The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America
by John Micklethwait and Andrew Woolridge
Penguin Press, 2004
464 pp., $25.95
The most significant political development in the United States over the past 50 years has been the rise of conservatism from a marginal intellectual movement to its status today as the governing philosophy of the nation. The conservative revolution is all the more significant because no one a generation ago imagined it was even possible. After Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the 1964 election, conservatism was written off by the experts as a discredited philosophy that would never have any substantial following among the American people. That verdict was accepted by nearly everyone—everyone, that is, except a small group of conservative thinkers, activists, and donors who were determined to see their principles prevail. The rest, as they say, is history.
That history is told with admirable clarity in The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait, the U.S. editor for the Economist, and Adrian Woolridge, the Washington correspondent for the same magazine. The authors, perhaps because they are British and not attached to either of our two major parties, approach their subject with a degree of detachment uncommon among American political observers. One of their purposes is to explain this phenomenon to a European audience, and to impress upon it the fact that American conservatism is not likely to wither and die anytime soon. While the authors are hardly conservative themselves, their perspective allows them to develop an historical narrative that is comprehensive and readable, though not entirely free of tendentious ideological judgments. Those who have been close to the conservative movement over the years will find much of this material familiar. For younger readers, however, and for those who may have watched it from a distance, The Right Nation provides a good introduction to the rise of conservatism.
The term “the right nation,” of course, carries a double meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the conservative nation within the United States, a community within the nation with its own institutions, history, and ideals. American conservatives have long seen themselves as an embattled movement, defending traditional institutions and moral ideals against entrenched liberal interests in the government, the news media, and the intelligentsia. This perspective has energized the conservative movement over the decades, even as the movement has transformed itself from an embattled minority to near majority status. The authors provide a useful survey of the complex array of institutions that now compose the conservative nation, and in doing so document the formidable influence that conservatism has achieved in recent decades-an influence the authors insist will continue to grow in the years ahead, regardless of which party occupies the White House.
At the same time, “the right nation” calls our attention to the uniqueness of the United States as the most conservative of all modern nations. Indeed, they see that it is our conservatism, and the power of the conservative movement in the United States, that has created the political chasm between the United States and Europe. The American Left, with its industrial unions, government workers, and liberal intellectuals, has many counterparts in England, France, and Germany; the Democratic Party, though not as far to the left as its counterparts in Europe, would fit comfortably into that political context, and American liberals think very much like Europeans.
American-style conservatism, however, with its various groups promoting individual liberty and the free market, patriotism and national security, religious faith and traditional morality, is almost unknown in Europe. No political institution in Europe is remotely similar in these respects to the Republican Party in the United States, or indeed to the National Rifle Association, Focus on the Family, or various tax-limitation groups that are influential with the conservative movement. Historians for generations have written about American “exceptionalism,” but as Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out, that exceptionalism is driven and defined today by American conservatism.
Barely a generation ago, in the 1950s and 1960s, liberal ideas dominated political discourse in the United States, while conservative ideas were dismissed as irrelevant to the unfolding challenges of modern life. Lionel Trilling, the influential literary critic, wrote in 1950 that “Liberalism is not only the dominant, but even the sole, intellectual tradition in the United States.” He dismissed conservatism as little more than “irritable mental gestures.” Some years later, in 1964, the best-selling economics writer John Kenneth Galbraith observed that “These without doubt are the years of the liberal. Almost everyone so describes himself.” Trilling and Galbraith spoke for an entire industry of academics and pundits that turned out countless books and articles.
After Lyndon Johnson won his landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964 and enacted his Great Society welfare programs, the experts concluded Americans had ratified these intellectual judgments. The intellectuals, and not a few politicians, assumed our welfare state would continue to expand until it resembled that of Sweden, Great Britain, and France. Yet, as the authors point out, 1964 was a watershed election in more ways than one, for it marked the occasion when conservatives took control of the Republican Party and began to use it to advance their principles. Admittedly a low point for modern conservatives, the 1964 election also marked the beginning of their comeback.
The authors of this volume place appropriate emphasis on the importance of ideas—and of intellectuals—in the rise of modern conservatism. It is certainly true, as they clearly demonstrate, that the intellectual resurgence of conservatism was well underway before Ronald Reagan engineered its first significant political victory in 1980. In their review of this intellectual landscape, the authors note in particular the contributions of two men: William F. Buckley Jr. and Irving Kristol.
Buckley launched the conservative counter-attack in 1954 when he founded National Review, his bi-weekly magazine that for decades served as the main forum for conservative intellectual debate and criticism. The magazine published articles by important conservative writers like Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and Whittaker Chambers, and it succeeded in creating a rough synthesis out of three competing strands of conservative thought: libertarianism, traditionalism, and anti-communism. Buckley was not only a talented editor and a prolific writer, but also an energetic intellectual entrepreneur as he created new organizations, such as Young Americans for Freedom, to spread the conservative message. By launching these varied enterprises, Buckley established a model that other conservatives would follow in the 1970s and 1980s.
