“Chega!” is the Portuguese phrase for “Enough!” Does such an interjection sound conservative to you? Neither to me. However, the new Portuguese party named “Chega!” claims to be conservative. Founded in 2019 by André Ventura, Chega won 7% of the votes in the last legislative elections and became the third largest party in Parliament. Since then, the international media have taken for granted that Chega is a conservative party. I would like to dispute that idea and make a broader reflection about the conservative brand.
I am writing this article in rural Portugal, in a town where the Chega party currently is leading the opposition against the Socialist party. Many of the rural people whom I know voted for Chega, and some of them are my friends. Hillary Clinton was terribly wrong in thinking that such a group of supporters were deplorable—in fact, all parties have good people within their supporters. Like many of Donald Trump’s voters in the U.S., the common denominator of Chega voters is that at some point they were somehow mistreated by fortune and are now fed up with the system. Chega is right in identifying the problems of the person that works and pays too many taxes. We may find echoes of this in the thoughts of William Graham Sumner, on the ‘Forgotten Man’:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. As for A and B, who get a law to make themselves do for X what they are willing to do for him, we have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law, ‘but what I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man … He works, he votes, generally he prays – but he always pays – yes, above all, he pays … All the burdens fall on him, or on her, for it is time to remember that the Forgotten Man is not seldom a woman.
Some years later, while pushing for the New Deal, President F.D. Roosevelt gave another meaning to the Forgotten Man. For him, the Forgotten Man was not man C but man X, as we can read from Amity Shlaes’ insightful book on the Great Depression. However, the original idea of a Forgotten Man is the conservative disposition to relieve the tax burden on those who work and pay without seeing the benefits of it.
Chega’s conservatism—if there is any—stops there. Chega is really no more than an anti-system protest party that speaks to the Forgotten Man but misrepresents him. For instance, many Portuguese farmers support Chega. The scheme of incentives and protections within the EU is such that farmers are encouraged to grow what the EU determines through the Common Agricultural Policy. It is not unusual to hear that our farmers don’t grow vegetables or breed animals, they just cultivate subsidies. Many products are not economically viable to produce—think of Portuguese organic blueberries—but the EU subsidizes them because some technocrats think they are good for our diet and health. Whether or not the market demands organic blueberries is just an insignificant detail. Who pays? The Forgotten Man, of course. We could have been inspired by the New Zealand agricultural policy that removed subsidies in the 1980’s and helped its farmers to prosper, exporting goods and producing what the markets really demand. Instead, Chega and the other mainstream parties just ask the Government and the EU for incentives and support to Portuguese farmers—meaning more subsidies.
Trump and Ventura identified the Forgotten Man in Appalachia and in Alentejo, in Detroit and in Barreiro. But then, Ventura introduced an element of conflict and turned person C against persons A, B, and X. The old communist class conflicts of workers against the capitalists are replaced by new class conflicts, using the terms of classical Marxist method and identity politics, but with different actors: the taxpayer against the gypsies, the common citizen against corrupt politicians, the good persons against parasites and paedophiles. Ventura likes to surf those divisions, shocking the public and playing with the media just like Trump did. He insists on scapegoating gypsies, politicians, and the media for all the corruption that soaks the money of the “people of good.” Ventura wants to create the Fourth Portuguese Republic, where the president would have more powers.
Regarding Christian values, Ventura also doesn’t convince. Chega voted against euthanasia, but Ventura is satisfied with the current liberal abortion law in Portugal—he says he would not change it. Ventura also supports gay marriage. But he likes to call journalists to photograph him in church, praying on his knees. He is open to the death penalty. He is for lower taxes but at the same time he is for higher wages for policemen, doctors, nurses, and other public servants. In other words, his proposals would result in less revenue with more expenditure. The only way to finance such delirium is by raising public debt and overcharging another Forgotten Man: the generations to come. Do you sense any fiscal conservatism here? Me neither.
In Portugal, the common adversary for the Right is the Socialist Party hegemony. Against the Socialists, there is no formal conservative alliance, but something much weaker than that. It is merely an implicit coalition of non-socialist parties. In fact, there are no conservative parties in the Portuguese parliament. Portuguese conservatives look to the right benches of their parliament and can only find a set of contradictions: a popular-democratic party that identifies itself as social-democratic (PSD); a liberal-libertarian party (IL); and a populist protest party (Chega). Yes, Chega is right-wing, but of a non-conservative type.
Brexit is a good example of how different sensibilities on the Right could act separated and still add value to the same objective. There was no need for a unified campaign. Dominic Cummings’s choice to distance his Vote Leave campaign from the Leave.EU campaign was proven right. That way, each campaign spoke to their public without harming their message with toxic associations. Separated, they added votes and won. Likewise, some decades before, William F. Buckley Jr. promoted a variety of conservative tendencies at The National Review magazine, but saw the advantage of defining some boundaries, in order to distance the conservative brand from the style and content of—for example—Ayn Rand or the John Birch Society. The same lesson applies to Portugal, where the largest party in opposition, PSD, should consider distancing itself from Chega. Polls suggest that there is a will to change and to vote for an alternative to the disastrous socialist government. But to become a stronger alternative to the socialists, PSD needs to make a leap of courage and categorically refuse any alliance with Chega.
But the bottom line is that we need a real conservative party in Portugal. There is none right now. We need an alternative that embraces the conservative disposition of Michael Oakeshott; protects the little platoons of society of Edmund Burke, Robert Nisbet, and Richard John Neuhaus; preserves the landscape for future generations as it was idealized by Roger Scruton or Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles; cares for the traditions and respects the human ecology proposed by Pope Benedict XVI; promotes sound economic policies like the ones of Alexander Hamilton, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, or Margaret Thatcher. We need to cherish the value of life, family, property, nation-state, religion, neighbourhood, free association, fairness, charity, and work. And above all, as Sumner puts it, “the Forgotten Man would no longer be forgotten where there was true liberty.” No less than values, conservatives should not underestimate the importance of a democratic framework that respects checks and balances and the rule of law. These are the dearest things we must always conserve.