The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America
By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge • Penguin • 464 pages • $25.95
The recent history of American politics can be told as the story of two alliances -- one made and unmade by the Democrats, one made and kept by the Republicans. The Democrats' alliance was with socialism, or at least social democracy. The Republicans' alliance was with conservative religion. In the last decade, the Democrats, out of necessity, broke their left-economic alliance and benefited at the ballot box; at the same time, the Republicans seem to have cemented their right-religion alliance, even as the cost-benefit ratio from that alliance sinks into the negative zone.
The story of those shifting alliances is ably recounted by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, reporters for The Economist, in their new book, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America. Consider, as a prime example, the presidency of Bill Clinton. The 42nd president shifted his Democrats to the center and profited as congressional Republicans cleaved to the right. So Clinton won political victories by making ideological concessions. Early on, the authors recall, Clinton declared that he did not want to be remembered as an "Eisenhower Republican." But, in fact, the 42nd president was a bit like Dwight Eisenhower, and he became, the authors write, "essentially what people wanted him to be -- and in the 'third way' he found a suitably capacious creed that suited his." It was Clinton, not Ronald Reagan, who called for "the end of welfare as we know it" and proclaimed that "the era of big government is over."
So now it's the right's turn at bat. The big hitter for the Republicans, of course, is President George W. Bush. Interestingly, despite the Republican Party's traditional pro-business leanings, Bush has not done well among the affluent. As the authors note, W. won just 54 percent of the votes of those who earned more than $100,000 a year in 2000. Yet the Texan, who says his favorite political philosopher is Jesus Christ, won
79 percent of the votes of those who went to church more than once a week; his true base is among Bible believers, not businesspeople.
Welcome to Right Nation 2004, in which the forces of right righteousness control the White House, the Congress, and 28 statehouses. For the cover of their book, Micklethwait and Wooldridge brandish a famous 1951 Norman Rockwell painting, Saying Grace, featuring a boy and his grandmother praying in a diner as others look on with puzzlement. That devotional image symbolizes the alliance between Republicans and religion -- the alliance that helped drive conservative southern Protestants and conservative northern Catholics out of the Roosevelt coalition and into the Reagan coalition. But at the same time, the social-issue conservatives flooding into the GOP drove many mainstream Protestants and seculars into the Democratic Party. And while the Republicans, for most of the last 35 years, got the better of the deal in terms of vote totals, the balance tipped in favor of the Democrats in 2000. In that year, Al Gore garnered half a million more votes than the cowboy from Crawford.
But politics is not shaped by faith alone. A group of mostly secular thinkers -- Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and William F. Buckley -- forged a conservative-libertarian alternative to the New Deal in the 1950s and '60s, though they didn't create enough oomph to dethrone John Maynard Keynes. Republican fortunes didn't really improve until the late '70s, when the neoconservatives made their long march from Democrat to Republican. The neocons -- most of whom were Jewish but distinctly secular -- "didn't go around expressing nostalgia for the lost glories of medieval Christendom, nineteenth-century capitalism, or the Old South," Micklethwait and Wooldridge write. Instead, they "spoke the language of social science." Using facts and figures, they explained that school busing, for example, was a disaster.
Whereas the paleocon Kirk was content to channel Charlemagne from his rural redoubt in Michigan, the neocons were in the thick of it, in Manhattan and Washington. Indeed, they powered the creation of a counter-establishment of think tanks; the authors devote a full chapter to the rive droite. Along its banks, among other policy-preneuring outfits, sits the American Enterprise Institute, said to contain "more conservative brainpower than the average European country."
At first, the more prominent neocons were the domestically oriented; Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Charles Murray wrote to undermine the credibility of the social-welfare system. But Bush -- perhaps reacting to the experience of his father, who famously dismissed the "vision thing" -- attracted a new set of thinkers, including Marvin Olasky, Myron Magnet, and John DiIulio, who created what might be called "compassionate neoconservatism." Thus the Texan, their agenda avatar, became the "new ideas" candidate in 2000.
