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The Right Nation:Why America is Different
John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
New York, Penguin Group (USA). 2004.
$25.95. 449 pages. ISBN-0-7139-9738-9

Thomas J. Mayock
Annandale, Virginia

Journalists Wooldridge and Micklethwait are transplanted Oxford grads who work for the Economist in the United States, and who have written a lively and many-faceted book on U.S. politics. It is aimed at the American public, and tries to explain why us Americans are so conservative, so different, or at least so different from Europeans. This has been a well-plowed field from the earliest days of the Republic, but the two bring talent and experience to the topic.

They live and work in the States and are familiar with California, where a century or more ago their distinguished predecessor Viscount Bryce claimed to have found the purest specimens of Americans.1 They have previously authored works on globalization and “management gurus.”

The pair have chosen and attractively presented a big subject, and one which anybody is free to weigh in on. Alistair Cooke’s blurb on the cover states that we have here a “comprehensive history of how conservatism […] has taken over America.” The book was published before the 2004 elections, the authors claiming that whatever the outcome it would make no difference in the conservative drift. The outcome certainly made a difference in sales; buying such a book made conservatives even happier. But, as with all histories, the question remains: What is it that our authors have actually described?

To begin with: they are ill-served by the ambivalence of the mother tongue. "Right Nation" has multiple meanings, and is not helped out by the subtitle. Likewise, liberal and conservative melt in the mouths of politicians who usually try to get on all sides of any potentially dangerous issue. American politicos naturally migrate towards the vote-rich center on the bell curve because there has never been in the USA much of a Socialist Left, or a Fascist Right. In sum, the authors easily demonstrate how Americans have been different from Europeans, but it is not so obvious that they have changed much since the days of FDR, which is more or less the baseline.

To their credit, the authors visit most of the objections to their thesis, and argue their case very well. A good deal of thought has gone into the book’s organization. First, it narrates a half-century of political wars leaning on anecdotes and journalistic accounts. Then it analyzes the forces of the Right: the captains and the foot soldiers. While the authors agree that prophecy is risky business, they believe that conservative trends will continue. The finest piece of writing probably is the chapter on the roots of American differentness which has the not-unexpected effect of showing that over the years the country hasn’t changed so much after all. It also suggests some alternate scenarios for the last fifty or sixty years. The old frontier hypothesis of Frederick Jackson Turner2 held that distinctive American traits were a reflection of the job of taming a wilderness. When the frontier as a line of settlement disappeared in the late nineteenth century, all sorts of pessimistic conclusions were drawn, because the frontier was thought to be a safety valve for disadvantaged easterners, a hedge against class warfare. But clearly, as of now, the States are still being settled—the number of Americans doubled from 1940 to 2000. The southwestern drift of population and political influence that swamped the Federalists is still operating. Anyone who has been to Vegas or to the Electoral College lately can see it for himself. Except that, contrary to the nineteenth century pattern, the growth has come not in the Rust Belt but in the more conservative precincts, like the Old South. In its turn, the New South will be sensitive to future people shifts.

One of the more interesting parts of the book relates the progress of the Bush family from a Connecticut Senator to the oil business in Texas and to two presidencies. The rise of a conservative intelligentsia of economists and think tanks and the mobilization of the churchgoers are documented. Composing a manuscript of this sweep and complexity the authors inevitably are now and then led astray in the details. They make a point of how Democrats thought FDR had spent too much money in his first term; but FDR thought so too, cut back the spending and suffered the 1938 recession. The Congress in his third term amused itself by repealing much of the emergency New Deal legislation. Earl Warren was hardly a “notoriously liberal Republican,” rather a tough law-and-order Attorney General who ousted Cuthbert Olson, a liberal California governor.

It is a little difficult to be sure about a conservative shift when the conservative presidential candidate trails in the popular vote by a half-million as Bush did in 2000, and this after a series of scandals that got his liberal predecessor impeached and almost removed. As to 2004, Lincoln and FDR demonstrated that ousting a wartime president is no simple matter. He can always play commander-in-chief, as did FDR. On the other hand, the political system is rigged so that second terms are always difficult for an incumbent president, a lame duck.

This brings up the missing factor in the equation: the wars of the twentieth century. The U.S. has spent most of the last sixty years in a state of warfare, hot, undeclared or Cold. Congress never scrimped on money for defense and a plant, shipyard or research institute in a members district has the effect of concentrating the legislators mind, as well as those of voters. Keeping in mind Tip O’Neill’s warning about all politics being local,3 this spending is on the whole a conservative force. Witness the authors’ portrait of Colorado Springs or Dwight Eisenhower’s complaint about the "military-industrial complex." The political effects of these wars—lost, indecisive or won—are still running and would take up volumes.

The federal Constitution is designed to limit the action of government. This makes it difficult to enact novel measures but also to get them off the books. The Supreme Court doesn’t like to revisit its decisions. Stare decisis operates. Despite all the war whoops of the Right, Roe v. Wade along with many other liberal measures still stands. The federal system ensures that liberal states and liberal cities can go on in their evil ways. Even with a major economic reverse or a defeat in the Middle East, American voters will probably still hang out in the fat part of the bell curve.

The book raises all sorts of worthwhile issues and is a pleasure to read, whatever your politics.


1. The American Commonwealth, 1889. back
2. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893. back
3. Man of the House, 1987. back



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