The Right Nation: How Conservatism Won by Micklethwait and Woolridge
The Right Nation: How Conservatism Won by Micklethwait and Woolridge

The Right Nation: How Conservatism Won

Jun 10, 2004

How did conservatism achieve the extraordinary dominance of American politics it enjoys today? Among other reasons, by being better organized and more in tune with core American values, say John Micklethwait and Adrian Woodridge.

Introduction JOANNE MYERS: As director of Merrill House Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to welcome our members, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV to our Books for Breakfast Program.

Today for me it is a personal pleasure to welcome back to the Carnegie Council two of The Economist’s most talented reporters, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Once again they have combined their characteristically unique blend of insight, intelligence, balanced reporting, and wit to give us a well-written historical analysis of the conservative movement in the United States.

In their recently published book, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, our guests explain how the conservative movement has reshaped the political landscape over the past half-century and imprinted its beliefs so deeply in the fabric of American life that it is likely to remain the most compelling political force of our age.

As the forthcoming election will be a referendum on our current President and the conservative political views that he espouses, we might well ask what it is about this conservative philosophy that has made it so successful. The explanation offered by our guests today is rather simple: they argue that conservative groups have out-organized, out-fought, and out-foxed liberals to become the predominant force in American politics at every level of government, so much so, they argue, that even if President Bush is not reelected this November, things will probably not change, for history has shown the right to be successful at advancing its own agenda even when Democrats are in office.

In the early 1800s, two Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, came to America and spent several months traveling throughout our country, analyzing the meaning and functioning of democracy and the influence that politics had on the social, political, and economic life of the American people. Now, over 150 years later, John and Adrian, albeit two Englishmen, yet in a similar vein, have spent time crisscrossing America searching for answers to the questions of why our nation is so different from other rich countries in the world and how the conservative movement came to be the more dominant political force in America today.

And perhaps, just as de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America set the stage for discussions about democracy which are still being carried out today, The Right Nation will be a stimulus for a debate about the forces influencing American politics in the days and years to come.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge oversee The Economist’s coverage of the United States. They were educated at Oxford and after graduation went on to work for The Economist. John has been responsible for the magazine’s Los Angeles and New York Bureaus and is now its U.S. editor. Adrian served as west coast correspondent, social policy correspondent, and management editor, and is currently the Washington, D.C. correspondent. Together they have co-authored three books, The Witch Doctor, A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalization, and The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea.

At this time I would like to ask that you please join me in welcoming our guests today, two very accomplished journalists who with the publication of The Right Nation have now joined the ranks in the decades-old debate about whether the United States is primarily a conservative or a liberal nation and what this means for the rest of the world.

John and Adrian, thank you for being here.


JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: Thank you, Joanne, for that very flattering introduction.

The book that we have just published is two things: it’s a portrait and an argument. The portrait is of conservative America in all its variety—the think-tanks and foundations, the religious groups and rifle clubs, the precinct meetings, and anti-tax initiatives. This is the right nation that is mourning the passing of Ronald Reagan, its founding father in some ways. It’s the right nation that votes for George W. Bush, that goes to church, that hates government and the UN, that loves guns and Nascar racing, that lives in the south and the suburbs in that strange land that seems to exist between Pasadena and the Hudson River, and above all it’s the right nation that knows in its heart of hearts that John Forbes Kerry is really French.

That may sound a clichéd version of what conservatives are, but conservatives who believe in many of those things currently control not just the White House and Congress but most of the governorships and state legislatures.

Forty-one percent of Americans now identify themselves as conservative. I would submit to you that that’s a remarkable number, not just compared with the 19 percent who identify themselves as liberal, but also against the minuscule numbers that would have even understood the term “conservative"fifty years ago when the young Ronald Reagan went to look for an alternative to the New Deal Democratic ideas with which he had grown up among the suburbs of Southern California and found it in things like Freedom Forum bookshops and Shwarz’s Anti-Communism School.

We think the story of how this part of America, the right nation, has risen to such prominence has been written about too little. To make a cheap gibe at a great newspaper, The New York Times recently appointed a writer to write about conservatives. This was either a brilliant attempt to scoop our book by a couple of months, or at least a tacit admission that America’s paper of record had slightly missed a big political story over the past fifty years.

