15 December, 2004Issue 4.1Politics & Society

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The Future Looks Right

Murray Wesson

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
The Right Nation: Why is America Different?
Allen Lane, 2004
464 pages
ISBN 0713997389

The United States, as conventional wisdom has it, is the ‘fifty-fifty’ nation. More or less evenly divided between liberals and conservatives, it is a country with a divided heart. Not so, contend John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge – both journalists at The Economist, and both graduates of Oxford – authors of the timely and engaging The Right Nation: Why America is Different. For them, the US is, and increasingly will be, dominated by a conservative coalition that they term the ‘right nation.’ On this view, George W. Bush should not be seen as a glitch or an anomaly. He is, instead, the shape of things to come; the embodiment of a new era during which the Republicans will form the natural party of government.

There are, of course, many objections that can be advanced to this thesis. Didn’t the Democrats dominate the 1990s in the form of Bill Clinton? Haven’t both of the two previous presidential election campaigns been close-run affairs (agonisingly so in 2000)? True, say the authors, but throughout his tenure Clinton was constrained by the right nation in the form of a Republican controlled Congress. This, in effect, meant that Clinton governed as an ‘Eisenhower Republican’, embracing causes that conservatives would have been happy to put their names to, such as NAFTA, a balanced budget and welfare reform. When Clinton tried to move to the left, in respect of health care and gays in the military, his initiatives invariably floundered and he was forced to retreat to the centre. Future Democratic presidents are likely to face similar constraints, Micklethwait and Wooldridge argue, whereas Bush (we need no reminding) has dragged the US dramatically to the right and just secured an even greater share of the vote. This explains why, on issue after issue, the ‘default’ positions of the US are to the right of other industrialised nations; it is the ‘right nation’ that lies at the heart of US exceptionalism.

If that, in a nutshell, is the argument, how did this extraordinary state of affairs come about? Why should Democratic presidents be ideologically constrained, whereas Republican administrations are not? The Right Nation also bills itself as a ‘portrait’ of the emergence and subsequent success of the conservative movement. The 1960s, the authors remind us, was very much the era of the liberal in the US, the culmination of a period of Democratic dominance stretching back to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932. In 1964, the liberal Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater – a moderate by the standards of today’s Republican Party – at the polls, and John Kenneth Galbraith proudly proclaimed that ‘These, without doubt, are the years of the liberal. Almost everyone now so describes himself.’ Back then, it was the left that had the ideas and momentum; it was the left that set the agenda and the right that responded.

Where it all went wrong for the Democrats was in the alienation of working class voters over social issues such as affirmative action; in the loss of Southern support through Johnson’s championing of the Civil Rights Act; and in the growth of the business-oriented Midwest and West Coast which identified with the Republican message of low taxes and deregulation. Where it went right (in both senses) for the Republicans – and this is closer to the central concern of the book – was in the determined construction of a movement. Think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute were established to develop ideas; and newspapers such as the National Review and Weekly Standard began to propagate them. Initially designed to counterbalance a liberal establishment, these institutions have, today, become an establishment in their own right. The Right Nation leads us through them in intricate detail – an aspect of the book that is fascinating for the political obsessive, but which might also prove tedious for those with a more casual interest.

Apart from generating ideas, the right has also been extraordinarily good at building coalitions. For the outsider, who might tend to think of US conservatives as marching in step, one of the book’s revelations is how fractious the movement is. Libertarians jostle with social conservatives, and neo-conservatives with Christian Evangelicals. These alliances, Micklethwait and Wooldridge remind us, have not always existed. Indeed, in 1976 a majority of Evangelicals voted for Jimmy Carter. Today, through the hard work of organisations such as the Christian Coalition, Evangelicals form an army of ‘foot soldiers’ for the conservative cause – a fact that Karl Rove exploited to the full in orchestrating the defeat of John Kerry. Indeed, for European observers, a surprising feature of the 2004 presidential election was how many voters (21% according to one poll) cast their ballots on the basis of what they identified as ‘moral’ issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.1 Does the fractious nature of US conservatism threaten its future and thus the argument of the book? Micklethwait and Wooldridge concede that it might. The Republicans could become too ‘Southern’ and too intolerant, thus alienating the more moderate elements of their support base. Furthermore, the authors’ rather vague explanation of what holds the conservative movement together – it is, they say, ‘more sociologically coherent than one might imagine’ – is far from convincing.

