America, say The Economist journalists Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait, is not only on the right as opposed to the left. America is right as opposed to wrong. What's more, it is time we Europeans stopped thinking those American conservatives are crazy and understood that they are right.
The authors have written two books in one. One is an immensely knowledgeable description of the history and beliefs of modern American conservatism. It is occasionally careless (Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania was not a Democrat; the cartoonist David Low was not an Australian), but the authors do an excellent job of analysing the different streams that have flowed together to make up modern American conservatism. They have understood that its triumph owes much to the conservatives' success in scaring Clinton Democrats into moving halfway to meet them. They are right in stressing the importance of religious belief, especially evangelical Protestant belief, in recruiting the movement's foot soldiers.
They are right, if hardly original, that the American centre of gravity has shifted right. However perverse many of the right's dogmas seem, we should try to understand them. They are right, too, in saying that the new aggressive foreign policy happened, not because a neo-conservative cabal hoodwinked Bush, but because after September 11 the neo-conservative call for war matched the angry mood of the wider movement.
The authors have tried to be fair-minded. But their book is also a work of advocacy. They have accepted, essentially uncritically, the conservative narrative. They trot out the stereotypes of Washington conservative journalists, presenting liberals as bearded, ponytailed pot-smokers. They accept the preposterous conservative oversimplification that the rich are liberals, while the plain folk are conservatives. Nor do they seem troubled by the reckless aspects of Guantanamo, of the Bush war in Iraq and the Bush tax cuts.
They do not confront arguably the most disturbing change in American society over the past quarter-century: the startling increase of inequality. They gloss over the crucial part played by resistance to racial change in the rise of conservatism. Because they are only writing about the "right nation", they obscure the acute polarisation of politics.
In contrast, What's the Matter with America? is splendid invective from Thomas Frank, the editor of the Chicago-based radical magazine, The Baffler. Frank's previous book brilliantly exposed the hypocrisy of the idea that liberals are the privileged and that honest, hard-working types are all conservatives, and derided what he called "market populism". Now he take a close look at his native Kansas. He contrasts the new-built mansions where the corporate masters live with the desolation and poverty of the old farm counties. As much as 80 per cent of America's farm production is now concentrated in the hands of four agribusiness giants. Their motto is: "The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy."
Taking Kansas as a microcosm, Frank contrasts the Mods, "moderate" Republicans who control the corporate economy, with the Cons, working-class foot soldiers converted to conservative politics by the "backlash" against a liberalism that seems to insult everything they believe in: God, patriotism, family and morals. Frank argues that this backlash has masked growing inequality and the ruthless exploitation of the weak by the strong.
Here is his take on what conservatism has brought the plain folk: "All they have to show for their Republican loyalty are lower wages, more dangerous jobs, a new overlord class that comports itself like King Farouk, and a crap culture whose moral free fall continues without significant interference from the grandstanding Christers they send triumphantly back to Washington every couple of years". A heartland radical perhaps sees more clearly than two English converts to conservative ideology what that populist patrician, Theodore Roosevelt, saw 100 years ago: that America "will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in."
Godfrey Hodgson's 'More Equal than Others' is published by Princeton University Press
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