George Will

     ``Left-wing America was given the answer to all its prayers -- the most talented politician in a generation, a long period of peace and prosperity, and a series of Republican blunders -- and the agenda was still set by the right. Clinton's big achievements -- welfare reform, a balanced budget, a booming stock market  and cutting 350,000 people from the federal payroll -- would have delighted Ronald Reagan. Whenever Clinton veered to the left -- over gays in the military, over health care -- he was slapped down.''

     Micklethwait and Wooldridge endorse Sir Lewis Namier's doctrine: ``What matters most about political ideas is the underlying emotions, the music to which ideas are a mere libretto, often of very inferior quality.'' The emotions underlying conservatism's long rise include a visceral individualism with religious roots and anti-statist consequences.

     Europe, post-religious and statist, is puzzled -- and alarmed -- by a nation where grace is said at half the family dinner tables. But religiosity, say Micklethwait and Wooldridge, ``predisposes Americans to see the world in terms of individual virtue rather than in terms of the vast social forces that so preoccupy Europeans.'' And: ``The percentage of Americans who believe that success is determined by forces outside their control has fallen from 41 percent in 1988 to 32 percent today; by contrast, the percentage of Germans who believe it has risen from 59 percent in 1991 to 68 percent today.'' In America, conservatives much more than liberals reject the presumption of individual vulnerability and incompetence that gives rise to liberal statism.

     Conservatism rose in the aftermath of Johnson's Great Society, but skepticism about government is in the nation's genetic code. Micklethwait and Wooldridge note that in September 1935, during the Depression, Gallup polling found that twice as many Americans said FDR's administration was spending too much than said it was spending the right amount, and barely one person in 10 said it was spending too little.

     After FDR's 1936 re-election, half of all Democrats polled said they wanted FDR's second term to be more conservative. Only 19 percent wanted it more liberal. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan won while excoriating ``big government,'' America had lower taxes, a smaller deficit as a percentage of GDP and a less-enveloping welfare state than any other industrialized Western nation.

     America, say Micklethwait and Wooldridge, is among the oldest countries in the sense that it has one of the oldest constitutional regimes. Yet it is ``the only developed country in the world never to have had a left-wing government.'' And given the country's broad and deep conservatism, it will not soon.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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