Graham Stewart

Evangelism on the march

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The Right Nation: Why America is Different

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge

Penguin, pp. 450, £

When Robert Goizueta, Coca-Cola’s boss, attempted to justify his $80 million annual income to a meeting of shareholders he was interrupted four times — with applause. Attitudes to wealth and opportunity, as to so much else in the United States, are far removed from the prevailing mood in Britain and Europe. During the Cold War, many of these differences were overlooked in the common cause against a yet more alien ideology. The illusion of unity has disappeared with the Warsaw Pact. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge argue in The Right Nation: Why America is Different, ‘it is rather like two relative strangers who fight off muggers and then go off for a celebratory meal only to discover that they don’t have as much in common as they thought’. The American hospitality might not, in any case, be to the taste of many Europeans. Nearly a quarter of those living in the southern states want to reintroduce prohibition.

The chasm between a militarily powerful America, with its churchgoing population and sense of righteousness, and a secular, nuanced, semi-pacifist Europe appears to be widening. In his masterful monograph, Paradise and Power, Robert Kagan outlined the nature of this division and its implications for foreign policy. Micklethwait and Wooldridge, two British journalists at the Economist, have pulled off a remarkable achievement, a study of how the United States became a conservative nation. In marked contrast to the unhinged rants of Michael Moore and the blatant prejudice of his imitators, The Right Nation is authoritative, entertaining and astonishing in its breadth and objectivity. It can perhaps make claim to an extraordinary boast as the best book on modern America in print.

In 1950, the Republicans had no Southern senators and only two out of 105 congressmen. Lionel Trilling wrote that ‘liberalism is not only the dominant, but even the sole, intellectual tradition’ in the United States. Eisenhower’s victory in the presidential election two years later was the first by a Republican since 1928. Yet his policies in office merely outlined the extent to which liberalism had become bipartisan. This could not have been said at the time of the 1984 election landslide when Ronald Reagan won a majority in every region in the country, in every age group and in every occupational category except the unemployed. What had happened in the meantime was that the liberal certainties — Keynesian economics, the belief in federal government as a help rather than a hindrance, social permissiveness — had in so many American eyes been discredited by recession, low expectations, crime and social breakdown. The Republicans had fashioned a unifying vision while the Democrats had become the party of interest groups, many of them particularly objectionable to the white, patriotic, states’ rights believers of the South. ‘You haven’t left the Democratic party,’ Reagan told them, ‘the Democratic party left you.’

This was an astonishing transformation in America’s politics. The conservative crusade of the Republicans’ 1964 presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, had been a disaster. Intent on offering a choice, not an echo, Goldwater was not afraid to divide opinion, even among his supporters. When on the campaign trail an enthusiast concocted a soft drink called ‘Gold Water — the Right Drink for the Conservative Taste’, Gold- water spat it out, complaining, ‘This tastes like piss. I wouldn’t drink it with gin.’ Yet, however much the refreshingly honest candidate tried to sink the floating vote, an intellectual revolution was beginning that brought conservatives and libertarians together. After 1980 it began to roll back American liberalism. So successful was it that it even helped to undermine the senior Bush when he committed apostasy by raising taxes. It ensured that the great achievements of the Clinton years — a balanced budget, a reduced state, Nafta — were Republican ones.

Republicanism has been spread by air-conditioning and evangelism. The former facilitated population growth in terrain that proved conducive to the party’s message — the moralistic South and individualistic West. Democrats have derided such ‘flyover states’ at their peril. That a third of American voters belong to Evangelical churches has huge political significance. They are the Republican party at prayer. Indeed, religious observance is a better guide to voting intentions than bank balances. In 2000, almost 80 per cent of whites who went to church more than once a week voted for Bush (compared to only a third of voters who were non-churchgoers). He only scraped a majority of those Americans who earned over $100,000 a year.

There are, of course, dangers that the transformation of a political party into a religious movement will be its undoing. There are those for whom the model for the shining city on a hill appears to be Calvin’s Geneva. If so, voters attracted to the sunny optimism of Reagan’s Republican virtues may not care for the scorching proselytising of the movement’s interfering zealots. The impeachment hearings against Clinton attained some of the characteristics of a Salem witch trial. Yet, if the party can still attract and cherish Arnold Schwartzenegger, it clearly remains a pretty broad church.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge may be thought to be taking a risk in publishing The Right Nation a couple of months before what promises to be a tight-fought election. But a victory for Kerry would not disprove their thesis. The Republicans have shifted the terms of the debate firmly on to their own turf. The Democrats are fighting the campaign largely on a personalised anti-Bush message. Where policies matter, they complain that he has not been fiscally prudent. Howard Dean, the Vermont governor seen as being too outlandishly liberal to win the Democrat nomination, supports gun rights, the death penalty and a healthcare system run by the private sector. John Kerry has backed America’s military intervention in Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and last year’s invasion of Iraq. Asked what he liked to eat, the multi-millionaire upon whom the world’s peaceniks pin their hopes replied, ‘I love dove.’ They are, he explained, particularly tasty at a picnic, cold-roasted.