Some people believe that American policy has been hijacked by right-wing extremists from Texas, but the truth is that regardless of who is in power, America has evolved in the last 50 years into a distinctly conservative nation, said Adrian Wooldridge, co-author of The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America. While the country may have a conservative slant to it, that has nothing to do with who runs the government. Wooldridge spoke about American conservatism along with co-author John Micklethwait at a June 2 book forum hosted by the Cato Institute. Both currently work for The Economist and have previously written books together. James P. Pinkerton, a columnist for Newsday, also commented on the book.
Clearly not all Americans are conservative, Wooldridge said, but America as a whole has moved to the right in recent years. In the 1950s and the 1960s, very few people identified themselves as conservative. In 1964, John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist and author, said: “These without doubt are the years of the liberal. Almost everyone now so describes himself.” Today, however, Wooldridge said, 41 percent of Americans identify themselves as conservative while only 19 percent view themselves as liberal.
Conservatives, Wooldridge explained, have most of the new ideas for public policy, and the momentum. This does not necessarily translate into winning an election, he said, but it does mean that the conservative voice will be heard regardless of who is in office.
“Even if Kerry were to get elected, he would still find himself very bracketed by the Right Nation,” Pinkerton said. Kerry’s actions would be limited by the conservative mood of the nation.
“What we’ve seen is the death of liberal government and the emergence of conservative government,” Micklethwait said.
America has moved to the right in recent years, Wooldridge said, and established itself as a country far more conservative than other nations. Even when compared to the citizens of Great Britain, America’s closest ally, Americans are markedly more conservative on a variety of political, moral, and social issues. For example, only 17 percent of the British are against legalized abortion while 46 percent of Americans oppose it.
The conservative nature of today’s United States has its roots in a history and tradition quite different from that of Great Britain and most of Europe, Micklethwait said. To begin with, America is more skeptical of the power of the state, he said. The conservative majority that he says exists believes that power should rest with the individual and be handed upward to the lowest possible level of government, while the majority of Brits subscribe to the idea that power begins at the top and is handed down through the ranks.
Furthermore, about 60 percent of Americans believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their goals, Wooldridge pointed out. About 60 percent of the British, however, believe the role of government should be to guarantee that no one is in need.
America is also markedly more religious than Great Britain and other European nations, Micklethwait said. The disestablishment clause of the Constitution keeps the government from interfering with the free exercise of religion, allowing Americans to worship in any way they choose and helping to maintain religion in America.
This survival of religion is part of the reason America has a higher gross domestic product than European nations, Wooldridge argued. Part of the reason the GDP has grown in recent years is America’s work ethic, and because Americans are working more and more hours. In contrast, European countries such as Germany have seen a decline in the average number of hours people spend at work. “Survival of religion goes hand in hand with survival of work ethic,” Wooldridge said.
Another marker of American conservatism is its history of capitalism, Micklethwait said.
“America has never had a socialist movement in the way that all other major developed countries have,” he said. European countries have institutions that have emerged as a result of socialist ideologies, but America has remained more capitalistic, and, therefore, more conservative.
People from nations such as Great Britain often have a hard time understanding America’s conservative nature. One reason for this is that when Europeans come to the United States, they tend to visit places like Los Angeles or New York City, rarely venturing inland to get a glimpse of the heartland states that support Bush and sustain conservatism, Wooldridge said. American conservatism helps to set America apart, he said, and partially helps to explain why there is such a gulf between America and its allies. Nowhere else in the world can one find a conservative movement like the one in America.
“The conservative movement is an embodiment, often, of what makes America different?American exceptionalism,” Wooldridge said.