So began the big shift, from the "humble" W., who scorned nation building, to the Churchillian W., bent on world-historicalizing the Arabs. And after the 2000 election, the foreign-policy neocons took wing -- and sprouted talons. Maybe this post-election emergence was all part of a plan; in a deft discussion of the influence of proto-neocon philosopher Leo Strauss, the authors quote Milton Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol's brother-in-law, describing Straussianism as "an invitation to join those privileged few who, having ascended from the cave, gaze upon the sun with unhooded eyes, while yet mindful of those others below, in the dark."
And from their lofty self-appointed station, the neocons remade American foreign policy. Realism was replaced by "moral clarity." Bush's response to September 11, the authors write, "was an exceptionally ambitious, radical response. In particular, it was an exceptionally neoconservative one."
But the neocons, of course, needed someone to do their fighting for them. The authors note that few of the Bush hawks had any military experience, writing, "Most of the neocons had run away from Vietnam even faster than Bush." The solution to their neo-imperialist needs was to clinch the link between secular neoconservatism and religious conservatism; the neocons would provide the casus belli, while working-class Catholics and Protestants would provide the cannon fodder. And here's where the neocons proved their ideo-agility: They looked beyond religions that didn't much interest them and focused instead on coalitional opportunities. As the authors put it, the neocons have been "remarkably good at biting their lips on these subjects, treating Christian fundamentalism as something of a Straussian 'noble myth' -- it might be nonsense, but it advances the conservative cause." Adding Democrat-defecting southerners to the Republican mix, recovering neocon Michael Lind has identified this new grouping as the "neocon-neocon" alliance—northern neoconservatives and southern neoconfederates.
Yet as the neoconservatives have always argued, theory isn't good enough; it's results that matter. And the launching of the Bush doctrine in Iraq has not given results that social scientists would wish to replicate. So neocons, who once prided themselves on their sober-minded vision, have proven to be just another bunch of bloody jingoists after all, seeking to revivify colonialism in a postcolonial age.
But with the current Iraq-lash, the foreign-policy vision has been eclipsed, even inside the Republican Party.
So what's left of the right? The economy is humming along well enough, but that's an afterthought to the activist elements in today's GOP. Yes, the neoconservatives might have shot their wad in Iraq, but the social-issue conservatives, having helped to guarantee the votes at home and the bodies abroad, now want attention paid to their own issues.
Now comes the rendezvous with destiny. Can the Right Nation really lead the United States with a neo-Vietnam foreign policy and a retro-religious domestic policy? Do Americans want to climb back into the primordial-theological ooze of creationism? How about the bad old days of gay bashing? The authors note that 8 million Americans listen to Dr. James Dobson denounce homosexuality on the radio, but at the same time, 20 million have been watching Will & Grace on TV.
Yet the biggest looming issue, to be sure, is stem-cell research, which will bring anti-abortionists into conflict with those who are pro-health and pro–long life. Indeed, the stem-cell debate will split Republicans, the authors prophesy, writing, "Virtually every advance in reproductive technology will divide business conservatives, who see yet another opportunity to make money, from social ones who worry about mankind perverting God's will."
In fact, the authors opine that Bush could well lose the 2004 election as the coalitional contradictions crack open. Indeed, "[T]here is a recurring fear that an overdominant Southern wing will drag the GOP onto the cliffs of extremism in the same way that the McGovernite wing pulled the Democrats too far to the Left during the 1970s."
But even if Bush loses, even if the neoconservatives are felled by hubris -- and even if the Falwell-Robertsonites are hooted off the national stage by the Enlightenment -- the Right Nation, or at least the Limited-Government Market Nation, is here to stay. "Even with a Democrat in the White House," the authors assert, "America would remain a more conservative place than any of its peers in the West." As rightist economists say, "tina" (There Is No Alternative) to capitalism and globalization.
So the next Democrats with any aspirations toward electoral permanence might be able to raise taxes here and there, but, for the most part, they will have to learn to play on that free-market field. But in the meantime, it would be nice if Republicans could restore their own house to normalcy, wresting the GOP away from the neocons. They would thereby reclaim their past traditions of foreign-policy realism, social tolerance, pro-science progressivism -- and, oh yes, spending restraint. Such a path would get them more votes than the current path. Honest.