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John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

The Crisis of Conservatism

The right has been the natural party of government in America and Britain for four decades. Now it needs to reinvent itself.

The very picture of good government.

The very picture of good government.

Photographer: Fine Art/Corbis Historical

One of the most striking frescoes of the Renaissance is to be found in the council chamber in Siena. It has an unusual subject. Painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1339, just a decade before the city was ravaged by the Black Death, “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” portrays two worlds. On the good-government side, the shops are open, builders are at work, people are dancing and Justice is a beautiful woman, guided by God. “Turn your eyes to behold her,” implores the inscription below. “Look how many goods derive from her and how sweet and peaceful is that life of the city where is preserved this virtue who outshines any other.” On the bad-government side, Justice lies bound at the feet of the Tyrant, with the characters of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War looking on.

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic should dwell on Lorenzetti’s fresco. Samuel Lubell, a Polish-born political scientist, argued that, in any era, there are always two parties: a “party of the sun,” which creates the light and heat, and a “party of the moon,” which “shines in the reflected radiance of the heat thus generated.” Ever since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the right has been the “party of the sun” in the United States and Britain. Now it is in danger of becoming the party of the moon unless it radically overhauls both its personnel and its ideas. Certainly, it has ended up on the bad-government side of Lorenzetti’s fresco.