The Right Nation

The second book about which I wish to write (point taken, Mr. Rau :), mentioned in the post below, is The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by a couple of guys who write for The Economist. It’s a fairly big book, and I’m somewhat impressed with myself for having gotten (most of the way) through it, but the plane trips to and from California over Thanksgiving can be credited with that.
I thought it was quite interesting. The main argument is that America has grown steadily more conservative over the last 40 years (the Clintons notwithstanding), and the book explains why and how this has occurred. It also explains why American conservatism is a unique phenomenon, very different from what conservatism is in other parts of the world: for example, conservatism in America is linked to individualism and desire for independence from government, rather than oligarchy and skepticism about “progress” as it is in Europe. Also, while America is in general much more conservative than Europe, regarding issues such as official separation between church and state it is much more liberal.
I learned quite a bit about the disparate strands which have combined to make conservatism what it is now; for example, the accession to authority of the neo-conservatives, who have developed an interventionist foreign policy contrary to the isolationist classic conservatism. It also described other aspects of changing conservatism; such as the rather dramatic shift to a more socially conservative outlook within three generations of the Bush family. The writers consider the future of American conservatism as well, whether the trend toward conservatism is likely to continue, or whether the tenuous coalition between such factions as the socially conservative Christian Right and anti-government-interference entrepreneurs is bound to eventually rupture.
The book is very readable (it has to be if I managed to get through 400 pages or so of talk about politics), and most pleasantly after the presidential election, is completely devoid of name-calling, muckraking, and loonball ad hominem attacks toward either the right or left. The writers do not hesitate to point out discreditable aspects of conservatism, for example the compromises with racism made by the Republican party in order to win over the formerly Democratic southern whites. On the other hand, the book does not insist on viewing conservative principles such as personal responsibility, individualism, and traditional religious values as merely false consciousness covering up a desire to return to the age of robber barons. The writers offer what seems to me a fairly even-handed description of conservatism, and conclude that, whether for better or worse, conservatism is currently the more dynamic and relevant movement in America, and stands a good chance of continuing to be so.
I think the book would be eye-opening to conservatives in learning about how the movement came to be, potential conflicts within conservatism, and the role conservatism is playing and can play in America. I think that liberals might learn more about the self-understanding of conservatives and also their understanding of liberalism, and hence how the message of liberalism could be brought to red-staters in a way that seems relevant to them. Perhaps the book might even show both liberals and conservatives the uniqueness of America, and how our goals and even underlying attitudes are similar however much we might appear to be divided on the surface.
Next up is What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which I have previously had occasion to mention.

3 Responses to “The Right Nation

  1. MM says:

    Sounds like a book I need to read! I particularly agree with that main argument concerning the rise of conservatism over the last 40 years. I’ve contended that, at least in terms of substantive policy results (not cultural style), President Nixon was actually more liberal than President Clinton. We just don’t recognize the comparison because the political landscape has shifted to the right.

  2. michele says:

    Yes, I would recommend it. I found the analysis of the rightward shift, as well as the changes in what constitutes ‘conservatism,’ to be quite interesting. Thanks for the comment!

  3. KDC says:

    And as far as that goes, Clinton was often lambasted by parts of his party for being too conservative, especially on economic issues.
    Hi! Sorry to have not read your stuff for a while.

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