The subject of the right, and George W. Bush in particular, has now stirred a great deal of interest and a flood of print, but most people who have looked at this subject have had an ideological axe to grind. To one side, the right nation is dead right. To the other, it’s dead wrong. If ever there was a subject in America where there was an advantage in being an outsider, I would suggest ever so immodestly then the right nation surely is it.

Which brings me to the argument, which also in a way comes from a global perspective. The argument is that this conservatism helps to explain why America seems so different. America, we maintain, is a more conservative place than other countries.

That does not mean that all Americans are conservative—you only have to go to a dinner party in New York to understand that—but the center of gravity, as we shall explain today, is simply further to the right than it is in other countries. Thanks in large part to that right nation, America itself is something of a right nation on the international stage. This helps to explain the gulf that exists between America and its allies, it helps to explain the almost indescribable loathing for George W. Bush in particular abroad, and it helps to explain why America, even if John Kerry was elected, will remain an exceptional country.

ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE: One of the things that most strikes one as a foreign visitor to the U.S. is the size, scope, and ambition of the conservative movement. Many American conservatives think that they are part of an international brotherhood, that there are people like them all around the world, and they can point to the fact that they have been influenced by European thinkers, such as F.A. Hayek and Leo Strauss.

But the truth is that they are very much alone in the world. There are simply no equivalents anywhere else. There are lots of equivalents of the American left, if you think of public sector workers or academics or union operatives; those sorts of people exist very much in Europe. But the sort of people who dominate the American right—the anti-tax activists, the religious enthusiasts, the people who want to restore traditional values—they are very much peculiar to the U.S.

This is partly a matter of beliefs, that American conservatism is a very different creed from European conservatism. It’s more hostile to government, it’s more individualistic, more patriotic, more optimistic, less concerned with issues such as hierarchy and traditional elites.

But it is also, and even more importantly, a matter of organization. There simply isn’t anywhere else in the world an organized right like in the United States, where you have Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly; you have 1,500 Christian radio stations, 200 Christian television channels; you have extraordinary huge, powerful think-tanks. These sorts of religious organizations, these think-tanks, at least on the scale that they operate in the United States, just don’t exist in Europe.

The obvious objection to this is that there was indeed one American-style conservative in Europe, and that is Mrs. Thatcher, and certainly she moved Britain very much in the direction of American conservatism. But the more we look back on Mrs. Thatcher, the more she looks like an aberration, not a trend-setter. She looks a bit like an American conservative who happened to be born in Grantham rather than in Houston. So American conservatism is very exceptional.

This extraordinary conservative movement is a relatively recent phenomenon in American political history. If you go back fifty years, people didn’t call themselves conservative. Eisenhower proudly called himself a liberal.

The first American presidential candidate to march under the banner of Conservatism was Goldwater, and in 1964 Goldwater was roundly defeated. His presidential campaign was an absolute disaster. This was partly because he was a rather eccentric campaigner. He was once going around the country and he was offered a drink called Goldwater, which was brewed by one of his more enthusiastic supporters. He drank the drink, spat it out, and said, "This tastes like piss. I wouldn’t drink it with gin." That wasn’t a way to endear himself to supporters.

But it was more than just his eccentricity as a campaigner. It was also that his ideology in the mid-1960s looked rather strange. “When in all our history," the great Richard Hofstadter once said, “Has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, got so far?"

John Kenneth Galbraith said in the mid-1960s that: "We are all liberals now. Everybody I meet so calls themselves." This wasn’t just smugness. He was right. This was very much the age of the liberal. There was a fairly coherent elite at the time who wanted to Europeanize America, who thought that America could be pushed further in the direction of liberalism.

The Kennedy Administration wore its civilized European values on its sleeve, literally so in the case of the Francophile First Lady, and the President boasted that he spent a year at the London School of Economics studying under a great Marxist called Harold Lasky. He also boasted that his favorite film was Alain Resnais's "Last Year at Marienbad." A very different sort of figure from the current resident of the White House.

