America's postwar political history is arguably best seen as the story of the right's rise to power. Mainstream press coverage of the conservative movement often reads like the account of an anthropologist encountering some inscrutable tribe. So it's refreshing to read the comprehensive and surprisingly neutral look at the American right presented in The Right Nation (Penguin Press) by two writers for The Economist, Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait. Assistant Editor Julian Sanchez spoke with Wooldridge in May.
Q:Why do you suggest that the 2004 election could be the Democrats' "last chance"?
A:One never wants to say never, but the Democratic Party is clearly a shadow of its former self. Democrats used to outnumber Republicans by 2-to-1. Now they're about evenly balanced, which is one reason Bush is able to be a more partisan figure. This should be a golden opportunity for Democrats. If they lose against a very partisan president dealing with a recession and a considerable problem in Iraq, who arouses enormous fury on the left, they will be in very serious trouble indeed.
Q:You note that the right-wing "noise machine," as David Brock calls it, was initially modeled on the left's organization. How did liberals fall behind?
A:There's a good story [Heritage Foundation founder] Paul Weyrich tells where he goes to a meeting at Brookings and someone reads a paper demanding more government. Someone says, "Oh, I'll write about this in the Post," and a Hill staffer says, "I'll talk to my congressman about this." There was a kind of perfect harmony across these different levels. To the extent that exists now, it's on the right.
Partly it's because on some big subjects, they've been proved broadly correct: Welfare reform was hugely demonized, but it seems to have worked. Partly it's flair: If you pick up The Nation and set it next to The Weekly Standard, it's just clear that the Standard is a better-looking, more interesting magazine. There's also a huge amount of brainpower on the left that gets absorbed by academia. Universities are such inhospitable territory for conservatives that they're forced into the policy making process, into think tanks, into media.
Q:Why is the U.S. so different from, and so much more conservative than, Europe?
A:The U.S. was the first country founded as a commercial republic. So American conservatism was purely bourgeois, whereas in Europe it got tangled in the defense of feudalism and aristocracy, baggage American conservatives don't have.