Conservative Power in America
By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
Penguin Press -- 450pp -- $25.95
While working in the U.S., British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have had their share of communications snafus. In The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, one author describes being drafted into a course of "emergency bible study" when he wryly suggested that Jesus Christ struck him as something of a socialist. Then there was the time a Southerner understood their employer -- The Economist -- to be The Communist.
Such were the hazards of documenting how the U.S. evolved from the liberalism of the 1960s to the hard conservatism that marks the federal government today. Nevertheless, Micklethwait and Wooldridge (the magazine's American editor and Washington correspondent, respectively) gained remarkable access. At the Washington headquarters of Americans for Tax Reform, they sat in on the influential Wednesday meeting, where right-wing activists occasionally plot strategy with White House political director Karl Rove. The pair also journeyed far beyond the Beltway, for example chatting up members of Focus on the Family, a pro-family-values ministry based in Colorado Springs that inhabits a campus so vast it boasts its own Zip Code. In the end, the authors conclude that conservatives have out-thought, out-organized, and out-hustled their competition. Although it may be overstated, The Right Nation is smart, witty, and a pleasure to read.
What makes the volume all the more impressive is that Micklethwait and Wooldridge are addressing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. In trying to explain to Europeans why Americans have skewed so far to the Right, they identify one of the more intriguing aspects of U.S. politics: Voters often craft their political identities based on their values, not their economic interests. The authors point out that the most reliable indicator of whether people tilt toward the GOP isn't their level of income but whether they attend church. Conservatives also have profited from U.S. citizens' unbridled optimism about social mobility. The authors report that a third of Americans think they will be rich one day. Many believe they already are: A poll in 2000 found that 19% thought they belonged to the richest 1% of U.S. households. With that mindset, it's not surprising that many voters warm to every kind of tax cut and accept a fraying social-safety net.
Americans' individualism and uncomplicated faith in capitalism have provided fertile ground for the conservative movement. But it is the Right's aggressive ginning up of agenda-setting ideas that has allowed it to dictate public policy. The authors offer a convincing catalog of how, on issues ranging from welfare to international diplomacy, liberals have time and again been put on the defensive, forced to react to the Right's proposals. That's no accident: Conservatives have spent the better part of three decades building up influential think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
More recently, the Right also has sharpened its political organizing, an area where the Left has historically held an advantage. The authors note that 95% of National Rifle Assn. members cast ballots on Election Day, compared with just 50% of the general population.
Some of The Right Nation's most compelling sections focus on the cultural underpinnings of U.S. politics, such as the proliferation of so-called planned communities across the U.S. Residents of these 230,000 selective neighborhoods tend to be suspicious of government and look to themselves rather than the state for basic services. The 55-acre Nevada-based community Front Sight, for example, caters to firearms enthusiasts: Those who purchase the bigger estates are rewarded with such goodies as use of an Uzi machine gun and lifetime access to shooting ranges. Of course, not all gated communities are so conservative, the authors admit. But they observe that, in almost all cases, "the motive is secession: the desire to set up a society within a society."
The fact that President George W. Bush's reelection in November is by no means assured poses some problems for the book's thesis. True, many Americans are confirmed Rightists. But they don't comprise even a slender majority of the voting public. The citizens who decide elections -- suburbanites and middle-class women in particular -- still see a vital role for government, particularly in public schools and environmental protection, and they generally support abortion rights. These voters don't want big deviations from the broad status quo. So, in a sense, they are the conservatives -- just not the kind The Right Nation so thoroughly tracks. By Alexandra Starr