And in the 1960s liberals dreamed of creating a European-style welfare state. The very phrase "The Great Society" was borrowed from a British Fabian-Socialist called Graham Wallas.

The liberals argued for greater restrictions on firearms, they mounted campaigns to outlaw executions, legalize abortion, and introduced not just racial equality but positive discrimination in favor of minorities; and it looked for some time as though they were carrying public opinion with them. In the mid-1960s, for example, in America support for the death penalty fell to 43 percent of the population.

But the conservatives organized a movement that was designed to stop this drift to the left and towards the European model. They created magazines such as The National Review, think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and pressure groups such as the American Conservative Union. In the process they created a distinctive, energetic, and vigorous brand of conservatism, more vigorous, more energetic, more radical than anything you can see in Europe.

It’s composed partly of a southern moralistic evangelical wing, partly of a western libertarian anti-government wing, but it is drawn together by a common set of values, a common hatred of the enemy—liberals—and a common super-patriotism.

The rise of this movement has had a very radical effect on the right, on the Republican Party, which has changed absolutely extraordinarily since about 1960.

If you go back to the America that voted for Richard Nixon in 1960, it’s an America that’s slightly western in its leaning, because Nixon came from California, but it includes a lot of the northeast, a lot of the industrial great states, and it doesn’t, crucially, include most of the south. In 1960, Nixon’s party was dominated by Rockefeller Republicans, by an East Coast liberal establishment that’s internationalist in its view of its world, that accepts the need for a welfare state and intervention.

It was typified at the time by a man called Senator Prescott Bush. Prescott Bush believed firmly in things like birth control, civil rights, the Peace Corps of which he was a founder. Above all, he believed in benevolent government. One of the great moments in researching this book was finding a newspaper cutting from the mid-1950s which said "Bush Demands Tax Rises."

Nixon and Kennedy ran on almost the same platform. In fact, Kennedy ran slightly to Nixon’s right on the issue of the missile gap.

If you recall the map of the election in 2000, the election that brought Bush to power in 2000, you have a completely different country: much more southern, much more a county of the heartland, really lacking the northeast establishment. You have a radical Republican Party in office, very different, very much more partisan.

Again if you go back to the mid-1970s and look at Congress, you have a very mixed picture. The Democrats are slightly more liberal than the Republicans, but they’re not that much more liberal, and also you have a lot of southerners who are Democrats but also very conservative.

Now you have a very wide partisan divide—much more liberal Democratic Party; very much more conservative Republican party. America is clearly dividing along ideological lines, and the conservatives are getting the better of this division.

It’s partly that the conservatives have taken over one political party. It’s now a conservative party, not just a Republican Party. And secondly, that conservative Republican Party has been much better at winning elections, not just at the presidential level, but at the state and local levels.

This political division is not just a division about ideas. It’s also, crucially, a division about values. The fundamental dividing line between the right nation, as we call it, and liberal America is about values.

If you look at the number of people who voted for George Bush by class, people who earn more than $100,000 a year, there’s a slight difference in favor of Bush, but it’s not a very big difference. It’s certainly not a very big difference when you consider the level of the tax breaks that people who earn over $100,000 will get.

But if you look at the difference in terms of religion, it’s absolutely extraordinary. People who go to church once or more than once a week overwhelmingly voted for George Bush. People who don’t go to church, people who are irreligious or don’t regularly go to church, overwhelmingly voted for Al Gore. It’s a cultural divide.

This is my portrait of the right nation that is currently in the driving seat of the United States. It’s rooted in the south and the southwest, in the suburbs; it’s the heir to a radical conservative movement; and it has no counterpart anywhere else in the world.

There is one obvious rejoinder to this, and that is that the 2000 election was essentially a stolen election, that America is a fundamentally liberal nation, more people voted for Gore than voted for Bush, and that we are about to see in the forthcoming election in November a dismissal of Bush and the return of America to its fundamental liberal values.

I’ll leave it to John Forbes Micklethwait to prove that wrong.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: It’s worth addressing head-on the issue of whether our view of the right nation means or allows for the fact that John Kerry could win the next election. The answer is a simple one: of course it does.

If you look at Bush’s approval ratings, they are down in the low 40s. If you see the number of jobs lost, as the Democrats never cease to point out, it’s almost as high as Herbert Hoover. And Iraq plainly offers as many downsides as upsides. It doesn’t matter how powerful the general demographic forces are in your favor if you have lost a record number of jobs and you are presiding over an unpopular war, and of course you can lose an election.

But what about the great presumption of many of those people in Europe, and certainly New York as well, that the current nightmare would pass if John Kerry were to be elected? To that we have two answers. First, John Kerry isn’t, at least from an international perspective, nearly as liberal as you would like. Second, it will not change the fact that America fundamentally will remain an exceptionally conservative place.

First, let’s look at John Kerry. Despite being a Massachusetts liberal, and even more astoundingly perhaps, the only prominent politician in America to oppose the death penalty, it is very unclear that he would represent a big change. Kerry at the moment is doing his level best to entice in the right nation. He is trying to sound tough on foreign policy and sympathetic to business.

His surrogates are currently putting around the idea that he would be interested in appointing John McCain as Defense Secretary, or even his running mate. McCain is an Arizonan Republican steeped in conservatism—anti-choice for instance—and in the 2000 election much tougher than George Bush on the issue of rogue states.

Kerry, similarly, is not proposing a positive agenda. There is no new Democrat vision similar to that which Clinton put forward in 1992. He is simply trying to be Bush, trying to do roughly the same policies as Bush, while simultaneously insisting that he would not be Bush whilst doing it. It is a tribute in itself to the power of the right nation.

Besides, even if John Kerry did want to reverse Bush’s policies, he will probably have to deal with a Republican Congress. It’s conceivable that the Democrats could take the Senate. I would be very surprised if they took the House.

More generally, conservatives still have the ideas and the momentum. Go back to Bill Clinton, who I just lauded for 1992, when he clearly did have a new set of ideas. He made an attempt to rethink liberalism. And he also had buckets of personal charm. You could argue that many of the great achievements of his presidency would fundamentally be conservative ones, such as welfare reform. Near the end, he was reduced to wailing, “I’m merely an Eisenhower Republican." By many standards he was further to the right than Eisenhower.

From the international perspective, I’d also suggest that Europeans are likely to be disappointed. Consider just a few of the areas where there are major transatlantic disagreements.

On Iraq, Kerry is certainly critical of Bush’s past, but in terms of looking forward it’s difficult to see what he’s offering that’s much different.

On the big question of Israel-Palestine, arguably the deepest, most contentious transatlantic issue of all, Europeans assume that Kerry would offer a “more balanced"view of the Middle East. In fact, Kerry rushed up to endorse the Bush-Sharon plan, and he has in many ways welcomed or approved of the policy of targeted assassinations more quickly than the White House.

On Kyoto, another point which infuriates Europeans, there is no sign that President Kerry would take America back into the treaty. He might make a few slightly nicer noises about it, but the original protocol was rejected by ninety-eight votes to zero.

The point is not to micro-analyze exactly where Kerry stands and where he doesn’t. It’s to try to explain that the idea common amongst the transatlantic elites, that the alliance has been briefly hijacked by a bunch of right-wing lunatics, misses the point. America is simply different from the rest of the developed world. It takes a more conservative stand on issues because in general it embraces more conservative values.

What do I mean by this? I reiterate that I do not mean that all Americans are conservatives, but once you look at the attitudes to basic questions of political life—such as the role of the state, inequality, crime, punishment, capitalism—you see a real gulf. Even when you compare America with the country that most Americans assume is its closest ally:

  • America has three times the proportion of people earning 40 percent or less of median income than Britain. It also has one and a half times the number of millionaires. It’s a much more unequal country.
  • America is far happier with a small state. The government here chews up about 10 percent less of GDP than it does in Britain.
  • But on the other hand, America is much keener on defense. Defense spending per head is about twice as great.
  • America is far happier with guns, and it’s much tougher on punishment. It’s not just a matter of capital punishment, remarkable though that is. The imprisonment rate here is five times that of Britain, and remember that Britain is the toughest sentencer in Europe. These differences in basic indicators about how a government is run reflect differences in basic attitudes. If you look at, say, the abortion numbers, you find about three or four times more Americans who are implacably opposed to any form of abortion than there are in Britain.
  • But you also look at deeper attitudes, like patriotism. You find 80-90 percent of Americans being very proud of being American. In Britain, it is closer to 50 percent.
  • Asked whether taxes are too low, whether they should spend more on services, a recent poll found that about half of Britons thought so. The closest we could find in America was a poll which suggested only 1 percent of people would accept that.
  • In terms of religiosity, half of Americans believe in the devil; one in six Britons do.

If you ask whether the role of government is to guarantee that no one is in need or to provide freedom for an individual to go about his actions, you find roughly 60 percent of Americans going for the second, against 60 percent of Britons going for the first.

And remember, I deliberately chose Britain as being the country which most people would assume is closest to America. Once you begin to compare things like patriotism, the role of the state, attitudes to capitalism or to religion with other European countries, you see much wider gulfs.

For instance, I used the figure on religion that 60 percent of Americans say that religion is extremely important to them. In Britain, it’s about 40 percent. In France, it’s down around 10-15 percent. When we showed these figures to one group of conservatives in Texas, one said, “They’re damn near heathen."

What does this mean going forward? The American right has certainly exaggerated these characteristics. The right is rooted in the "more American"— or at least "least-European"— parts of the country. The right also has been extremely good at making the most of its influence through organizations with determination.

But we also think the right in some ways has been more in tune with fundamental American values, values that date back in some instances right back to the foundation of the American republic. In our book we quote a young Republican who describes his friends as being "conservative without knowing it." Much the same could be said of America.

ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE: There is clearly a fierce debate amongst historians about whether America is fundamentally a conservative or a liberal country. It is certainly the case that America is not a conservative country in the sense of being an aristocratic ancien régime. But it is fundamentally conservative in being a civic-minded, religious, bourgeois republic. You can look at six aspects of conservative America that have very deep roots that in many cases go all the way back to the founding of the republic.

1) Religion. America is simply a more religious country than most European countries, and this goes all the way back to the country’s DNA. It was partly that it was settled by religious groups fleeing from persecution who wanted to come here to practice their religion. But it has also fundamentally to do with the Constitution and the Disestablishment Clause. That religion was never an established doctrine here was something that made it much more successful, much healthier. Wherever religion in Europe became a public or quasi-public monopoly, it withered and died eventually, whereas in America, because there was a perpetual competition amongst different religious groups for customers, you have had a boom in religion.

2) The attitude to the state. Americans—and this includes liberal Americans—are more skeptical about the role of the state than Europeans are. The fundamental European assumption about the state, about power, is that power is something that the state possesses and then devolves down to a grateful people below. You are constantly hearing this word “devolution" in Europe. Whereas in America the assumption is exactly the opposite, that power is something that is possessed by individuals and is reluctantly handed upwards, and is handed first to the lowest possible level of power, and only finally, as the very last resort, to the federal government for things such as the military.

3) Capitalism. America has always been much keener on capitalism than any European country. America was founded by the Massachusetts Bay Company, by the Virginia Company. It was also a country that always had a sense of entrepreneurialism.

Ronald Reagan, when he was a flack for General Electric in the 1950s, used to go around saying that the fundamental product of his company was progress. And that’s basically what Americans think about capitalism, that the corporate world produces progress. This has made America a much richer society than any European society. It has made Americans a people of plenty.

Another corollary of this is that America is the only advanced country that has never had a successful socialist movement. The importance of this lack of a socialist movement cannot be overemphasized in terms of the legacy of institutions and attitudes that Europe has and America doesn’t have.

Even in the Great Depression, when capitalism was in a strongly bad state, F.D.R. did not, like many Europeans, say that “what we need to do is replace capitalism by socialism." He didn’t say that “we need to nationalize the means of production, distribution, and exchange." He said, “We’ve got to get the system working better." So he concentrated on regulatory systems, on improving the banking system, on getting capitalism working.

