Politics & Policy

The Right Rules

Conservatism goes to the heart of what it means to be an American.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of excerpts from The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. (For the first installment, click here, for the second, here.


At this point, it is worth emphasizing the gap between conservative America and America. Despite its celebration of populism, American conservatism is not as popular as it likes to think. The Right may be in the driver’s seat and it may help to explain why the United States is different, but the Right is not the United States. In 2000 George W. Bush lost the popular vote for president by 500,000 votes. “I do not believe a majority of Americans shares our values,” Paul Weyrich, the man who invented the Moral Majority, admitted during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Jim Dobson of Focus on the Family may be able to remind 8 million Americans about the evils of homosexuality, but Will & Grace, a sitcom with several openly gay characters, is watched by 20 million people a week.

Hence the importance of the movement–and indeed of organizations like Focus and the Moral Majority: no matter how much they claim to represent the real America, conservatives have succeeded in part because, in a country where only half the electorate bothers to vote, they are better organized than other sorts of Americans. When Hillary Clinton talked about a vast right-wing conspiracy, conservative activists could complain about the tone of the charge much more than they could about its substance. There is far more cohesion to the conservative movement–not just at the local level but also at the national level–than most Americans realize.

Evidence of this organizing prowess is on display every Wednesday in Washington. The day begins at Grover Norquist’s weekly breakfast meeting at his Americans for Tax Reform on L Street. This used to be a fairly eccentric affair: the unhygienic libertarian types who attended were known as “droolers.” Nowadays, more than 100 people come, a third of them women. The activists include lobbyists from the National Rifle Association, Christian Coalition staffers, home schoolers, free-market fundamentalists, Orthodox Jews, Muslim business people, contrarian blacks, intellectuals from the Cato Institute, congressmen, senators, the odd visiting governor (including Bill Owens of Colorado) and, of course, a contingent from the White House. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s chief political advisor, makes a point of turning up several times a year.

The gathering is impeccably egalitarian. Conservative grandees such as Rove, Owens or Newt Gingrich sit next to student activists fresh off the Greyhound bus. The table is littered with cholesterol, carbohydrates and caffeine. Every available surface is piled high with conservative literature: flyers advertising upcoming events; issue papers and reports; op-eds from the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times; booklets about government waste; the latest offerings from the American Enterprise Institute. Throughout the meeting people walk around the room handing out yet more material. Here are details on an attempt to raise taxes in Oregon: can anybody help stop it? Has anyone heard of the dastardly attempt to prevent Mars from being opened to private enterprise? Now is the time to nip it in the bud.

Norquist’s meeting ends promptly at 11:30. Many activists immediately jump into taxis to head for Capitol Hill and the Coalitions for America lunch meeting. This is a slightly smaller affair–a mere seventy to ninety people. It is more venerable, having been established by Paul Weyrich back in 1983. The participants are older, more likely to be wearing suits and more focused on the culture wars than low taxes. The table bearing the buffet is draped in red-white-and-blue crepe bunting. Most people have American flags pinned to their lapels. Before the meeting starts everyone turns to a flag in the corner of the room and repeats the pledge of allegiance. “Born and unborn” someone adds loudly as the pledge finishes.

The atmosphere here is more inquisitorial than at Norquist’s meeting. Rather than a forum for activists and staffers to pool their plans, Weyrich’s lunch gives leading politicians and people from the administration a chance to justify themselves to the assembled barons of the conservative movement. Weyrich, who also founded the Heritage Foundation, and now runs the Free Congress Foundation, presides over the meeting from a wheelchair. A congressman is hauled over the coals for pondering a run for the Senate and thereby losing a place on a key committee. Bullied about an upcoming vote on school vouchers in the District of Columbia, a senator promises to provide the names of his colleagues who might be “a little wobbly.” The barons are clearly unhappy with the prescription-drug bill–one man describes it as a “monstrosity”–but a congressman justifies it as a political necessity, and one, moreover, that George W. Bush supports.

The lunch group is much more narrowly focused on religious and social issues than Norquist’s group. The room bursts into spontaneous applause when somebody condemns a decision to remove the feeding tube from Terri Schindler Schiavo, a disabled patient in a Florida hospital, as “the Roe v. Wade of euthanasia”–and this, one participant groans, at a time when the enemy-combatant prisoners in Guantánamo Bay have gained an average of fifteen pounds because America is feeding them so well! For all that, the two meetings are pretty similar–from the high-cholesterol food to the blizzard of press releases that each issues. People at both meetings have no doubt that they belong to a coherent movement. They dismiss moderate Republicans as “establishment types,” discuss who should be “our candidate” in forthcoming congressional races and seem resigned to the fact that their lives will be measured out in an unrelenting series of battles against liberal evils of one sort or another. Every piece of paper at the Weyrich meeting is also a call to arms. Two-thirds of all partial-birth abortions are committed in New Jersey! Half of all marriages end in divorce! Girls Gone Wild videos are for sale in supermarkets!

So far nobody has thought of establishing a teatime meeting, but many of the people who have been to the earlier meetings reassemble for drinks at Norquist’s house in the evening. Some of them will reappear at various Dark Ages weekends (the conservative movement’s answer to the Clintonian Renaissance weekends) or go on holiday together [including on the likes of National Review cruises.]

This is a group of people that eats, drinks, vacations and inevitably sleeps together. At first sight, there is nothing unusual in that–most political parties have their clubs, their meetings, their romances. But they do not have the same omnivorous reach, the same devotion to an agenda and the same sense of struggle. Other groups are usually just there for the inebriation and the interns. There are brief moments when such organizations come alive–Bill Clinton’s tenure at the Democratic Leadership Council is a good example. But they do not last, and there is no uniting idea of a movement. Indeed, the movement that most resembles America’s New Right in recent history is Europe’s Old Left. It too had its agenda, its omnipresence, its zeal and its hinterland. And just as the Old Left, gathered together, was always in danger of self-parody (remember when feminists demanded to be called “wimmin” to avoid the word “man”?) so is the Right. Visit the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the Right’s main beanfest held between the Republican conventions, and you’ll discover fresh-faced young men buying George W. Bush dolls and queuing up at the Traditional Values Coalition to fling beanbags at grotesque trolls called “Hillary Clinton,” “The Liberal Media” and “The Homosexual Agenda.”


For the Right, the rise of conservatism is not a matter of political strategy and electoral opportunism; it goes to the heart of what it means to be an American–and what other countries lack. As Maura puts it, “People came to America to seek one basic thing, freedom, and conservatism has evolved with much of that freedom in mind.”

Talk to reflective conservatives about what makes their country so special and they usually mention four things. The first is the constitution. That document’s enduring power comes, it is said, from its realistic (that is, conservative) assessment of human nature. The founders recognized that human beings were not naturally good, and that the only way to prevent people from abusing power is to divide and dilute it. They also recognized individualistic and acquisitive instincts, and tried to create a framework in which people could pursue their natural desire to enrich themselves. Of course, claiming the constitution is on your side is the oldest trick in American politics, but it is noticeable how many nonconservatives have agreed that the constitution is one reason why socialism made so little progress in America.

The second feature is geography. In overcrowded Europe, people have been forced to share space and been persuaded to give up freedoms that Americans take for granted. America has enough space to give every household an acre of land and still only populate a twentieth of the continental United States (and that does not include Alaska). This has allowed ordinary Americans to aspire to the sorts of luxuries that were long reserved for the rich in Europe–a large house, plenty of land, an inheritance to pass on to their children. The frontier may also have helped inure Americans to violence (although why similar conditions in Canada didn’t have the same effect is one of the great conundrums of comparative history). America’s frontiersmen relied on guns to tame the wild. They also resorted to the ultimate punishment–execution–to preserve a precarious order.

A third aspect of the United States is reinvention. The New World has always been able to summon up even newer worlds, reinforcing American exceptionalism in the process. Jobs and people have moved south and west in search of cheaper land and lighter regulation. A century ago, Maine had more congressmen than Texas, and Rhode Island had more than Florida; now the two Northeastern states have just eight compared with the Sun Belt duo’s sixty-one. According to the Census Bureau, the country’s population center is still moving south and west at the rate of three feet an hour, five miles a year. Conservatism and growth seem to have gone together with Republicanism’s flourishing first in suburbs, then in exurbs. In booming Sun Belt cities like Dallas, the mega-churches sprout up next to office blocks and strip malls.

A fourth feature is moralism. The Right Nation has also been a Righteous Nation. G. K. Chesterton famously said that America is a nation with the “soul of a church.” In a recent book, Hellfire Nation, James Morone, a political scientist at Brown University, points out that American history has been a succession of moralistic crusades–against witches, drinkers, fallen women, aliens, Communists and so on. These crusades are so powerful that they can even trump America’s prejudice against big government, most notably with Prohibition. Moralism is not a monopoly of the Right: the war against slavery in the nineteenth century and in favor of civil rights in the twentieth were both conducted in quasireligious terms. But the tradition predisposes Americans to see the world in terms of individual virtue rather than in terms of the vast social forces that so preoccupy Europeans. “No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it is more than his fault,” said Henry Ward Beecher, a nineteenth-century Congregational minister, “unless it is his sin.” And it predisposes Americans to go out in pursuit of dragons to slay. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Right Nation thought that it had a God-given task to redeem the world from the evils of communism–and to redeem America from any hint that it might slacken in this task. Now it is organizing around the struggle against terrorism.

For the Right, the battle against “Islamofascism,” as the conservative Internet bloggers call it, is a battle of good against evil. The more other countries question America’s war plan, the more the redeemer nation is convinced of its rightness. The Bush doctrine commits America to smiting terrorism for years, perhaps decades, to come. The underlying point has to do with certainty. For the Right, terrorism is a simple thing; for the rest of the world, it is a complex debate. One key strategist at the Republican National Committee puts it this way: “Our people, like the president, deal in absolutes. They [i.e., our European allies and the Democrats] are relativists.”

This approach has a certain electoral simplicity: by putting the Axis of Evil into the slot left by the Evil Empire, George W. Bush has reunited the conservative movement. Yet for almost exactly the same reasons, the war against terrorism reinforces the differences between America and the rest of the world. America is trumpeting nationalism and pouring money into the military just when European countries are sublimating their national identities to the European Union and cutting back their armies. Europeans shake their heads at America’s lack of sophistication, what they see as the inability to look at the social causes of terrorism, at the refusal to consult them before doing things. In two years, George W. Bush spent most of the goodwill generated after September 11–largely by developing positions that play much better in Colorado Springs than they do in Paris or Tokyo.

This division was at its clearest in early 2003 during the arguments at the United Nations Security Council on whether to invade Iraq. George W. Bush’s conclusion that the problem required “regime change” struck most Europeans as cowboy justice; for pretty much the same reason, it went down very well in conservative America. The division can also be seen in the feud over Israel, a country whose cause has been embraced with evangelical fervor by conservative America. (Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian moderate and, incidentally, a Christian, is feted in London or Paris; when she came to speak in Colorado Springs, she faced mass protests from the Religious Right.) And these individual battles about policy soon merge into deeper ones about culture and values: for instance, why should Europe hand over terrorist suspects to America when it worries that America’s more punitive legal system will execute them or imprison them without any apparent hope of a proper trial?


What will become of the Right? It is worth admitting that the conservative movement’s two main crusades–against big government and moral decay–have so far been more successful as rallying cries than as policies. The fact that virtually every American politician now attacks Washington has not stopped government from getting ever bigger (particularly under George W. Bush). Meanwhile, the news from the culture war is mixed. Young people may be more patriotic and less supportive of abortion than their baby-boomer teachers, but the antics portrayed on the Girls Gone Wild videos suggest, at the very least, that there is ground to be recovered. So far this century, the Supreme Court, which Democrats accuse of engineering the Bush putsch of 2000, has produced liberal decisions on gay rights, affirmative action and medical marijuana. And one reason there are so many Straussians in Washington, D.C., is because they find it so hard to get jobs in America’s liberal universities.

So the Right is not necessarily winning on every front, but it is making the political weather now in the way that the Left did in the 1960s. We argue in [The Right Nation] that the stage is set for a possible realignment of American politics, to make the Republicans the natural party of government in the same way that the Democrats once were. This might seem far-fetched. George W. Bush won the 2000 election only by the narrowest margin, and his continuing problems with both Iraq and the American economy suggest that he could have problems getting reelected in November 2004. The GOP also has deeper problems to contend with. Time and again in [our book] we ponder whether the Republicans have become too Southern and too moralistic for their own electoral good.

Still, it is noticeable how much more the 2004 contest matters to the Democrats. The presidency represents their best chance of seizing meaningful power. The Republicans control both houses of Congress, most of the governorships (including those in America’s four biggest states) and the majority of state legislatures. Despite some demographic trends that favor the Democrats, the Republicans seem to have more of the future on their side: they are the party of entrepreneurs rather than government employees, of growing suburbs rather than declining inner cities, of the expanding Southwest rather than the stagnant Northeast. Another Bush victory would cement their lock on power.

Moreover, Bush does not have to prevail in 2004 for America to remain in the thrall of the Right Nation. We argue in [The Right Nation] that a Democratic presidential victory in 2004 would barely change America’s basically conservative stance. For the foreseeable future the Democrats will be a relatively conservative party by European standards. They rely for their cash almost as heavily on big business and wealthy individuals as the Republicans do. They cannot win an election unless they regain the “conservatives of the heart”; hence their current attempts to lure in the progun, prolife “NASCAR Democrats” of the South. A Democratic administration might try to reduce the use of the death penalty, but it is unlikely to push states to abolish it. It might restrict the use of guns, but it would not ban them. Overseas, a Democratic administration would probably support Ariel Sharon no less trenchantly and would surely have no chance of persuading Congress to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. America would still be different.

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


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