Kristol, the “godfather” of neo-conservatism, was, like Buckley, an editor, writer, and intellectual entrepreneur rolled into one. His quarterly journal, The Public Interest, published penetrating critiques of the liberal welfare state, while his column in the Wall Street Journal alerted an influential business readership to the worrisome consequences of liberal policies at home and abroad. Kristol and his neo-conservative allies broadened the appeal of conservatism by offering a new line of argument. While Buckley and his associates challenged the philosophical assumptions of modern liberalism, Kristol and his colleagues used social science to undermine liberalism from a different direction by documenting the disturbing consequences of liberal policies. Taken together, these two strains of conservatism formed a devastating critique of modern liberalism.
By the late 1970s, the conservative movement was in a state of intellectual ferment as changing circumstances gave new life to traditional ideas. Now the free market, federalism, the Founding Fathers, and anti-communism were brought back into the national conversation by conservative thinkers. These ideas re-invigorated the efforts of existing research centers, such as the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, and stimulated the proliferation of countless new think tanks, academic centers, journals, and academic programs. While liberals retreated into the universities, where they spoke mainly to one another, conservatives took up positions in these new institutions, from which they began to communicate with the broad public.
In this mix, as the authors point out, several philanthropic foundations played crucial roles in providing the money and the strategic vision that allowed conservatives to translate their ideas into effective action. While there were many financial donors to the conservative movement, the authors highlight the efforts of Joseph Coors, the Scaife Trusts, the Koch Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and the John M. Olin Foundation (of which I have been executive director for 19 years). The conservative philanthropy of recent decades was new and distinctive precisely because it focused on the critical importance of ideas in a modern democracy. This emphasis was something new and unexpected, since conservatives in general—and businessmen in particular—were known for their disdain for ideas and distrust of intellectuals. Yet over a few decades, these philanthropies helped to build the network of thinkers, think tanks, and publications that allowed the conservatives to displace the liberals as the “Party of ideas.”
Micklethwait and Woolridge recognize that the rise of conservatism was considerably aided by the failure of liberal policies in the 1970s that produced inflation and unemployment in our economy, crime and disorder in the cities, and weakness overseas. At the same time, the balkanization of the Democratic Party into fractious interest groups eroded the broad appeal of the liberal philosophy. In this context, conservatives were able to make greater political headway both among voters and intellectuals than at any time since the Great Depression.
Sensing the opportunity, the Republican Party from 1980 onward seized the political advantage over the Democrats, largely by consolidating support in the states of the south and southwest, which were rapidly growing and, not coincidentally, more conservative. Today, for the first time since early in the last century, Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress, albeit by narrow margins. With the nation split so closely between the parties, the election of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 gave the Republicans a clear opportunity to build on this slender advantage. Yet the authors, writing shortly before the recent elections, wonder if internal stresses in the party will prove too difficult to manage.
The analysis in the book is occasionally marred by the intrusion of manifestly liberal assumptions unsupported by facts. The authors, for example, come down hardest on those conservatives who oppose abortion and affirmative action and propose to deal harshly with crime and terrorism. In their view, these social and religious conservatives threaten the emerging Republican majority by antagonizing moderate voters. The authors regard Attorney General John Ashcroft as a particularly threatening figure, charging that he represents a form of “big brother” conservatism, a wildly exaggerated characterization that echoes the partisan judgments of figures like Ted Kennedy and Dan Rather. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is castigated as a “heartless conservative” even though his policies reversed the city’s long decline and especially aided the less affluent neighborhoods that had suffered most from growing crime and disorder. The authors do not consider the possibility that Republicans have gained their political advantage precisely because of leaders like Ashcroft and Giuliani, not to mention President Bush, who have tackled difficult issues from a clear moral point of view. While this does not go down well in Europe and certain precincts in the United States, it is endorsed by the majority of American voters, as the latest exit polls suggest.
Despite these substantial faults, The Right Nation is well worth reading, especially because it emphasizes the uniqueness and tenacity of American conservatism in the contemporary world. In its way, conservatism has maintained the eighteenth-century ideals of individual liberty and limited government even as much of the rest of the modern world has abandoned them in favor of one or another form of collectivism. But who is to say that such ideas must remain the unique province of a single movement or party within the United States? If, as many think, American influence is indispensable today to the peace and order of the world, American conservatism is indispensable to the self-confident exercise of that influence (because liberals do not believe in exercising it). So it is that a movement that barely existed just a generation ago now exerts broad influence on the world stage. It is an improbable tale, and one well told in The Right Nation.
James Pierson is executive director of the Olin Foundation.