There has been a huge debate amongst Marxists about why it was that the world’s most advanced country never produced an advanced working class that wanted to embrace socialism. One answer to this question was given by Engels, when he said that it’s because America is such a purely bourgeois country, it’s because it has no feudal legacy and no tradition of antagonism between the middle class and the aristocracy, that everybody in the country—middle class, working class, capitalist, or labor—feels himself to be bourgeois. He called them “bourgeois conservatives,"which is the essence of what America has been about.

4) Prosperity. The great sociologist Werner Sombart said that “the great ship of socialism has run aground on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie." Substitute for roast beef and apple pie DVDs and McDonald’s.

Because of the wealth and the fact that the plenty has been so widely distributed, you’ve never had this socialist movement.

5) Tradition. America likes to think of itself as a new country and an incredibly innovative country. But I’m always reminded of Oscar Wilde’s quotation, that “the youth of America is its oldest tradition."

This is in many ways a very old country. Remember that Galileo was once offered a chair at Harvard University. The Declaration of Independence was signed a century before the unification of Germany and Italy, which is supposed to be part of "old" Europe. America is the world’s oldest republic, its oldest democracy, its oldest federal system.

Americans are very tradition-minded people, much more so than Europeans these days. Judges make decisions on fundamental issues, such as the right to abortion, on the basis of an 18th century document. If you look at the best-seller lists in Britain, it’s full of books on gardening, football, and cooking. Here it’s full of books on history. Look at the success of Chernow’s book on Hamilton. It’s a country that’s preoccupied by tradition.

6) Geography. America is a very big country. Somebody once said that you could give every single family in the country an acre of land and they would end up only populating 20 percent of the surface of the country, and that’s excluding Alaska.

The size of the country creates a different set of assumptions. In Europe, because people are crammed together, because they have to share space, they tend to believe in collectivism because that’s the only way you can make sense of geographical proximity.

In America, if you don’t like your neighbor, you can move somewhere else. You can solve those problems of collective life simply by moving westward, moving to the suburbs, moving to the exurbs.

Americans tend to have more to be able to give to their children, such as land, possessions, and houses.

They have also preserved a frontier spirit, an individualistic, anti-government frontier spirit, which Europe has never really had.

In short, America’s exceptional conservatism is deeply rooted in its history and fundamentally deeply rooted in its geography.

Now the big question is what will happen in the future. Is America going to continue diverging from the European model, or will it converge and will we become more similar to Europe?

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: We would argue that America’s conservative exceptionalism will continue, and perhaps become even more marked over the coming years, whoever wins the current election. To do that consider just three forecasts for military power, the economy, population.

1) The gap on military power has been so well documented it’s barely worth going into again. America has far more planes, ships, tanks, technology, than anybody else and it is likely to remain that way for some time. There is no doubt who will be the world’s policemen, and policemen everywhere tend to be fairly conservative.

2) The same is broadly true of economic strength. America already accounts for 30 percent of world GDP. Most people would see it, at least in the medium term, slightly increasing. The success of the American economy, as some conservatives make the case, is bound up in American exceptionalism.

The survival of religion in America, some people say, goes hand-in-hand with the survival of the work ethic. Between 1979 and 1999, the average American working year lengthened by fifty hours, or nearly 3 percent. Over the same period, the average German working year shrank by 12 percent. The figures from Britain, Italy, and Greece will be calculated when the statisticians come back from lunch.

3) Lastly, in terms of population, this will be different. Not only is America’s population rising, whilst Europe’s, at least over the next thirty-forty years, is due to fall, but by 2050 America’s median age will be around thirty-six. By contrast, Europe’s will have risen to fifty-six.

It would be foolish to claim that we know with any certainty how this youthfulness will guide America’s future, but we could make a good guess that America will be more interested in growth than in status, far less obsessed by the welfare state, but far more willing and able to project its power abroad.

And this population growth will mostly take place in the right nation’s habitat, in the suburbs, in the south, and the west.

In conclusion, there is our portrait and our argument. "So inevitable, and yet so completely unforeseen" was what Alexis de Tocqueville said about the French Revolution. Much the same can be said of the conservative revolution that has changed America over the past half-century.

