The American right is a coalition of millionaires and trailer park dwellers stitched together by cultural anger. It is ascendant but not invincibleby / October 23, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
The last four years have provided endless ammunition for those who believe that Europe and America are irrevocably drifting apart. The 2003 Pew world values survey found big divisions between traditional America and postmodern Europe, especially on the family, religion and patriotism.
George W Bush, and 9/11, have certainly helped to shift the US’s political centre of gravity further to the right, but two important new books reveal a more complex background. They argue that the shift has involved not just cashing in on America’s inexorable conservatism, but outsmarting the opposition. They also present the American right as a fractious governing coalition in the ascendancy, but in danger of breaking apart.
The Right Nation: Why America is Different by two British journalists from the Economist, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, argues that 50 years ago, “America lacked a real conservative ideology, let alone a cohesive Right Nation.” What changed? The book answers this question first by tracing American conservatism through the Bush dynasty. Grandfather Prescott, a patrician east-coast Wasp and moderate Republican, supported tax rises, family planning and the minimum wage. Father George HW was born into privilege, but moved south to seek his fortune in oil. Conservative Texans saw him as “the sort of man who steps out of the shower to take a piss,” but most agreed with Nixon’s description of him as “different from those usual Ivy League bastards.” His eldest son George W, in turn, was an authentic sunshine belt conservative. His conservatism was comfortable in Reagan’s footsteps, with beliefs grounded in “business, religion and Texas.”
Just as the Bushes journeyed from Kennebunk-port to Crawford, so did America. The Right Nation explains the three forces – demography, organisation and intellectuals – that have pushed the country to the right over the past 40 years. That first is a familiar tale, beginning with Lyndon John-son’s accurate lament that in signing the Civil Rights Act he was signing away the south for 50 years. As a consequence, the Republicans swapped the industrial belt and liberal coastal elites for the sunshine states and conservative south. This turned out to be much the better demographic deal. It has helped deliver them six of the last nine presidential elections, and growing majorities in almost every other area of government.
Contrary to the image of a united right, however, the authors describe the factionalism of modern American conservatism. George W Bush is portrayed less as an all-powerful commander and more as a medieval monarch in charge of a fractious army. Two baronies dominate Dubya’s magic kingdom: the small-government people and the social conservatives. And it is the tension between them, what Micklethwait and Wooldridge call the “contradiction between trying to be the party of both the free market and heartland,” that is the subject of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with America? The Resistible Rise of the American Right. As the two British observers are dispassionate, so Frank is partisan. His is a brilliant, biased, often hilarious and sometimes tragic analysis from a wounded liberal struggling to comprehend how his side lost.
Frank is the editor of The Baffler, a literary magazine. It is an appropriate title. His book – part analysis, part confessional – is a study in bafflement at working-class America in general and his home state in particular. Frank was a young Kansan Republican, a believer in muscular individualism and personal responsibility. He turned to the left while his contemporaries were swept up in the great conservative backlash. “Strip today’s Kansans of their job security,” Frank argues, “and they head out to become registered Republicans. Push them off their land and… they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics… Kansas looks its problems straight in the eye, rolls up its sleeves, and charges off in exactly the wrong direction.”
Why do working Americans show their fury with Wall Street elites by electing tax-cutting Republicans? Frank is a conspiracy theorist and he sees a cunning plan, craftily executed. Right-wing intellectuals, he thinks, begin by drawing a false contrast between the “unpretentious millions of authentic Americans” and the effete “bookish all-powerful liberals.” This divide is deepened by gays, guns, God, abortion and family values. A cadre of pundits stokes middle America’s anger on talk radio and Fox News, all as part of a crusade in which “material interests are suspended in favour of vague cultural grievances.” A coalition of “millionaires and trailer park dwellers” – the “two clashing halves of the conservative mind” – is stitched together by cultural anger.
The right, Frank believes, has deliberately failed to achieve any of its core objectives: Hollywood movies are coarser; homosexuals are more accepted; abortion is no less common. Yet the leaders of the backlash continue “to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible” because it is the only way to reconcile the interests of the rich and the angry. The backlash barons create “a cultural class war by denying the economic basis of social class.” The result is “a French revolution in reverse – in which the sans culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy.”
Both books reach the same conclusion. The American right has been ascendant for 30 years, and despite its factionalism is likely to remain so. America’s centre of political gravity will certainly remain way to the right of Europe’s. But this does not guarantee perpetual power for the Republicans. In-fighting can lead any government to squander fertile political conditions, and there are signs that the Republicans may be heading in this direction. With a coherent message and appealing candidate, the Democrats could find themselves back in power although they will have to fight for it on the right’s turf. And even if Bush does win, conservative divisions will hamper the right’s onward march. The factions of Bush’s barmy army support their man as a Republican Tony Blair, the candidate who would return them to power. Many of the factions no longer think Bush is one of them. And in this there is reason to hope that the right’s onslaught can be halted, that the bickering coalition will fall.