The Right Nation


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NIGHTWATCH
July 12, 2004, 09:10 AM
I was listening to the author the other night on talk radio...sounds like a good read.


By Bruce Ramsey
Special to The Seattle Times

When Hillary Clinton claimed to see "a vast right-wing conspiracy" in America, she was "correct — but not quite in the way she intended."

So say John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two Britons who cover the United States for The Economist magazine of London. Their book is a broad-brush portrait of American conservatism, which they dub "the Right Nation." It is a reporter's book, thin on ideology and full of anecdote, and it gets a lot of things about the Right right.

The Right Nation, they say, is an army of disparate militias: tax cutters, gun owners, home schoolers, abortion opponents and defenders of Christian values. Each group considers itself a struggling minority, but together they make a formidable movement that in the past 30 years has out-thought, out-spent and out-organized its rivals.

"Conservative" labels it only partly. It holds to patriotism and religious belief like other conservatisms, but it also includes a strain of 19th-century individualist liberalism.

"The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility toward the state than any other modern conservative party," Micklethwait and Wooldridge point out. An example is home schooling. It is remarkable, they say, that in the world's most advanced country, 2 million parents reject tax-supported state schools and "insist that education ought to be the work of the family."

Compared with conservatives in Britain, America's Right Nation is unusually religious. Unlike European conservatives, it champions the death penalty and legal protection for the unborn.

Also guns. In most European countries, they say, a politician would never publicly "point a gun at a fluffy-looking creature." Here they do.

The American Right, the authors add, is anti-egalitarian but not aristocratic. Much more than its British counterparts, it wants health insurance and medicine to be supplied in the private market. It is populist, wielding the initiative and referendum to keep taxes low. No other rich country makes such use of voter initiatives except Switzerland.

The Right's weakness, the authors say, is a tendency to intolerance on such issues as gay marriage. Its strength, they believe, is its embrace of the values of "a forward-looking commercial republic."

The book describes the web of Right Nation institutions — magazines, newspapers, foundations and think tanks, mostly built over the past 35 years. These are not only at the national level. The authors describe Seattle's Discovery Institute, which promotes a quirky mix of high-tech laissez-faire, intercity rail and a cosmology of "intelligent design." They note that this state went for Gore in 2000, but say that it "probably devotes as many resources to producing conservative ideas as most European countries."

In their portrait of the "Right Nation" Micklethwait and Wooldridge give the appearance of neutrality. They use, for example, the doubled-up term "abortion choice," so as to use neither half of the term alone. But it is difficult to be neutral in describing so un-neutral a thing as a political movement.

Really, this book is a moderately sympathetic portrait. The authors have no use for the hard Left. Like The Economist, they are internationalist and pro-capitalist, making them sympathetic to the Right's economics but not its resentments. They like Arnold Schwarzenegger but not John Ashcroft, who they accuse of "big-brother conservatism."

George W. Bush, they say, represents three Right Nation icons: religion, business and Texas ("America's America, or at least conservative America's America"). In his war on terrorists, Bush has appealed successfully to the Right's patriotism. In his decisions on steel tariffs and other things, he has favored big business over the free market. He has also abetted what the authors call "the Republican Party's incontinence" on federal spending. They worry that Bush might be taking the Right Nation down a wrong road.

Finally, they argue that the Right Nation is the new American establishment, and that even if John Kerry wins the election, the Right will circumscribe what he can do. Bill Clinton, they say, was a liberal who ended up governing as an Eisenhower Republican. Even if Americans eventually elect Hillary Clinton (Bill's "socialist wife," they call her), they say she "will probably end up doing the same thing" because the Right Nation has flavored the entire country.

So it has. It is probably true that the political spectrum here is shifted rightward compared with Europe. But on its own terms, America is still a "fifty-fifty nation." The authors want to make a provocative point and do, but they do it by describing only the conservative half of the country.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/artsentertainment/2001974953_rightnation11.html

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