There are many reasons why the conservative movement has been so successful, from its superior organization to its superior determination, but the biggest reason for this is perhaps more deep than that. The conservative movement is an embodiment of what makes America different, of American exceptionalism. The American nation, has always been something of a right nation, born of a conservative revolution, deeply in love with both God and mother from an early age. And American exceptionalism will become more marked in the future, as the population continues to remain youthful while the populations of other advanced countries age, and as America continues to be the world’s sheriff, as perhaps other rich countries become ever more introspective.

Let me leave you with one final thought. At the moment, we are trained to imagine that the time we are going through is one of extraordinary and unnatural transatlantic division. However, if you accept the idea that America is a fundamentally more conservative country, then that division is less extraordinary than the "unnatural" unity that existed during the Cold War, when a common threat bound us all so closely together.

The defeat of the Soviet Union has given both sides of the Atlantic, liberal Europe and conservative America, a chance to study their erstwhile allies in a new light, and has prompted talk of differences as much as of similarities.

It is rather like two relative strangers who, when walking down a road and attacked by muggers, fight them off and then go off for a celebratory meal, only to discover they don’t quite have as much in common as they first thought.

Even allowing for that provocation, what is certain is that the right nation will be the heart of American politics for years to come, and also at the heart of the struggle to separate America from other countries. The right nation will remain a fundamental part of American politics long into the future.

JOANNE MYERS: I’d like to open the floor to questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: As someone who is a lifelong Eisenhower-Rockefeller-type Republican, I am in a state of lamentation that you describe. But I take issue with you, because the pendulum has swung and is moving very much in the opposite direction, for several reasons.

Demography—yes, we will be a very young nation, but no longer a northern European, Anglo-Saxon nation that was what fueled the religious underpinning of this country. We are becoming more and more Hispanic, more and more Asian, more and more Muslim, and you have failed to factor that into your book, and that will make a tremendous difference in how America evolves.

Secondly, the underpinnings of this Christian right movement are essentially poorer people, if you look at the average income, and they are suffering in the current climate, and have since the drop in the 1990s. Just take health as one indication, the failure of this great American system to provide health services for many people, including many of them as they age. That is becoming an issue which is separating them on economic bases from many of these others.

Values, yes, but people tend to identify and vote not so much with their values but with their pockets. And your book did not give enough emphasis to what’s happening to the pocketbook of a large swathe of what is the Christian right element.

It will play out in the first stage in this election, and I will make you a wager that at least four years from now the Democrats will be safely back in control, for a lot of the reasons that I have described to you.

ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGE: I’d like to take you up on that wager. I disagree with you on both points.

The first is demography. The country is certainly changing in its racial and religious composition, but that has always been the case in America. Fundamentally, a northeastern European country became a southern European country in terms of immigrant flows; a fundamentally Protestant nation incorporated a great many Catholics.

The question here is what will happen with the Latinos. The big question behind American politics is: will the Latinos go the way of African-Americans and remain a permanent Democratic constituency, or will they go the way of other former immigrant groups, such as the Italians, and move into the Republican camp as they move up the social system and get richer?

Certainly, whatever they do, they will inject a lot of social conservatism into the Democratic Party, because they’re pro-family, anti-abortion, very religious. So in that sense they will move the Democratic Party to the right away from the lifestyle liberalism that dominates some chunks of the Democratic Party.

But as they get richer, they will move into the Republican camp. Look at Southern California. Latinos's path to upward social mobility is through small business ownership and home ownership, all of which are indicators of long-term allegiance to the Republican rather than the Democratic Party. They’re not going through government, they’re not going through government contracts; they’re going through the private sector. They are moving out to the suburbs.

The reason why so many Latinos in California moved into the Democratic camp very firmly was simply a matter of political accident or political mistake on the part of Pete Wilson by coming out on the anti-immigrant side. If you look at the Texan Republican Party, which was not so anti-immigrant, there the Latinos remain very much amenable at least to being wooed by the Republican Party.

They will go the way of the Italians, go the way of other former immigrant groups, moving rightward as they move up the social ladder.

But that’s not to say that they all will, because you have a flow of poor people across the borders who will be Democrats. But in general they will move upwards.

Second, the question about poor people; you’re simply wrong about that. A lot of work has been done on evangelical Christians, and the caricature that they’re all poor white hicks is just wrong. Quite a lot of them are very well educated, and above the median income.

