What the rise of the American right means for others

By Lionel Barber

Financial Times

Published: July 11 2004

There is a seductive theory, often heard in the diplomatic salons of Europe and among audiences watching Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, that the Bush administration is a historical aberration whose time is almost up.

The proximate cause is Iraq. Many of the assumptions and expectations behind the war have proved false. Weapons of mass destruction have still to be found. The human and financial costs are growing. Anti-Americanism in the region is growing. In short, the US-led war - conceived as a model for the application of power to support US security and spread democracy in the Middle East - now looks like strategic overreach by a president driven more by ideology than a rational assessment of the national interest.

Those who subscribe to this view should perhaps read The Right Nation, a lucid and persuasive account of the rise of conservative power in America and its permanent influence on contemporary US politics and foreign policy. The authors, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, are Economist correspondents who have spent serious time writing and thinking about America. They argue that the centre of gravity of US opinion has shifted decisively to the right. From there, they examine the peculiar brand of US conservatism and what it means for the world.

Four deca des ago, the conservative movement was dismissed as the lunatic fringe of the Republican party. Barry "Let's lob a nuclear bomb into the men's room at the Kremlin" Goldwater epitomised the hair-raising quality of the beast. Yet, his crushing loss in the 1964 presidential election turned out to be a long-term victory. Goldwater, the Jewish retailer's son from Arizona, seized control of the party from country-clubbers like Nelson Rockefeller and laid the intellectual groundwork for Richard Nixon's successful assault on the White House. Nixon's victory in 1968 broke the near stranglehold held by the Democrats since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition in 1932. Republicans won six of the next nine presidential elections.

This is a familiar tale retold with gusto. We read about the self-destruction of the Democrats over Vietnam and civil rights, as well as the puritanical roots of conservatism and the decidedly temperate American revolution. The authors' sociological portrait of America is also strong. We read about the rise of home education, the ascent of the Moral Majority and the expansion of gated communities. (Not all are conservative, say the authors, revealing that in 2000, there were two dozen complaints about couples having sex outdoors in Sun City West, Arizona. The average age of the offenders was 73).

There are other intriguing facts. The book singles out the role of demographics and technology in the rise of conservatism. In the 1960s, air-conditioning made life in the arid west tolerable. As people shifted to the Sun Belt, a new brand of rugged individualism took hold which proved receptive to Ronald Reagan's tax-cutting crusade and his attacks on "Big Government". Intellectual heft helped too. While the book is occasionally breathless about the merits of conservative think-tankers in Washington, few dispute their capacity to raise money and influence people.

What could go wrong? The authors argue that conservative Republicanism could come across as "too southern, too greedy and too contradictory". Americans do not want to re-open the debate over civil rights. The majority of women are clearly pro-choice. Evangelical revivalism has its limits in politics. Mr Bush's tax cuts shamelessly targeted the rich. The average Joe is more tolerant than John Ashcroft, the US attorney general whose anti-libertarian record rightly comes in for a pasting.

Republicanism is also being redefined by an Austrian-American body-builder who spent half his life in Hollywood. Unlike Mr Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, does not seek divine guidance - or if he does, he keeps quiet about it.

The other unknown is this year's presidential election. Micklethwait and Wooldridge are smart enough to hedge their bets. But even a win for John Kerry would not undermine their thesis, they argue. The conservatives in Congress will remain a powerful constituency on issues ranging from the International Criminal Court to the United Nations. Mr Kerry would inherit Mr Bush's "war on terror" and Am ericans' fear of the post 9/11 world. This is a sober message for Europeans yearning for regime change.

All sensible stuff. But what would make the US easier to live with? The authors suggest there are some grounds for compromise. The next administration, whether run by Mr Bush or Mr Kerry, could be less abrasive. It should also be more careful about abandoning much-vaunted basic American principles. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay have stained America's image for a generation.

But there is a limit to America's willingness to appease its critics. Not simply because of its overwhelming power but also "its sense of certainty". The chaos of Iraq may shake this certainty. Those who have put too much faith in US military power should also feel chastised.

Overall, however, this book helps explain why America is both admired and reviled around the world, and why it is so often misunderstood. It is a timely antidote to the more thoughtless strains of anti-Americanism prevalent today. '

The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America', by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge (Penguin Press)

The writer is the FT's US managing editor