Before I get along with my review, let us just linger for a moment on this book’s title, and on the names of the authors. The title I think we should blame on David Frum, author of, inter alia, books titled Dead Right, What’s Right, and The Right Man; though possibly Frum was inspired by Pat Buchanan’s 1990 autobiography Right from the Beginning. That the English adjective “right” covers so much territory — Merriam-Webster’s Third lists 22 meanings — has been a blessing to people writing about political conservatism. With the current boom in polemical books, look for more plays on those 22.
Now consider the surnames of the authors, than which it would be difficult to conjure up anything more English. Both have English roots going back eleven hundred years or more; both are armigerous.
A punny title and two tweedy British authors — which middlebrow weekly news magazine comes irresistibly to mind? I had better disclose right here that I am a dedicated reader of The Economist, of which Micklethwait is the U.S. editor and Woodridge the Washington correspondent. This puts me at odds with many of my colleagues in conservative journalism. There was a sort of faddish infatuation with The Economist back in the early 1990s among both business and policy elites in the U.S. The bloom went off the rose rather quickly, though, and at the end of that decade the break-up was made official in The New Republic, where Andrew Sullivan published a scathing piece calling the venerable British weekly “a kind of Reader’s Digest for the overclass.” The gravamen of Sullivan’s charge was that The Economist embodied good old British amateurism and the cult of effortless, but illusory, superiority — that a staff of glib second-raters held America’s educated classes in thrall by a combination of marketing skill, appeals to snobbery, and brazen bluff, rather as a tiny cadre of unflappable Englishmen had once held down the multitudes of India by dint of similar techniques.
Reading The Right Nation, you can see Sullivan’s point. The text has a smoothness and plausibility that, if read without close attention, has the reader muttering: “Why, yes … of course … I never noticed that, but they are surely right …” The arguments are never dense or demanding, and everything is seasoned with witty quotations, historical curiosities, deft literary allusions, and illuminating anecdotes. The authors, like their magazine, are especially fond of, and skillful with, counter-intuitive lines of thought. The U.S.A. a young country with not much history? Not so: “The United States is the world’s oldest republic, its oldest democracy, and its oldest federal system. The country possesses the world’s oldest written constitution; the Democratic Party has a good claim to being the world’s oldest political party …” While promoting a distinctive point of view, Micklethwait and Wooldridge take pains to be even-handed. They tell us, quoting Paul Krugman, that the “blue” Democratic states subsidize the “red” Republican ones at around $90 billion a year. A few pages later: “As for academia, in all our peregrinations around American campuses, we have yet to meet a conservative women’s studies professor, and suspect that we never will.”
It is true that the authors’ grasp of American life and politics is sometimes superficial. I smiled to read, for example, that “The Southern Poverty Law Center reckons there are now 700 hate organizations, with more than 100,000 members, the highest count for 20 years.” This is a bit like quoting an opticians’ trade association to the effect that more people need glasses now than ever before. Murmur a single sentence deviant in any way from left-liberal orthodoxy and you are very likely to find your website, or any periodical you work for, labeled a “hate organization” by the SPLC — this has actually happened to friends of mine. Similarly, The Economist’s strict open-borders line on immigration renders the authors’ answer to the question: “whether [Latinos] will end up voting more like blacks or Italians” a foregone conclusion, contrary to much evidence — rates of illegitimacy, gang membership, drug use, and academic failure, for instance — that Mexican immigrants are assimilating to ghetto-black norms rather than suburban-white ones.
All in all, though, this is a near-perfect specimen of middlebrow political theorizing: well-written, well-researched, thorough yet digestible, interesting while containing nothing astonishing or disturbing. The broad thesis of the book is, as the authors themselves put it, that conservatism sits at the heart of American exceptionalism, and will likely continue to do so for the indefinite future. This requires them to offer extended descriptions of both phenomena, our conservatism and our exceptionalism.
The 85-page section on the latter enlarges on a “Survey of America” published in The Economist last November, though the book seems to me more hopeful and affirmative than the article. A strong case is made that those hoping for the U.S. to shed her rambunctious ways and settle down to being a hygienic, pacifistic, European-style social democracy, have a long wait ahead of them. Everything points the other way, including even demographics: “By 2050, America’s median age will still be around thirty-six, while Europe’s will have risen from thirty-eight to fifty-six.” There are contradictions duly noted here: parts of the U.S.A. are already heavily “Europeanized.” The country as a whole never will be, though. American exceptionalism is here to stay, and the convergence with European social democracy that many thought was happening thirty or forty years ago now seems further away than ever.
The fundamental reason, the authors tell us, is that the United States is, and always has been, a conservative nation. The high tide of American liberalism in the middle years of the last century was an aberration, brought about by extraordinary economic circumstances and the trauma of mass national mobilization in WW2. The counter-revolutionary conservatism of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush restored older, more customary styles of rhetoric and activism. American conservatism is, of course, nothing like the throne-and-altar conservatism of the Old World. When it has tried to be, it has been rejected by most thoughtful Americans. It is a very odd blend of self-reliance, religious enthusiasm, and commercial thrusting that yet somehow manages to be, as the authors say, “sociologically coherent.”
For all their smoothness and occasional superficiality, the authors make their case to this reader’s satisfaction. Along the way, they very effectively demolish some of the sillier misconceptions about modern American conservatism. Listen to them on the role of the so-called “neocons,” for example:
Those Europeans who think that the neoconservatives tricked their way into the heart of conservative America have got things topsy-turvy. The reason why the neoconservatives proved so influential was not because they deceived their fellow conservatives but because they succeeded in translating conservative America’s deepest passions into a theory of foreign policy.
That sounds right to me. Correct, I mean.