So throughout society we have evangelical Christians who are not doing particularly badly. They are part of the new economy. If you go to places like Houston or Dallas, the huge mega-churches aren’t shacks out in the boonies; they’re right there in the middle of the suburbs, the exurbs, next to IBM factories. It’s part of the new economy, not the old economy.

QUESTION: I want to compliment you on your extreme bravery in coming to the center of the last liberal island in America.

Recently Robert Reich was standing where you are, talking about the likelihood of the future, what will happen in the next election. He mentioned that in the heartland of America, he found that most people if you scratch them sounded very much like Democrats, and he thought that it was just a matter of tweaking the platform, to get the Democratic majority back, the liberal kind of majority, which you say is potentially gone, in the U.S.

It’s not so much that the country has moved right or moved conservative, but it’s that the definitions of what right and left are and what conservatism and liberalism are have significantly changed of late. That leads to great difficulty when you attempt to definitions in an acute manner.

The heart of the conservatives that you are talking about has always felt, and still feels, somewhat under siege. The media is controlled by the liberals, and the only way that conservatives have reached a majority in the United States—Reagan being one example—is when they’ve begun to move towards the center.

If Bush does win this time, it will be because he is moving slowly back towards the center to catch what he feels is the mainstream American approach that goes back to the traditions of America as he sees them, and you can see it already in his foreign policy in Iraq.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: Firstly, having just come from San Francisco and West Hollywood, New York by contrast seems deeply conservative.

On the question of Reich and his points, I have to admit to having not read his book. But, for instance, he points out that there is a majority of people who want abortion rights to go ahead.

Abortion is a good example of the way that conservatives have been able to move the debate. They’ve gradually pushed it towards questions like early-term abortion and parental notification. They haven’t changed the fundamental picture. Abortion is a fundamental problem for conservatives in some areas of the country, but they have managed to change the debate.

And also, in the end, the areas that he is looking at are not the fundamental issues which we’ve gone through: the attitudes towards the state, towards crime and punishment, towards foreign policy. On those barometers it’s impossible to argue that America—set aside other countries—is not a conservative country.

When Bill Clinton rethought the Democratic Party, he did it in large response to what the right nation even then had achieved. He said, “We have to go out and get blue-collar white votes, we have to take on the issue of affirmative action, at least indirectly. We have to make comments. We have to try to work a bit into the angst which had been built up from the 1960s." Robert Reich was part of that reassessment. And, in particular, we have to allow for globalization.

You are absolutely right about being under siege. One of the great enduring clevernesses of the right is that even now, even despite their control of most of the state legislatures and arms of government, they still regard themselves as an embittered minority who are losing every battle and must keep on battling.

If you spend time going around the right, that sense of focus is one of its great strengths. It repeatedly thinks that it is not getting anywhere and must keep on pushing and pushing. That is the way in which it has got ahead.

QUESTION: Your book would make an important contribution in the U.S., but probably an equally important contribution outside, because the rest of the world, thanks to the time lag, still thinks that America is an liberal nation, hasn’t changed.

But in terms of the impact on the rest of the world, what difference does it make to the 1.2 billion Chinese and the 1.2 billion Muslims that America has become conservative? Isn’t it true that America’s policies overseas remain consistent no matter who is in charge?

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: On the question of the outside world, yes I think it’s very important. If you look at the map of conservative America, a rather obvious point is that it’s the bit which Europeans don’t visit, unless they want to buy horses or kill wildlife. If you look at the areas where tourism is highest, they tend to be almost exactly in inverse proportion to the areas where the right nation is.

There is an element whereby Europeans in particular, and to some extent Asians, are still coming to terms with the idea that America does keep on electing Republican presidents who they, rightly or wrongly, perceive as being very conservative.

I am reminded of Pauline Kael, the great New Yorker critic, who professed utter astonishment after Richard Nixon’s victory : “I can’t believe that Richard Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him." There’s an element of that in the way that Europeans regard conservative America.

You may also like

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

MAY 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Bojan Francuz

This new interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Bojan Francuz, a peace and urbanism expert.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation