Politics & Policy

A Letter to France

The American conservative movement is optimistic and energetic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared in France’s Le Monde.

Year by year, the American electorate becomes (in the European meaning of the term) more “liberal”–that is, more committed to liberty, less willing to heed elite opinion, and a little more religious and “traditional” in their moral ideals. Put another way, they become less like France. Less social democratic, less bewitched by the Left.

One index of this change is what is happening in two of America’s most “European” and left-leaning states, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Minnesota is the state most like Scandinavia, with a heavy Scandinavian population and a long left-wing tradition. It has not voted for a Republican president since 1972. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and for Al Gore in 2000. Yet in recent years the governorships of Minnesota and Wisconsin and a growing number of their legislators, from the lowest ranks upwards, have been Republicans. And this year, George Bush is ahead in the polling in Wisconsin and close enough to be competitive in Minnesota. He might even win both–a thought that would have seemed preposterous months ago.

Across the nation, polling data also show that a growing number of students just entering universities have grave reservations about abortion, and are inclined to weigh heavily the right to life of the child in the womb from a very early age.

Part of the reason for this trend toward what the media insist on calling “conservative” values is that the Left has become so irrational. One of the great crusades of feminists, for example, is to defend “partial-birth abortion,” which is opposed by 68 percent (Gallup) of Americans. This practice takes an infant about to be born, turns it in the womb until its head emerges from the birth canal, and then uses forceps to crush the skull and remove the brain. The purpose is to count this gruesome practice as an “abortion,” protected as a woman’s right. The American Medical Association has testified that this practice is never necessary to protect the health of the mother. (Unlike European law, American law allows abortion during all nine months, right up until the birth of the baby.)

Another indication of the growing conservative drift of the country–or, rather, revulsion from left-wing illusions–is the strenuous effort of American politicians of the left to deny that they are on the left. They boast of their conservatism on certain issues, their moderation, their centrism. The Left, but not the Right, hates to be “labeled”–that is, called by their proper name. Conservatives are proud to be called conservatives–in President Bush’s case a “compassionate conservative.” Senator Kerry is always protesting against labels, and insisting that he is not a “liberal” (in the American sense, rather like “social democratic” in Europe). This fear of the left-wing label is as good an indication as any of the way the wind is blowing in America.

Roughly speaking, I think Americans see the world in this way. A crazy European ideology, Fascism, tried to replace democracy with dictatorship, and ended in concentration camps and a pagan Europe aflame. Meanwhile, another wild ideology, Communism, proposed a Mickey Mouse vision of economics and, except for a powerful military, kept the many nations forced into the Soviet Union at the level of a fourth-world economy, until the whole project collapsed. Americans find it hard to understand what Europeans find plausible in socialist economics.

Americans have experienced the great advantages of owning their own property, building their own businesses, inventing and discovering new goods and services. Enterprise is the second secret to American life–enterprise springing from creative economic imagination and personal initiative.

But the first secret to American life is the American love for association. Americans form associations for every public and private purpose. They raise money for these associations from among themselves. This is the thick communitarian side of American life. Each of us belongs to many different committees, voluntary associations, clubs, organizations, and we go to many, many meetings with others. In America, we do almost nothing all alone. We work in teams. (That may be why our favorite sports are team sports: baseball, football, and basketball.) We may be the best in the world in joining with others to achieve a multitude of common purposes, in immense variety. Instead of turning to the state, we turn to one another.

Americans get our sense of community from working with one another, not from the state. We get our dynamic, wealth-creating economy from personal initiative and creativity, not from the state.

Finally, there is the importance of religion in American life. The great French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America that what most made America different from Europe was religion. In America, religion was, from the very beginning, on the side of liberty, and liberty on the side of religion. The reason the American colonists had the courage to fight for independence against the British king and parliament was their Christian belief that the Creator held them accountable for their own liberty. Since liberty (as they believed) was the purpose the Creator had in mind in creating the cosmos, and in offering to humble humankind His friendship in freedom, then that same Creator was unlikely to abandon His subjects who chose the path of freedom. Britain had one of the two greatest armies and navies on earth at that time (the other was France), and the Americans had neither army nor navy. They put their trust in the hands of Providence, and they prevailed.

Ever since, anyone who would lead the Americans has had to show gratitude to the Almighty, express commitment to Him. Here there may be separation of the institutions of the churches and the institutions of the states, but there can be no separation of religion from the tissue of national life. President Bill Clinton, for example, spoke of religion far more frequently than George W. Bush, and was often praised for it. Some may have doubted how seriously he meant it, but he was in fact publicly and openly quite religious. It is a normal practice for a president. It is practically mandatory.

The largest single group of religious voters in America are the Catholics, who are about 25 percent of the voters. Catholics by the accident of their immigration are concentrated in the ten largest states by electoral votes, and they vote with higher regularity than Protestants. They are also in presidential races “swing” voters–that is, they vote sometimes for Republicans, sometimes for Democrats. So they are a crucial voting bloc. Presently, they are trending slightly toward Kerry; those among them who go to church weekly or more (about one third) are voting strongly for Bush.

More generally, about 63 percent of those Americans of any religion who attend church services at least weekly (about 14 percent of the American people) have voted Republican in recent years. About 60 percent of those who seldom or never go to church (also about 14 percent of the American people) vote Democratic. Religion has recently become one of the single greatest points of political division in America. This is quite new, since not long ago the Bible Belt, urban Catholics, and Jews used to form the three main pillars of the Democratic party.

These trends, too, have strengthened the optimism and energy of the “conservative” movement for change, represented by the Republicans. On the other side, never has so much private funding poured into a political campaign, including the $15 million George Soros committed to defeat Bush and the scores of millions contributed by his friends. Television is crowded by privately funded anti-Bush ads, in addition to the Kerry campaign ads.

The outcome will be interesting indeed.

As of mid-October, at the time of this writing, it is not clear whether John Kerry or George W. Bush will win the November 2 election, although Bush appears to be ahead in the polls by two or three percentage points. His lead is slightly greater in polling in several of the hotly contested “battleground” states than in the national polling. (This phenomenon is normal, because two of the most populous states, California and New York, tend to show huge Democratic majorities, while the other states tilt slightly Republican, as an aggregate.)

But the considerations listed above–both cultural-moral and economic–indicate why the strong tide of growing conservative sentiment (that is, in the European sense, “liberal” sentiment) seems still to be in motion, and at this point seems to favor President Bush.

Michael Novak, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission and to the Bern Round of the Helsinki Talks, holds the George F. Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

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