Are we a conservative nation? Does it matter?
The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy, by David Brock, New York: Crown Publishers, 420 pages, $25.95
The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, New York: Penguin Press, 450 pages, $25.95
The polls as I write make it a mug's game to bet on the outcome of the presidential election. But the decision of the Americans who bother to vote this year is, to hear some tell it, a referendum on the direction of America. A victory for Bush, in the eyes of many supporters and opponents, would lock in a right-wing counterrevolution against the New Deal and Great Society values that have defined America for the last half-century.
Two new books promise enlightening looks at this supposedly dominant conservative establishment. David Brock, an apostate right-wing bomb thrower, looks primarily at that establishment's effect on news and opinion media in The Republican Noise Machine: Right-Wing Media and How It Corrupts Democracy. Brock is still more attack dog than thinker, so his book provides only a smattering of understanding—but plenty of opportunities to slake partisan bloodlust. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, respectively U.S. editor and Washington correspondent for The Economist, try to chronicle and comprehend America's right wing, not merely deride and defeat it, in The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America.
Taken together, these two books demonstrate, with both their faults and their virtues, that obsessing about a right-wing/not-right-wing divide misses much of what's most interesting about the contemporary American conversation. It also obscures what's really important about America's present and future.
Brock's book is a headache. There's nothing wrong in principle with hundreds of pages of hateful invective, but The Republican Noise Machine has the added detriment of being humorless. Brock has never learned to be anything other than a partisan smear artist; he has merely switched sides. He appears to have no real interest in, or insight into, ideology or policy. All he knows is that he has evil people in his sights and it's time to attack, bludgeons flailing, wit and balance and perspective held in abeyance.
Brock is alarmed and incensed that in the past 20 years people have gained access to new tools for influencing the national political conversation: talk radio, a variety of cable news and opinion channels, the Internet. He correctly notes that many of the people using these tools are Republican partisans, spreading analysis and opinion that succor the GOP.
In Brock's telling, the cloud that darkened the sunlit realm of sweet reason that was America's press first appeared with the launching, via Edith Efron's not-widely-remembered 1971 book The News Twisters, of a deliberate and organized three-decade-long conservative march. The right-wing legions include the Murdoch media empire, think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, talk show hosts from Morton Downey (the mostly forgotten '80s TV loudmouth, who blitzkrieged himself in a faked Nazi assault, gets a whole chapter) to Chris Matthews, and TV journalists like the libertarian John Stossel of ABC News.
Brock sees the political conflict in contemporary America starkly: mainstream facts vs. right-wing lies. Consider his throwaway assertion that "when Senator Daschle made the factual statement that 'failed' diplomacy has led to war with Iraq, right-wing media accused him of siding with Saddam Hussein." Anyone who sees something uncontroversially "factual" in statements like that cannot be trusted to cut through the "noise" of contemporary political debate.
Judging the correctness of Daschle's claim requires assessing a range of facts, contested values, and even guesses about theoretically verifiable facts that for practical reasons cannot be ascertained. Daschle is drawing a conclusion that involves a subtle balancing of sometimes opposing values such as diplomacy and safety, assessments of the Hussein regime's trustworthiness, and value judgments about when it is appropriate to use American might. His statement is no more plainly and simply factual than the assertion that "George Bush's desire for world domination led to war with Iraq" or that "the evil of the Iraqi regime led to war with Iraq."
Brock's often stated, never demonstrated belief that only those he calls "right-wing" privilege ideology and values, while the "mainstream" stands foursquare for truth and fairness, is the only flash of humor in this tedious slog. He refuses to acknowledge the quiet biases that can influence thinkers and writers—those often-unarticulated standards of what ideas are respectable and how things ought to be. This failure makes Brock's book merely an angry, frightened spray of obfuscating ink in the waters of media culture. Anyone who doesn't recognize the subtle (and often not subtle) biases that set most mainstream media outlets of the 1970s and '80s against the opinions and values of a certain set of Americans can't understand why Rush Limbaugh and Fox News succeeded so quickly with such large audiences.
