The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America

Overview

The Right Nation is not "for" liberals, and it's not "for" conservatives. It's for any of us who want to understand one of the most important forces shaping American life. How did America's government become so much more conservative in just a generation? Compared to Europe-or to America under Richard Nixon-even President Howard Dean would preside over a distinctly more conservative nation in many crucial respects: welfare is gone; the death penalty is deeply rooted; abortion is under siege; regulations are being...

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Overview

The Right Nation is not "for" liberals, and it's not "for" conservatives. It's for any of us who want to understand one of the most important forces shaping American life. How did America's government become so much more conservative in just a generation? Compared to Europe-or to America under Richard Nixon-even President Howard Dean would preside over a distinctly more conservative nation in many crucial respects: welfare is gone; the death penalty is deeply rooted; abortion is under siege; regulations are being rolled back; the pillars of New Deal liberalism are turning to sand. Conservative positions have not prevailed everywhere, of course, but this book shows us why they've been so successfully advanced over such a broad front: because the battle has been waged by well-organized, shrewd, and committed troops who to some extent have been lucky in their enemies.

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, like modern-day Tocquevilles, have the perspective to see this vast subject in the round, unbeholden to forces on either side. They steer The Economist's coverage of the United States and have unrivaled access to resources and-because of the magazine's renown for iconoclasm and analytical rigor-have had open-door access wherever the book's research has led them. And it has led them everywhere: To reckon with the American right, you have to get out there where its centers are and understand the power flow among the brain trusts, the mouthpieces, the organizers, and the foot soldiers. The authors write with wit and skewer whole herds of sacred cows, but they also bring empathy to bear on a subject that sees all too little of it. You won't recognize this America from the far-left's or the far-right's caricatures.  Divided into three parts-history, anatomy, and prophecy-The Right Nation comes neither to bury the American conservative movement nor to praise it blindly but to understand it, in all its dimensions, as the most powerful and effective political movement of our age.

Chapter One
FROM KENNEBUNKPORT TO CRAWFORD

Sir Lewis Namier, the great historian of English politics in the age of George III, once remarked that "English history, and especially English parliamentary history, is made by families rather than individuals." The same could be said of American political history, especially in the age of George I and George II. There is no better introduction to the radical transformation of Republicanism in the past generation-from patrician to populist, from Northeastern to Southwestern, from pragmatic to ideological-than the radical transformation of Republicanism's current leading family, the Bushes.

Grandfather Prescott

The Bushes began political life as classic establishment Republicans: WASPs who summered in Kennebunkport, educated their children at boarding schools and the Ivy League and claimed family ties to the British royal family (Queen Elizabeth II is the thirteenth cousin of the first President Bush). George W.'s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel P. Bush, was a steel and railroad executive who became the first president of the National Association of Manufacturers and a founding member of the United States Chamber of Commerce. His maternal great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was even grander. The cofounder of W. A. Harriman, Wall Street's oldest private investment bank, Walker's stature was summed up by his twin Manhattan addresses: his office at One Wall Street and his home at One Sutton Place. There was certainly muck beneath this brass: both Walker and Bush had their share of Wall Street shenanigans and cozy government deals, but in the age...

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Editorial Reviews

Ted Widmer
Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge helpfully distinguish between the different kinds of conservatism that are joined through the Republican Party, but are not really the same as each other or the party. While they write from a historical perspective, they are reporters as well, and the story is enlivened by glimpses into places most Americans do not see: gated communities, conservative retirement homes, gun lobby office parks and educational institutions like Patrick Henry College, which teaches "Christ and liberty" to students from home-schooling backgrounds. The writing is consistently crisp and intelligent, the conclusions balanced.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In the introduction to this engaging study of American conservatism, Micklethwait and Wooldridge of the Economist disclaim any allegiance to America's "two great political tribes." It is this Tocquevillian quality of informed impartiality that makes their book so effective at conveying how profoundly the right has reshaped the American political landscape over the past half century. The authors trace the history of the conservative movement from the McCarthy era, when "conservatism was a fringe idea," to the second Bush administration and the "victory of the right." They dissect the new "conservative establishment," which combines the intellectual force of think tanks, business interest groups and sympathetic media outlets with the "brawn" of "footsoldiers" from the populist social conservative wing of the GOP, and argue that continuing Republican hegemony is likely. Democratic optimists who point to favorable demographic trends are exaggerating the liberalism of Latino and professional voters, say the authors, while other factors, such as suburbanization and terrorism, will tend to promote Republican values. Still, the right should be worried about its own "capacity for extremism and intolerance" and about holding together its unlikely alliance of religious moralists and small-government activists. Even so, say the authors, conservative ideas are now so pervasive in American society that even a Kerry administration could do little to divert the country's long-term rightward drift. This epochal political transformation is rarely analyzed with the degree of dispassionate clarity that Micklethwait and Wooldridge bring to their penetrating analysis. (May) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
Micklethwait and Wooldridge, respectively the U.S. editor and Washington correspondent of The Economist, have written an original, probing, and engaging examination of conservative politics in America. Their book offers more than a survey of the rise of Ronald Reagan or the policies of George W. Bush-although it contains much of that. Instead, The Right Nation is part social analysis, part history of ideas that examines how conservative ideology became such a defining feature of American life. Like Edmund Burke before them, the authors argue that America has always been a "fundamentally conservative nation" whose revolution, unlike the one in France, was about the limitations on government power. But since World War II, conservative ideology has become a reactive and, more recently, preemptive force that has shunted liberalism to the sidelines. Indeed, the authors argue that today's liberalism, in the hands of Bill Clinton or John Kerry, is merely a pale, centrist echo of conservative thought.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge never show their own political cards. But they clearly take conservative ideas seriously, and they examine both the popular appeal and the intellectual weaknesses of those ideas, from Russell Kirk's to Paul Wolfowitz's. Conservatism in the United States, they conclude, is another example of American exceptionalism. With its think tanks, intellectual quarterlies, mega-churches, policy entrepreneurs, and factional rivalry, the American conservative movement has no parallel in the conservative parties of Europe. On this point, it is hard to miss the wistful tone of these trenchant British observers.

Library Journal
Journalists for the Economist, British authors Micklethwait (U.S. editor) and Woolridge (Washington correspondent) join the decades-old debate about whether the United States is primarily a conservative or a liberal nation. Their analysis shows that American conservatives differ from their European counterparts. While both are nationalistic and suspicious of state power, preferring liberty over equality, American conservatives are more liberal in regard to hierarchy, pessimism, and elitism. They see themselves as rugged individualists who believe in progress and like to portray themselves as populists. This book serves as the counterpoint to John Judis and Ruy Teixeiria's The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that current demographics favor the Democratic Party, since the educated are the most tolerant segment of society and tend to vote. In contrast, The Right Nation sketches a cradle-to-grave conservatism in which children are home-schooled, reared in gated communities, and sent to conservative churches and colleges, then network with conservative organizations while reading and listening to conservative media. The authors' viewpoint and writing reflect the magazine for which they work: both are highly articulate, intelligent, insightful, and sometimes just plain wrong. Still, political junkies on both sides of the political spectrum will enjoy and gain from the analysis. Highly recommended.-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143035398
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/31/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 797,243
  • Product dimensions: 5.57 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Both John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge were educated at Oxford and went on to work for The Economist. John Micklethwait has overseen the magazine's Los Angeles and New York bureaus and is now its U.S. editor. Adrian Wooldridge has served as West Coast correspondent, social-policy correspondent, and management editor, and is currently Washington, D.C., correspondent. Together, they have coauthored three books, The Witch Doctors, A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation, and The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea.

Both John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge were educated at Oxford and went on to work for The Economist. John Micklethwait has overseen the magazine's Los Angeles and New York bureaus and is now its U.S. editor. Adrian Wooldridge has served as West Coast correspondent, social-policy correspondent, and management editor, and is currently Washington, D.C., correspondent. Together, they have coauthored three books, The Witch Doctors, A Future Perfect: The Challenge and Hidden Promise of Globalisation, and The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
FROM KENNEBUNKPORT TO CRAWFORD

Sir Lewis Namier, the great historian of English politics in the age of George III, once remarked that "English history, and especially English parliamentary history, is made by families rather than individuals." The same could be said of American political history, especially in the age of George I and George II. There is no better introduction to the radical transformation of Republicanism in the past generation-from patrician to populist, from Northeastern to Southwestern, from pragmatic to ideological-than the radical transformation of Republicanism's current leading family, the Bushes.

Grandfather Prescott

The Bushes began political life as classic establishment Republicans: WASPs who summered in Kennebunkport, educated their children at boarding schools and the Ivy League and claimed family ties to the British royal family (Queen Elizabeth II is the thirteenth cousin of the first President Bush). George W.'s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel P. Bush, was a steel and railroad executive who became the first president of the National Association of Manufacturers and a founding member of the United States Chamber of Commerce. His maternal great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, was even grander. The cofounder of W. A. Harriman, Wall Street's oldest private investment bank, Walker's stature was summed up by his twin Manhattan addresses: his office at One Wall Street and his home at One Sutton Place. There was certainly muck beneath this brass: both Walker and Bush had their share of Wall Street shenanigans and cozy government deals, but in the age of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan such things were expected.

The first family member to hold high political office was George W.'s grandfather, Prescott Bush. Prescott was the very image of a patrician: immensely tall, a gifted athlete and a stickler for proper behavior. Exactly the sort of chap you might expect to find in the marbled corridors of the Senate. At Yale, he excelled at golf, tennis and baseball, sang with the All-Time Whiffenpoof Quartet and joined the college's most exclusive secret society, the Skull and Bones. He married Walker's daughter, Dorothy in 1921, and five years later joined W. A. Harriman, which in the next decade merged into Brown Brothers Harriman.

Prescott belonged firmly to the progressive wing of the GOP: liberal on domestic policies and internationalist on foreign affairs. He even sent his son George to Andover rather than his own school, St. George's, because he thought it was more modern. His liberalism cost him his first bid for a Senate seat in 1950. During the election campaign a radio broadcaster described him as "the president of the birth-control league." This was a particularly incendiary accusation in Connecticut, which was then one of two states in the country that outlawed the sale of condoms. It also contained a grain of truth: Prescott was a member of Planned Parenthood and a friend of Estelle Griswold, the woman whose legal challenge to the state's ban on contraception later persuaded the Supreme Court to enshrine the right of sexual privacy in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and thus laid the foundation for Roe v. Wade. Anti-Bush leaflets appeared on every pew in every Catholic church in the state and Prescott was narrowly defeated.

Prescott eventually made it to the Senate in a special election in 1952 caused by the death of the sitting senator, and stood true to his brand of moderate Republicanism for two terms. He cosponsored the bill that created the Peace Corps and strongly supported civil rights, a higher minimum wage and larger immigration quotas. "Bush Says Tax Burden May Have to Be Bigger," reads one delightful newspaper headline from his Senate years. Prescott beseeched his fellow senators to "have the courage to raise the required revenues by approving whatever levels of taxation may be necessary" to pay the nation's bills for defense, science and education. Shortly after ill health forced Prescott to retire in 1962, he received an honorary law degree from his alma mater, Yale, alongside the young President Kennedy The citation read: "You have served your country well and personified the best in both political parties." For Prescott, partisanship was a dirty word.

The best linksman on the Hill, he frequently played golf with Eisenhower. A firm believer that "manners makyth man," he once took Joseph McCarthy to one side and lectured him for more than an hour on his boorish behavior. His hostility to the radical Right was as much aesthetic as intellectual. When McCarthy came to Connecticut to address a Republican meeting, Prescott recoiled at the rowdy crowd: "I never saw such a wild bunch of monkeys in any meeting I ever attended." At home he was such a stickler for standards that friends called him the "Ten Commandments Man."

He insisted that his four sons and many grandsons wear jackets and ties at dinner, even at their summer home in Kennebunkport, and that none of them leave the house on Sunday. Relaxation was of a bracing kind-either hunting or playing sports with alarming enthusiasm. This was to prove a permanent trait, but much else was to change.

George H. W. and the move to Texas

Prescott's son, George Herbert Walker Bush, could easily have followed him into his world of East Coast privilege. He was educated at Andover and Yale, where he outstripped even his father, proving that he possessed a superabundance of character, athleticism and leadership. He married the eligible Barbara Pierce and was showered with offers of jobs on Wall Street when he graduated. A lifetime of lunches in the Partners' Room of Brown Brothers Harriman, with its deep maroon carpeting and dark wood paneling, was his for the asking.

Yet the young George H. W. was made of sterner stuff. He had joined the navy straight out of school, and had been shot down by the Japanese in 1944 and rescued by an American submarine, making him perhaps the country's youngest war hero. He wanted to make his career on the new American frontier. The day after he graduated from Yale in 1948 George climbed into his red Studebaker and drove to Odessa, West Texas, to take a job with Dresser Industries, which supplied parts for the state's booming oil industry.

Bush was not exactly turning his back on his powerful family. Prescott Bush sat on the board of Dresser Industries, and warmly recommended his son for a job. Prescott had even given George his new car. All the same, Odessa was a godforsaken town-a scattering of oil jacks and tin-roofed warehouses in the middle of the vast West Texan wilderness. In gracious New Haven George had lived next door to the president of Yale University; in Odessa he and Barbara lived in a shotgun house next door to two prostitutes (a mother-daughter team, no less). But, ugly as it might be, the town was booming. Odessa and its sister city, Midland, sat on top of the largest concentration of oil ever found in the continental United States. The wildcatters and roughnecks who arrived there every day were willing to endure anything-the tornadoes and sandstorms, the distance from civilization, the endless tedium, living in tent cities and chicken coops-in order to make themselves rich.

The Bushes soon moved from Odessa to Midland, a white-collar town twenty miles down the highway. They were not the only patrician family to seek their fortune in Midland. The town soon boasted Ivy League clubs and posh cocktail parties, and the hyperactive Bushes inevitably became pillars of the local establishment. But for all that, Midland was still an entrepreneurial frontier town. Its population tripled during the 1950s. Yalies and roughnecks worked side by side to carve a living out of the desert. George W. remembers an idyllic existence playing on unpaved streets. By the time the Bushes left for Houston in 1959, George H. W. had made his fortune-and was ready to turn to politics.

At the time, Republicanism was a minority creed in Texas. This, after all, was the state of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, a Democratic stronghold since the Civil War and a place where Republicans were Yankee pirates. "I will never vote for the electors of a party which sent the carpetbagger and the scalawag to the prostrate South with saber and sword to crush the white civilization to the earth," Rayburn, the future Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once explained. At the turn of the century, O. Henry, then a Texas newspaperman, wrote that "We have only two or three laws, such as against murdering witnesses and being caught stealing horses, and voting the Republican ticket." Up until the late 1950s, the only real politics in Texas revolved around Democratic primaries.

Yet if Texas was Democratic, it was also deeply conservative. The state is littered with monuments to the Confederate cause, such as a huge statue of Jefferson Davis in the grounds of the University of Texas's Austin campus and another edifice outside the State Capitol unapologetically lauding "those who died for states rights under the Constitution." Michael Lind, a Texas-born author, labels Texas a Herrenvolk, or master-race democracy, where, as he puts it, "the ethnic majority controls the government and uses it to repress ethnic, racial and religious minorities." During the brief period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, some blacks actually held office in the legislature and there was even a Republican speaker. Once the federal troops left in 1876, white Democrats "reclaimed" the state, setting up a minimalist constitution (the legislature meets only once every two years) and repressing blacks. Waco was a breeding ground for the Ku Klux Klan in the early twentieth century.

There were other things to remind George H. W. that he was no longer in Connecticut. Texans were suspicious of Yankee banks and manufacturing. As one historian, T. R. Fehrenbach, puts it, "the majority of Texans tended to admire or envy a family that owned 100,000 acres more than one that produced two great surgeons, a fine musician or a new theory of relativity" By 1950, landowners were raking in $500 million a year in oil royalties. Most of the Texan ruling class had the mentality of plantation owners: resources, including oil rights, were there to be extracted, immigrant labor was there to be used, power was there to be maintained, money was nothing to be ashamed of and liberalism was to be crushed.

From this perspective, George H. W.'s timing was propitious. True, his first notable foray into politics was to lose a hotly contested Senate seat to Ralph Yarborough in 1964, but he went on to win a seat in the House of Representatives in 1966. More broadly, his timing coincided with the beginnings of a tumultuous change in Texas politics-a revolution that began while Kennedy was in the White House and was only completed in 2003 when the Republicans finally took control of the statehouse. The first chink of light shone in 1961, when a squabble between Democratic liberals and conservatives for Lyndon Johnson's vacant Senate seat allowed John Tower to become the state's first Republican senator since Reconstruction. Although Texans loyally voted for Johnson in 1964, Barry Goldwater's message plainly struck a chord with local conservatives.

This switch to the Republicans lasted decades rather than years. In 1964, Democrats had controlled all 31 seats in the state Senate, and all but one in the 150-Strong House. In 1968, the Republicans could count only two state senators and eight members of the House. One of the eight, a twenty-five-year-old from Midland named Tom Craddick, who had been offered the seat by both parties, boldly told a Midland newspaper that the Republicans were the party of the future. In fact, it would take him a decade to win any power in the House (he was eventually given the chairmanship of a committee). Many white Texans chose to stick with conservative Democrats rather than switch parties.

