- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004


John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge

Penguin, $25.95, 450 pages

The loftier breed of European takes great pleasure in pointing out that most Americans depend on the vagaries of TV news for their information about the world. That may well be true, but it also happens to be the case that an awful lot of those same deep thinkers base their view of the United States on sources as ludicrous as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

Every bookshop in London seems to have a mountain of Capitol Hill conspiracy theories on the shelves. Saner voices rarely break through. Ignorance rules, and as far as the staff behind the counter are concerned, Alexander de Tocqueville might as well be a writer of French cookbooks.

That is one very good reason for welcoming “The Right Nation,” an account of the rise of the red states written by two U.S.-based British journalists, both senior writers for the Economist magazine.

While most of the issues they discuss should be familiar to readers of The Washington Times, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge have provided a pithy and evenhanded introduction to a land that, to many foreigners — and a fair number of Democrats, too — is quite simply an alien planet.

Parts of this book read like a pacy and updated version of George H. Nash’s survey “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.” But whereas Mr. Nash’s book is designed to be pored over in the university common room, “The Right Nation” can be gulped down — like the Economist itself — in the airport lounge.

Most visitors to America rarely see much of the continent that lies beyond Manhattan or San Francisco. The authors’ mission is to show how diverse and often contradictory the hinterland really is.

While it does not dig quite as deep as Mr. Nash’s study, the book covers broader territory, adding sketches of humble foot-soldiers as well as the five-star generals in the think tanks. From school vouchers in Milwaukee, Wis., to latte Republicans in Colorado Springs, Colo., we glimpse the human face of the conservative revival.

Scholarly analysis is conveyed with a light, journalistic touch. If you have never warmed to the Economist house style — which gives the impression that the world would be a better place if we all put passion to one side and signed up for some Oxford tutorials — you may find the prose irritatingly slick at times. Perhaps because the authors have one eye on this November’s presidential election, some sections occasionally feel like a succession of loosely linked magazine articles.

The book does a fine job, though, of distilling the qualities that separate the American brand of conservatism from its European counterpart. If the partnership between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher appeared to bring the two traditions closer together, the authors make the important point that the Iron Lady was not a typical British Tory but “an American conservative who happened to be born in Grantham rather than Houston.”

Values rather than class take precedence in the New World. While conservatives in Europe tend to hanker after the hierarchies and certainties of the past, Republicans prefer to saddle up and race toward the next horizon.

As the authors suggest, it is hard to imagine Mr. Reagan ever subscribing to Michael Oakeshott’s belief that “to be conservative … is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible … the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

The authors make no secret of where their sympathies lie, flatly declaring that “liberalism as a governing philosophy” is dead. They have little time either for John Judis and Ruy Teixeira’s theory that demography in general, and the Latino vote in particular, will come to the Democrats’ rescue.

But the triumphalism is muted. Dangers remain on the electoral road ahead. The coalition of social conservatives and libertarians could fracture. Lack of resolve in dealing with the Iraqi insurgency or the budget deficit could hand the initiative back to the other half of the 50-50 nation.

Meanwhile, tone-deaf diplomacy continues to alienate potential foreign allies. Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge are particularly worried about two issues: the growing power of well-heeled Republican lobbyists and the perception that the GOP, especially in its Southern heartlands, is intolerant on social issues.

The Democrats succumbed to hubris when they tried to build the Great Society. The Republicans should heed that lesson when they declare the victory of the Right Nation.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London and is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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