But Brock doesn't really want to understand. He's too busy redbaiting Barry Goldwater and Irving Kristol. Both men, you see, used tactics to spread their conservative ideas that were also used by Communists—in Kristol's case, such Bolshie trickery as "putting forth an endless series of journals, op-ed manifestos, position papers, public letters, and magazines."
To demonstrate the mainstream media's lack of bias, Brock notes that a nonpartisan journalism project found the most common theme in coverage of George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign was "positive"—to wit, that he is a "different kind of Republican." Which is to say that being a normal kind of Republican is negative. Brock seems blithely unaware of what a giveaway that example is.
The best illustration of Brock's technique, though, is this gem: Discussing the cussing the success of right-wing books these days (after an age in which, "like followers of occultism, conservatives established their own bookstores and book clubs because existing stores did not stock their works"), Brock notes—purely factually, mind you—that "in its day, Mein Kampf was a best-seller."
By contrast, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are genuinely interested in explaining how and why conservatism has come to dominate America, and why that makes it unique among Western nations. Unsurprisingly, given their pedigree as correspondents for a European magazine, the book has a bit of a Eurocentric feel, as the authors set out to explain these curious right-wingers to the normal folk of the West. But their book is valuable for purposes other than the sour pleasure of hating your enemies.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge define American conservatism, in common with the traditional British conservatism of Edmund Burke, as a combination of patriotism, suspicion of state power, and preference for liberty over equality. But unlike Burkean conservatism, they posit, American conservatism (mostly) eschews elitism, skepticism about progress, and belief in established institutions and hierarchies. In more historically specific terms, since arising as a self-conscious movement in the 1950s American conservatism has been an uneasy blend of libertarianism, moral traditionalism, and anti-communism. That last element is obsolete, but anti-Islamism is a plausible substitute.
American and European government styles could be seen as converging in the regulatory welfare state. But Micklethwait and Wooldridge note how conservative America still seems to most Europeans, with our lack of completely nationalized health care and our support for gun rights, the death penalty, and tough criminal sentences. And unlike the traditional European right, America's right is far more values-based than class-based; voting GOP corresponds much more closely with church attendance than with social standing.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge acknowledge, but do not give adequate attention to, two points that cast doubt on the significance of conservative power in America. First, the conservative ascendancy in American government is remarkably fragile. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, and (as the authors note) if merely 94,000 votes had been cast differently nationwide in 2002, a Democratic majority would control both houses of Congress.
Second, the conservative ascendancy has been a mostly failed rearguard action against the continued momentum of the big government and socially fluid liberalism of the 1930s to '70s. Even after Reagan and Newt Gingrich, government on all levels is bigger and more intrusive than ever, taxing and spending and regulating more than the movement's political father, Barry Goldwater, could have imagined in his worst 1964 nightmares. When it comes to moral traditionalism, waves of permissiveness (or liberation, depending on your perspective) regarding marriage, sex, drugs, and popular culture have made 1950s-style traditionalists relics of an era that might as well be 500 years ago rather than 50.
All this makes it hard to argue that there has been any real conservative victory in America. Micklethwait and Wooldridge themselves note, in their introduction, "that the conservative movement's two main crusades—against big government and moral decay—have so far been more successful as rallying cries than as policies." Perhaps the only real victory of the conservative movement has been to provide ideological activists and publicists with a decent living as fighters against an ever-growing Leviathan and an allegedly ever-decaying culture.
Declaring that any contemporary alignments of party or ideology in America will rule the future is foolhardy. The fortunes of the big parties can shift precipitously. In 1964 only 25 percent of voters identified themselves as Republicans. Four years later Richard Nixon was elected president. Both parties are likely to continue to be resilient players, "Right Nation" or no.
Still, conservatism certainly has been significant to modern American political culture, even if only as a rallying point, whether in the polling booth or around a radio broadcasting Limbaugh. This is despite the fact that a sober analysis of conservatism's policy effectiveness would indicate that devotees of traditional values would do better, say, homeschooling their children than supporting the GOP. Devotees of limited government, for their part, would be better off trying to live as free a life as they can around government strictures, or casting protest votes for the Libertarian Party, than burning their energy as enthusiastic Republican partisans.
