Politics & Policy

A Different Conservatism

America has produced a more potent conservative movement than any other country.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a series of excerpts from The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. (The first installment can be read here.)


“So inevitable and yet so completely unforeseen” was Alexis de Tocqueville’s verdict on the French revolution. Much the same can be said of the conservative revolution that has changed America over the past half century. Fifty years ago, America lacked a real conservative ideology, let alone a cohesive Right Nation. The term “conservative” was largely absent from the American political lexicon, other than as an insult, introduced by the Democrats during the Depression, and vigorously warded off by Republicans like Herbert Hoover, who insisted he was a “true liberal.” Many early conservative heroes, such as Albert Jay Nock, preferred “radical,” “individualist” or even “anarchist.” When Dwight Eisenhower came to power in 1952, the American Right was on the wane. Its two great ideas–laissez-faire at home and isolationism abroad–had been put to flames by the Great Depression and the Second World War. The Republican Party was in the hands of the Northeast’s patrician establishment–the party of Henry Cabot Lodge, Nelson Rockefeller and a self-proclaimed “moderate progressive” senator, Prescott Bush, who would found a political dynasty. Eisenhower prided himself on being above ideology (“His smile was his philosophy,” a contemporary observed), and he appointed Earl Warren, a notoriously liberal Republican, to the Supreme Court. Richard Nixon and Jack Kennedy ran on almost identical platforms in 1960.

In the 1960s, many American liberals thought that they stood a good chance of making their country a much more “European” nation. Support for the death penalty fell to just 43 percent in the mid-1960s. Republican legislators, including the patriarch of the Bush dynasty, hugged the middle ground, under the influence of “New Republican” ideas about the mixed economy. The Kennedy administration wore its civilized European values on its sleeve (literally so in the case of the haute-coutured first lady). The president liked to point out that he had spent a year at the London School of Economics as a student of a prominent Marxist, Harold Laski. He also claimed that his favorite film was Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad.

“These, without doubt, are the years of the liberal,” John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, somewhat smugly, in 1964. “Almost everyone now so describes himself.” In the 1960s, American liberals advocated the creation of a European-style welfare state, particularly through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program (the phrase, incidentally, was taken from the title of a book by a British socialist, Graham Wallas). They imposed greater restrictions on firearms and they mounted campaigns to outlaw executions, legalize abortion and introduce not just racial equality but positive discrimination in favor of minorities (or affirmative action), all of which were to bear fruit in the 1970s. The liberal elites of Boston and New York felt that they had a good chance of civilizing what some of them called “the Yahoos.”

The Yahoos refused to be tamed. The first howl of fury from the Right Nation came with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, which by ordinary standards was a calamity. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson by a greater margin than anyone before or since. Yet in the long run, Goldwater had an extraordinary influence on the Republican Party. The senator from Arizona shifted the balance of power in the party westward, to a region where the American dream was being refashioned by sunlight and open space. He did as much as anyone to redefine Republicanism as an antigovernment philosophy: “I fear Washington and centralized government more than I do Moscow,” he said–and this from a cold warrior who had once suggested lobbing a nuclear bomb into the men’s room at the Kremlin. Goldwater’s rise coincided with a growing intellectual ferment on the Right, a ferment that was transforming the “know-nothing” wing of the party into the know-it-all wing–of autodidacts poring over Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley’s National Review.

This dynamism helped explain why in 1964 clever young Hillary Rodham was a Goldwater girl right down to her fake cowgirl outfit. But the other begetter of modern conservative America was the cause that she embraced when she left her suburban Chicago home for Wellesley College: the radicalization of the Democrats. This phenomenon was not just about Southern racism, though Johnson’s prophecy, as he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, that he was “signing away the South for 50 years” proved accurate. Southern whites certainly rallied to the Republicans, but so did other blue-collar workers annoyed by the Democrats’ lurch to the Left. The Great Society had failed to deliver on its promises. As Ronald Reagan put it, “liberals fought poverty and poverty won.”

The tiny band of “Goldwater Democrats” in 1964 grew into the small army of Nixon Democrats in 1972 and the mighty horde of Reagan Democrats in 1980. The Republican Party, which had once been characterized by Northeastern gentility, acquired a more ideological edge and a Southern-fried flavor. Sun Belt Republicans have won six of the past nine presidential elections: two Californians (Nixon and Reagan) and two Texans (Bush père et fils). The American Conservative Union tracks voting records of the members of the House of Representatives on the basis of loyalty to the conservative cause. In 1972, the average score for the House Republicans was 63 percent; by 2002 it was 91 percent.

It is true that, over the same period, the Democrats had moved to the Left, with their average score dropping from 32 percent to 13 percent. But that is the result of a combination of gerrymandering (which increased the number of safe Democratic seats) and the loss of the party’s Southern Dixiecrats. The average conservative score for the House as a whole increased from 45 percent to 53 percent. The Democrats succeeded at the presidential level only by adopting at least some of the values of the Right. Bill Clinton became something of a Sun Belt conservative himself: he not only approved of the death penalty, but he returned to Arkansas during the 1992 election campaign to preside over the execution of a mentally impaired black man, Ricky Ray Rector. The most successful Democratic politician since FDR declared both “the end of welfare as we know it” and “the end of big government.” Today nobody thinks it odd that a Democratic candidate for governor should make a point of campaigning with a gun in her handbag (even though it happened in Alaska). As for looking across the Atlantic for inspiration, the leaders of the Right Nation these days regard “Old Europe” as a sinkhole to be avoided.


[The Right Nation is both a portrait and an argument. The portrait is of Conservative America–the Right Nation. The argument is that this conservatism explains why America is different. Not only has America produced a far more potent conservative movement than anything available in other rich countries; America as a whole is a more conservative place. Americans might imagine that their politics is as varied as everybody else’s, and in one way it is: as we shall see, the gap between Dennis Hastert, the Republican Speaker of the House, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic minority leader (and the districts they represent in suburban Illinois and San Francisco respectively), is immense. But the center of gravity of American opinion is much further to the right–and the whole world needs to understand what that means.

Most Americans still do not realize how extraordinary their brand of conservatism is. While the American Left–unions, academics, public-sector workers–have their equivalents overseas, Dustin, Maura, Focus on the Family, the angry taxpayers and the militant gun owners are distinctly American. For instance, there are hardly any conservative talk-radio shows in Europe and only a handful of Christian radio stations. When asked about similar creeds overseas, many American conservatives mention Margaret Thatcher. “Now she was a western Conservative,” argues Bill Owens, Colorado’s ambitious young governor. In fact, Thatcherism was a far less durable phenomenon than American conservatism, and one without much of a moral agenda. When Thatcher tried to invoke God (in a sermon to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988), she was ridiculed even by her own supporters. That would not have happened in America, where there are 200 Christian television channels, 1,500 Christian radio stations and a highly organized Christian Right. Sometimes religious Southerners enthusiastically mention Europe’s Christian Democrats, unaware that the adjective is largely ancestral. “How Christian is your party?” one of our colleagues recently asked the chairman of one such European party. “Definitely post-Christian,” came the reply.

In no other country is the Right defined so much by values rather than class. The best predictor of whether a white American votes Republican is not his or her income but how often he or she goes to church. In 2000 Bush won 79 percent of the votes of those whites who went to church more than once a week (and only 33 percent of those who never went); by contrast he won just 54 percent of the votes of those Americans who earned more than $100,000 a year. Yet despite the importance of values, America has failed to produce a xenophobic “far Right” on anything like the same scale as Europe has. The closest equivalent to a European hard-Rightist is Pat Buchanan, and his political fortunes have waned rather than waxed. (The paleoconservative’s sole contribution to the 2000 contest was to appear puzzlingly close to Al Gore on the Florida ballot paper, confusing a lot of elderly people in Palm Beach into voting for him.) In Colorado Springs, conservatives see immigrants mostly as potential recruits, rather than as diluters of the national spirit.

The exceptionalism of the American Right is partly a matter of its beliefs. The first two definitions of “conservative” offered by the Concise Oxford Dictionary are “adverse to rapid change” and “moderate, avoiding extremes.” Neither of these seems a particularly good description of what is going on in America at the moment. “Conservatism”–no less than its foes “liberalism” or “communitarianism”–has become one of those words that are now as imprecise as they are emotionally charged. Open a newspaper and you can find the word used to describe Jacques Chirac, Trent Lott, the Mullah Omar and Vladimir Putin. Since time immemorial, conservatives have insisted that their deeply pragmatic creed cannot be ideologically pigeonholed.

But, in philosophical terms at least, classical conservatism does mean something. The creed of Edmund Burke, its most eloquent proponent, might be crudely reduced to six principles: a deep suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; patriotism; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; skepticism about the idea of progress; and elitism. Winston Churchill happily accepted these principles: he was devoted to nation and empire, disinclined to trust the lower orders with anything, hostile to the welfare state, worried about the diminution of liberty and, as he once remarked ruefully, “preferred the past to the present and the present to the future.”

To simplify a little, the exceptionalism of modern American conservatism lies in its exaggeration of the first three of Burke’s principles and contradiction of the last three. The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility toward the state than any other modern conservative party. How many European conservatives would display bumper stickers saying “I love my country but I hate my government”? How many would argue that we need to make government so small that it can be drowned in a bathtub? The American Right is also more obsessed with personal liberty than any other conservative party, and prepared to tolerate an infinitely higher level of inequality. (One reason why Burke warmed to the American revolutionaries was that, unlike their dangerous French equivalents, the gentlemen rebels concentrated on freedom, not equality.) On patriotism, nobody can deny that conservatives everywhere tend to be a fairly nationalistic bunch. “Nations have characters,” insisted Benjamin Disraeli, one of Britain’s most reflective conservative statesmen, “and national character is precisely the quality which the new sect of statesmen in their schemes and speculations either deny or overlook.” Yet many European conservatives have accepted the idea that their nationality should be diluted in “schemes and speculations” like the European Union, and they are increasingly reconciled to dealing with national security on a multilateral basis. American conservatives clearly are not.

If the American Right was merely a more vigorous form of conservatism, then it would be a lot more predictable. In fact, the American Right takes a resolutely liberal approach to Burke’s last three principles: hierarchy, pessimism and elitism. The heroes of modern American conservatism are not paternalist squires but rugged individualists who don’t know their place: entrepreneurs who build mighty businesses out of nothing, settlers who move out West and, of course, the cowboy. There is a frontier spirit to the Right–unsurprisingly, since so much of its heartland is made up of new towns of one sort or another.

The geography of conservatism also helps to explain its optimism rather than pessimism. In the war between the Dynamo and the Virgin, as Henry Adams characterized the battle between progress and tradition, most American conservatives are on the side of the Dynamo. They think that the world offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities. And they feel that the only thing that is preventing people from attaining these possibilities is the dead liberal hand of the past. By contrast, Burke has been described flatteringly by European conservatives as a “prophet of the past.” Spend any time with a group of Republicans, and their enthusiasm for the future can be positively exhausting.

As for elitism, rather than dreaming about creating an educated “clerisy” of clever rulers (as Coleridge and T. S. Eliot did), the Republicans ever since the 1960s have played the populist card. Richard Nixon saw himself as the champion of the “silent majority.” In 1988 the aristocratic George H. W. Bush presented himself as a defender of all-American values against the Harvard Yard liberalism of Michael Dukakis. In 2000, George W. Bush, a president’s son who was educated at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, played up his role as a down-to-earth Texan taking on the might of Washington. As a result, modern American conservatism has flourished not just in country clubs and boardrooms, but at the grass roots–on talk radio and at precinct meetings, and in revolts against high taxes, the regulation of firearms and other invidious attempts by liberal do-gooders to force honest Americans into some predetermined mold.

We hasten to add that there are numerous exceptions to this exceptionalism. Some religious conservatives would happily put the Good Book at the center of government. Visit a Southern landed aristocrat and you will hear familiar stories of military exploits, riding horses and ancestors killed in duels. Rather than emitting optimism, William Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 with the intention of standing “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” It is hard to be more elitist or skeptical about progress than the “Straussians,” a group of neoconservatives who take their inspiration from Leo Strauss, a German-born philosopher who spent his life agonizing about the degradations of modernity.

Henceforth, to avoid confusion, we will use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in the American way–to mean right- and left-wing. All the same, the fact that the Right is such a broad church–that it includes a hefty dose of liberal heresy along with the traditionalism–yields both weaknesses and strengths. On the positive side, it helps to explain why it is such a big and vibrant movement. American conservatism cannot help but contain contradictions because it contains so many vital elements. There are thousands of conservative activists, hundreds of conservative think tanks, a small army of conservative intellectuals. One useful book of conservative experts, published by the Heritage Foundation, the movement’s biggest think tank, is as thick as a telephone directory. Yet the broad church also means that people are often worshipping different gods.

Look at Colorado Springs and you’ll find at least three competing forms of conservatism–the laissez-faire individualism of the tax cutters and the gun owners, the Christian moralism of Focus on the Family and the militaristic nationalism, represented by the neighboring Air Force Academy and the bumper stickers laughing at Saddam Hussein. But how can you trumpet a strong military and a vigorous foreign policy and then insist on small government? How can you celebrate individualism but then try to subject those individuals to the rule of God? Wherever you go in the Right Nation, you discover similar contradictions.

John Micklethwait is the U.S. editor of the Economist and Adrian Wooldridge is its Washington correspondent.


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