Article published Monday, June 21, 2004, at Tech Central Station.

Are They Right?

By John R. Lott Jr.

Many Democrats won't be happy with John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's new book, "The Right Nation." While re-electing President Bush this November may not be certain, if he is, these two Brits, who write for The Economist magazine, claim it "would cement [Republicans'] lock on power" for years to come. Even if Senator John Kerry wins, his victory would slow the conservative trend, not reverse it. While the authors hedge many of their forecasts, one thing that refreshingly distinguishes it: lots of bold predictions.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge attempt to explain what they regard as our growing conservatism, why this trend is occurring, and what sets American conservatism apart from conservatism elsewhere. Their fairly balanced discussion of recent American history alone makes the book worth reading. Even those steeped in Americana will learn unusual facts about the United States from these two Brits: everything from the Texas Ranger motto ("One riot, one ranger") to Harvard being around long enough ago to offer Galileo a chaired professorship.

Yet, the central premises will not convince all American conservatives. For some, with federal government continually growing and Supreme Court decisions on everything from the "rational" basis for banning homosexuality to affirmative action, it may be hard to accept their claim that the United States is becoming more "conservative." The authors, however, take a longer-term view. They first trace U.S. political history over the last fifty years, from Eisenhower to Reagan, and now George W. Bush. The Bush family tree from Senator Prescott Bush to George W. Bush provides another case study of the movement towards conservatism.

When you look at their comparisons of the Eisenhower and George W. Bush presidencies, Micklethwait and Wooldridge do present a strong case that the country certainly looks more conservative in many important dimensions from tax rates to regulations. Micromanaging the economy and price controls (with some exceptions such as pharmaceuticals) are taken less seriously then they used to be.

Yet, the country is surely more socially liberal in other dimensions. For example, up until the late 1960s, virtually all the public high schools in New York City had a shooting team and students would each day publicly carry their guns with them to and from school each day. Even in terms of what actions are appropriate for government, there now seems to be no bounds. That was not true 50 years ago.

The quantitative measures that the authors offer for increased conservatism are the ideological interest group scores given out to congressmen based upon their voting records. Yet, these indexes tell us more about how politicians differ from each other during a particular congressional term then how politicians compare across terms. The votes used to score these indexes change from one congress to another. Even if two congresses vote on an issue the type of measure being voted on in 1999 would be something that couldn't even get out of committee in the late 1960s.

Given the changes that have occurred, Micklethwait and Wooldridge ask: why did America become more conservative? They offer many explanations such as: ideas matter; our constitution; and our religious views. On ideas, places such as the old University of Chicago and think tanks -- such as AEI to Heritage to Cato -- are given a lot of credit for changing the debate. Yet, the authors themselves note that there was surely a lot of intellectual firepower on the other side, too -- from the vast majority of academia to think tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute. It is not clear though why the conservative intellectual forces carried the field here in the US when their counterparts have failed in other countries. Nor is it obvious why this trend will continue with even the University of Chicago now dominated by those who strongly opposed the old Chicago School.

Explanations that these ideas gained currency because Republicans were in "power" or that conservatives were more focused or committed are never really satisfying. For example, were Democratic ideas in ascendancy during 1993 and 1994 or during the rest of the Clinton administration?

Similarly, take their argument that the liberal press, simply because it was so much more dominant and viewed itself as the "establishment press," found itself conflicted and felt it necessary to be critical of both sides, weakening the liberal case. Yet, surely there were also publications were as far to the left (such as the Nation) of this establishment media as the National Review is to the right, but they weren't as successful as the National Review in dragging the nation in the opposite direction.

Other arguments are more much convincing, such as our constitution as the source of much of the "conservatism." They emphasize the limits on centralized power or disproportionate weight given to rural voters in the Senate. They also argue that the constitution also weakened radical forces by simply making it difficult for them to get elected. Everything from the first-past-the-post system for selecting winners to a presidential system made it extremely difficult for third parties.

The book touches on many other issues along the way from why liberals hate Bush so much to why religion is so much more important of a part of American life than it is for Europeans to why and how American conservatives differ so much from their European counterparts. Or why privatizing of Social Security will dramatically change the political landscape.

I guess that I am much more pessimistic than the authors about the dominant future of conservatism, though I agree that the current election is crucial. But one thing is certain about this book, sometimes you learn more about your own country by seeing it through the eyes of a people from another country and Micklethwait and Wooldridge are particularly keen observers.

John Lott Jr, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is author of "More Guns, Less Crime" (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and "The Bias Against Guns" (Regnery, 2003).

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