It's possible that many conservatives are making such a retreat from the electoral politics that dominate Micklethwait and Wooldridge's book. The authors say America has been a "50-50 Nation" since 1988, with the two main parties taking turns at the levers of state power; Democrat Clinton furthers more traditional Republican goals (welfare reform, deficit reduction, free trade) than Democratic ones, and the wild libertarian Republicanism of the Gingrich revolution is quickly reined in. But the real "50-50" division in American life is between the approximately 50 percent of eligible voters who bother to participate in the Democrat-Republican sports contests these days and the rest of us.
The story of how Americans live their own lives outside state control is the most interesting aspect of our national life that Micklethwait and Wooldridge touch on, with their brief discussions of phenomena such as proprietary communities and homeschooling. Also revealing is their take on what lifestyles lend themselves to support for different politicians. They provide a clever visitor's guide to the differences in community life between House GOP leader Dennis Hastert's Illinois district and the California district of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Hastertland is a place of unrestrained suburban growth, of private property ownership on large tracts for families with children, of megamalls and low crime. Pelosiville is a community consisting mostly of single renters walking down urban streets lined with beggars, an "edgy" mix of "blue bloods and gays, dot com millionaires and aging hippies."
One of the glories of this great nation is that we have this kind of choice to make.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge mostly tell the story of the purely political part of the Right Nation's saga, and they do so perceptively and entertainingly. They use the attitudes and careers of the Bush family as a synecdoche for changes in the Republican Party during the last century. This leads to a delightful tribute to Reason's own Jacob Sullum (and a telling example of the distinctions between pure libertarians and the GOP): "Old Prescott Bush would have felt at home in the Brookings Institution or the Council on Foreign Relations; if he woke up in a Cato seminar on 'Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use' (the title of a talk by Jacob Sullum…) he might feel like informing the police."
Despite the rise of what calls itself conservatism, America is still much more a centrist-liberal nation than a "right" one. The New Deal, most of the Great Society, and all the regulatory apparatus from both parties since then are still largely intact, if not growing. Sure, there were cuts in marginal income tax rates under Reagan and welfare reform under Clinton. But George W. Bush has given us a $500 billion Medicare expansion, $180 billion in fresh agribusiness subsidies over the next decade, and expansions in government power and spending of all varieties. If the Right Nation is supposed to stand on three legs, the libertarian one has been lopped off.
American centrism is always willing to embrace one more government program, as long as marginal income tax rates aren't raised too much in the short term. Thus, American government as it stands is heading toward an inevitable collapse of entitlement programs and a concomitant crisis of confidence that may finally deliver a serious libertarianism in American politics, from necessity if not ideology. (It may also lead to something far worse.)
But what makes America a truly significant country, for Micklethwait and Wooldridge's curious and concerned European audience, probably won't have much to do with whoever wins the election this year—whether it be a continuation of Republican dominance or a Kerry relaunch of whatever tendency he is supposed to stand for. (He swears it isn't liberalism—and that is one indication that the Right Nation has at least affected the way voting Americans think of themselves, if not the way they are governed.) American exceptionalism and influence have more to do with the giants of American life as it is actually lived, from Bill Gates to Sam Walton to private spaceflight entrepreneur Burt Rutan to venture capitalists and biotech scientists whose names neither readers of The New York Times nor viewers of Fox News would ever encounter. The real action in American culture, and its impact on the world, is there, in business and science and technology and ways of living—not in party politics and ideology.
Especially in this election year, it's vital to keep that point in mind. Emphasizing it more would have helped Micklethwait and Wooldridge's readers understand what America, mysterious and large and contradictory as it seems, is really all about. And it would help keep the likes of David Brock, and the hysterical partisans on all sides who relish the sports-team political warfare that is his bread and butter, from being quite so serious about their essentially unserious pursuits.