The success of US conservatism also has to do with its exceptional nature, which the authors liken to a heretical reformation within the broad church of conservatism. For Edmund Burke, three of defining features of conservatism were: a belief in established hierarchies; skepticism about the idea of progress; and elitism. In Britain, and Europe more broadly, conservatism is still identified with these values. That is why the Tories tend to be associated with elderly white men who fret about fox-hunting and bemoan Britain’s decline, real or imagined. In the US, in contrast, conservatism has managed to reinvent itself as an egalitarian, progressive and liberating creed – a philosophy for the young and optimistic. That is why the Republicans can attract the support of people such as Dustin and Maura, two twenty-somethings from Colorado Springs whom we meet in the first pages of The Right Nation. For them, conservatism is not about ‘old people trying to cling to things, but about young people trying to change them.’

The book is, it must be stressed, admirably even-handed. Instead of proceeding from the premise that one side is wholly irrational, Micklethwait and Wooldridge emphasise their non-partisanship. In the aftermath of a heated election campaign, this is something of a relief, and also reassures the reader that the authors are not engaging in distortion or convenient omission. But if this the book’s strength, it might also be its weakness. Readers who feel strongly about the issues might find the authors’ scrupulous neutrality rather bland. That said, The Right Nation is not above occasionally exposing the contradictions of the wilder elements of the Republican Party, often with great wit. Defending Bush’s fiscal indiscipline on the basis that it will prevent future Democrat governments from spending on social programs is, they point out, ‘rather like saying that, because your brother-in-law drinks too much, you’re going to drink all the alcohol in the house before he visits for the Memorial Day weekend.’ The neo-conservatives’ lack of faith in the ability of government to address social problems such as poverty is seemingly at odds with their blind faith in the ability of government (when in a military uniform) to transform far-flung nations into ‘beacons’ of democracy. Poor John Ashcroft, the US attorney-general, comes off particularly badly. His use of his office to impose his brand of ‘big-brother conservatism’ on the US – by, for example, meddling in the medical use of marijuana in California – is, the authors point out, exceptionally short-sighted. As a member of minority himself (Ashcroft is an Evangelical who refrains from smoking, dancing and looking at nude statues), he would do better to adopt a ‘live-and-let-live attitude that gives minorities like his room to flourish.’

If the book has a flaw it is that, like many works of this nature, the authors tend to become too excited about their thesis and thus overstate their arguments. For instance, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not ignore, but possibly play down, the extent to which all governments have had to shift to the right over the last thirty years. Tony Blair’s New Labour Party is just that – New Labour, a far cry from the Labour Party of the 1970s. In Germany too, Gerhard Schroder’s Social Democrats are in the process of contracting the welfare state, rather than expanding it. That said, even if The Right Nation does overstate the exceptionalism of US conservatism, its more modest claim is correct: on most issues, the default positions of the US are to the right of other nations. New Labour might recognise the importance of fiscal discipline, but it is also able to invest in public services in a manner that, as the Clinton years demonstrate, would prove difficult in the US.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s tendency to overplay their hand is particularly evident in the final chapters, where The Right Nation reads more like an introduction to the US as a whole, rather than one part – albeit a highly significant part – of that country. Here, the authors boldly proclaim that the US has always been a conservative nation, characterised by ‘suspicion of state power, enthusiasm about business and deep religiosity.’ Indeed, conservatism is ‘encoded’ in the country’s DNA, and embedded in its culture and traditions. Once again, there is an extent to which this is true. As Micklethwait and Wooldridge note, even during the 1960s – Galbraith’s ‘age of the liberal’ – European-style socialism did not flourish in the US. But the fact that there was an age of the liberal, which the authors chronicle in such detail, should give us pause for thought. If the US has moved to the left before, and for such a sustained period of time, that suggests that conservatism is less ingrained than The Right Nation would have us believe. Indeed, the Republicans’ current campaign to shift the US aggressively to the right might eventually provoke the sort of backlash that greeted the Democrats at the end of the 1960s.

In conclusion, if my response is anything to go by, The Right Nation is likely to produce a mixed effect upon readers of a liberal persuasion, who feel that they have little in common with the right nation. Anything this well-written and researched, that fluidly combines detail with accessibility, is bound to make for an exhilarating read. On the other hand, even leaving aside Micklethwait and Wooldridge’s more tenuous conclusions, their central thesis – that the Republicans have gained the upper hand and look set to dominate US politics in the medium term – is depressingly well-argued and persuasive. Indeed, their book seems especially prescient if we consider that, as of 3 November 2004, Republicans control the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Presidency and look set to influence the composition of the Supreme Court for a generation to come. The era of the right nation has, it seems, dawned with a vengeance.

Murray Wesson is a South African DPhil student in Law at Exeter College, Oxford. His dissertation investigates substantive equality and socio-economic rights.

    Notes

  1. Voting poll: Cited in New York Times, Katharine Q Seelye, “Moral Values Cited as a Defining Issue of the Election,” 4 November 2004.