All the same, Craddick gradually won his bet. In many cases, the catalyst was race. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote in Texas since Johnson's civil rights act. The burgeoning counterculture and the antiwar protests also alienated white conservatives. (Texas, militaristic as ever, contributed a disproportionate number of troops to Southeast Asia.) Demography was also on the GOP's side. The Democrats' power base was in the old Texas of agriculture and benevolent government, but tenant farmers were being squeezed out by the big estates: between 1930 and 1957, the number of tenants was halved while the average size of farms doubled. Meanwhile, in the new suburbs and corporate office parks, the Republican message of less government, lower taxes and strong families resounded with the new arrivals (at the height of the 1950s oil boom, more than a thousand people moved to Houston every week).

If the GOP changed Texas politics, Texas also changed the GOP-and the Bush family along with it. Texan Republicanism was very different from Prescott's country club creed: more antigovernment, more populist, more marinated in religion. Prescott had thought that McCarthy had no manners; a group of Texas conservatives sent McCarthy a Cadillac as a wedding present. The question, still debated among Republicans to this day, is: How far did George H. W. embrace this new, brasher creed?

George H. W. has always had a reputation of being "somewhat to the center of center." Many Texans mistook his East Coast politeness for wimpishness, dismissing him as a "clean-fingernails Republican" or, worse, "the sort of man who steps out of the shower to take a piss," as one of our colleagues was once told. In 1966, Yarborough derided him as a patrician Yankee, asking the oilmen in East Texas whether they were ready to vote for "a carpetbagger from Connecticut who is drilling oil for the Sheik of Kuwait." When George eventually got himself elected to Congress, he made a name as a moderate on cultural issues. Wilbur Mills, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, even nicknamed him "Rubbers" because of his enthusiasm for family planning.

George H. W. climbed the Republican ladder by taking on the sort of institutional jobs that would have delighted his father-ambassador to the United Nations, party chairman, envoy to China and director of the CIA. In 1980, when he ran for president, he condemned Ronald Reagan's "supply-side" ideas as "voodoo economics"-and he was offered the vice presidency partly as a sop to what remained of the East Coast wing of the party. Despite eight years of loyal service to the Gipper, many conservatives only supported Bush's run for the presidency in 1988 on Reagan's say-so.

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Table of Contents

1 From Kennebunkport to Crawford 27
2 The conservative rout, 1952-1964 40
3 The agony of liberalism, 1964-1988 63
4 The fifty-fifty nation, 1988-2000 94
5 For Texas, business and God 131
6 The Rive Droite 151
7 The brawn 172
8 With us or against us : the right and the war against terror 198
9 The road ahead : the path to Republican hegemony? 227
10 How it could go wrong : too southern, too greedy and too contradictory 249
11 Behind enemy lines 270
12 America the different 291
13 Right from the beginning : the roots of American exceptionalism 314
14 Heresy and reformation : America's exceptional conservatism 334
Conclusion : living with the right nation 374
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    The Right Stuff

    John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge are journalists writing for The Economist, and this book bears the same high quality of writing that many have come to expect from that magazine. The authors are as thorough in their research as they are clear in their presentation, and we the readers are that much better off because of it. The basic premise of the book, that the conservative power in America has been on the rise for many decades, is an indisputable fact of political life, and will be for many more years to come regardless who the occupant of the White House will end up being. The book deals with the roots of this phenomenon, and tries to present it as objectively and critically as possible. It shows how American conservatism is unique, and would probably not be recognized as traditional conservatism in many other parts of the world. Many critics may find it objectionable and problematic that the authors take this American conservatism seriously at all, but even those critics could benefit tremendously from reading this book. If their aim is to get to know the enemy, this book would be the best place to start. Even though the book was first published around the 2004 elections, it will probably remain relevant for many years to come.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2005

    The most accurate, even-handed look at American politics on the shelves today

    I am a graduate student and I am working on my master's degree in political science. I wish I could have Micklethwait and Wooldridge teach a seminar course in American politics because they have a truly amazing grasp of the social, intellectual, and political factors that are currently at play in American life. I enjoyed 'The Right Nation' from cover to cover. The first section, entitled 'History,' included an examination that has been excluded from some other works that attempt to define America's conservative power structure. The authors do an excellent job in detailing the history, policies, and future of the conservative movement. I found their analysis of what happened and why to be the most rewarding part of the book. Not only are the details conservatism's rise discussed in detail, but the authors also take the time to discuss potential pitfalls and problems that lie ahead for conservatives. This book is a must-read.

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