Jewish World Review Nov. 9, 2004 / 25 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
With President Bush's sweep of Red State America less than 10 hours old, we thought it was a good time to call Adrian Wooldridge, co-author with John Micklethwait of "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America" and Washington correspondent for the prestigious British newsweekly, The Economist. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
The book, which traces the growth of the conservative movement from the political fringes of 1950s America to the Bush White House, came out in May and was dubbed one of the best political books in years by George Will. I talked with Wooldridge Wednesday afternoon by telephone:
Q: Does George Bush's victory surprise you, given what you know about American politics?
A: It doesn't surprise me. There were times during the last year when I thought that Bush might be defeated because of the degree of Bush hatred, because of the fact that the war in Iraq is not going very well, and because of the very iffy economy. But nevertheless, it strikes me that America is a conservative country, a very culturally conservative country, and it's not surprising that such a country would vote for the more conservative of the two candidates.
Q: The Economist is often seen as a free-market conservative publication, but you endorsed John Kerry. What is The Economist's editorial philosophy?
A: The Economist's editorial philosophy is exactly as you said -- free market and conservative. We're in favor of homosexual marriage, for example. We're in favor of drug-use legalization. We're very nervous about the sort of socially conservative agenda of this administration.
It was not an easy endorsement to make. We didn't regard either candidate as a perfect candidate, but we just thought that Bush had made too many mistakes. We endorsed George Bush in 2000. We endorsed Robert Dole in 1996. So it was a verdict more on incompetence, more on the fact that while he (portrayed himself as) a free marketeer, for example, he put steel tariffs on for a while, and agricultural tariffs, and he expanded deficits more than is justifiable. Certainly, it wasn't an endorsement in favor of a return to big-government liberalism. Far from it.
Q: Can you give us a synopsis of your book?
A: It really is about two things. It's a book about the rightward move of America under the influence of the conservative movement, "conservative power" as we call it, since 1960. But it's also about a second thing, which is that America is, compared to other developed countries around the world, a much more conservative country. It's much more religious. It's much more patriotic. It's much more tolerant of inequality. It's much more skeptical of government intervention and government attempts to redistribute power. In all sorts of ways, it is just very different from France, very different from Britain, in its fundamental attitudes in the way people ought to live their lives.
Q: Is it America's individualistic streak that makes our conservatism different from Europe's?
A: Absolutely. One of the peculiar things about American conservatism is that its ideology is different from the ideology of European conservatives. In Europe, conservatism tends to be about admiration for organic communities, about reverence for the past, about skepticism about the future, about skepticism about change.
American conservatism is much more libertarian. It's much more about individuals. It's much more enthusiastic about individual rights and much more skeptical about the state and also much more skeptical in some ways about tradition. It's a strange mixture of traditional conservatism on the one hand and on the other hand what many Europeans would regard as "liberalism" -- in the European sense of libertarianism: 19th-century classical liberalism of the John Stuart Mill variety.
Q: If America's conservatism goes back to before the founding, and is part of our national DNA, why did the conservative movement have to form itself?
A: That's a very good question. We talked to a conservative while writing this book, and she said many of her friends were conservatives without really knowing it. Up until the 1960s, America was conservative without really knowing it. It was a pretty conservative country, and it didn't really need a conservative movement, because conservatism was how it was. It was how it acted.
But then in the 1960s, a combination of a leftward drift in terms of government activism and a leftward drift in terms of the culture (led to) conservatives getting together to push it back in the other direction. But when they were pushing it back -- and one reason why I think they were so successful -- they were really tapping into a number of traditions that were there from the very start. Whenever I say that, liberals go completely crazy.
Q: Is Ronald Reagan or George Bush a better representative of America's conservatism?
A: I think Bush clearly models himself on Reagan. He's clearly much more like Reagan than he's like his own father. He clearly tries to revive the optimism of Reagan. I personally would think that Reagan is closer than Bush, because American conservatism has always been a difficult balancing act between social conservatism and libertarianism.
I think Bush has pushed it too far toward social conservatism. I also think that Reagan basically believed that the problem is government and the essence of conservatism is about reducing the size of government. I think Bush is more inclined to believe that government can be part of the solution so long as it is government in the hands of conservatives, rather than government in the hands of liberals, and I think that is a very dangerous belief.
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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald