, in places such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and these countries also follow starkly different political models. Asian conservative values, such as respect for elders, should not require restrictions on political parties, the media, and civil society.

In the Middle East, some reformist Islamists endeavor to foster religious identity within a broadly liberal set of democratic institutions and legal process. In this vision, sharia is seen as a source of moral guidance but does not trump decisions made through the democratic process. Most notably, Tunisia’s new constitution stresses the protection of individual rights while also charging the state with furthering basic Islamic social principles. It will be important to chart the extent to which Tunisia can make this delicate balance work.

This backdrop of varied types of social conservatism presents a dilemma to democratic activists in the developing world and those in the international community concerned with defending human rights. Those seeking to uphold certain liberal rights are more likely to be accused of disregarding the values that local people “really want.” Should the international community condemn illiberal political models as having a lower degree of democratic quality or accept them as faithfully reflecting local voices?

In some contexts, there may be a perceived trade-off between democracy and liberalism. The temptation may be to back regimes that espouse liberal values but are not especially democratic. While in some settings autocratic leaders present themselves as guardians of a general illiberal project that comprises both conservatism and authoritarianism, in others there are those who seek to overturn democracy in the name of resurrecting liberal or secular values. The current Egyptian government — an autocratic regime that pushed a democratically elected leader from power to check illiberal political Islam — offers an example of this approach.

These thorny dilemmas have muddied debate over international efforts to support human rights and democracy. The conundrum is whether social conservatism should be seen as a menace to progressive ideals or a legitimate flowering of local identities.

In countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, and Uganda, local actors have pushed back against Western liberal rights projects — especially when they involve gender equality, families, religion, or LGBT questions. This has left some donors wondering whether a focus on broad institutional checks and balances might be more productive than prioritizing one or two especially sensitive rights causes.

One challenge is for the international community to ensure that those conservative values that are genuinely popular are embedded within fully democratic institutional settings. The defense of social liberalism should not be allowed to take preference over supporting democracy. Liberals should not end up sanctioning nondemocratic political projects, but rather work to recast liberalism itself.

Liberals need to be better at showing that liberal rights can co-exist with healthy communitarian and moral principles. And they need to do more to rebut the standard charge that liberal democracy necessarily threatens communal values, religiosity, and family ties. Liberalism needs to reach an accommodation with the rising tide of social conservatism. It must show itself to be an engine of varied identities across the world — and not synonymous with one particular set of Western social values.

Liberals and conservatives should be aligned in the defense of core democratic values, rather than each being drawn towards illiberal politics as an instrument to constrict the cultural values of the other.

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.