The Right Nation

Posted: Oct 10, 2004 12:00 AM

     WASHINGTON -- If by the dawn's early light of Nov. 3 George W. Bush stands victorious, seven of 10 presidential elections will have been won by Southern Californians and Texans, all Republicans. The other three were won by Democrats -- a Georgian and an Arkansan.

     This rise of the Sun Belt is both a cause and a consequence of conservatism's rise, which began in 1964 with, paradoxically, the landslide loss of the second post-Civil War major-party presidential nominee from that region -- Arizona's Barry Goldwater, four years after the first, Richard Nixon. His campaign was the first stirring of a mass movement: Nixon's 1960 campaign attracted 50,000 individual contributors; Goldwater's attracted 650,000.

     Conservatism's 40-year climb to dominance receives an examination worthy of its complexity in ``The Right Nation,'' the best political book in years. Its British authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist, demonstrate that conservative power derives from two sources -- its congruence with American values, especially the nation's anomalous religiosity, and the elaborate infrastructure of think tanks and other institutions that stresses that congruence.

     Liberals, now tardily trying to replicate that infrastructure, thought they did not need it because they had academia and the major media. But the former marginalized itself with its silliness, and the latter have been marginalized by their insularity and by competitors born of new technologies.

     Liberals complacently believed that the phrase ``conservative thinker'' was an oxymoron. For years -- generations, really -- the prestige of the liberal label was such that Herbert Hoover called himself a ``true liberal'' and Dwight Eisenhower said that cutting federal spending on education would offend ``every liberal -- including me.''

     Liberalism's apogee came with Lyndon Johnson, who while campaigning against Goldwater proclaimed, ``We're in favor of a lot of things and we're against mighty few.'' Johnson's landslide win produced a ruinous opportunity -- a large liberal majority in Congress, and incontinent legislating. Forty years later, only one-third of Democrats call themselves liberal, whereas two-thirds of Republicans call themselves conservative. Which explains this Micklethwait and Wooldridge observation on the Clinton presidency:

     ``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.