The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America

In This Review

The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America

By John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
Penguin Press, 2004
400 pp. $25.95
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Micklethwait and Wooldridge, respectively the U.S. editor and Washington correspondent of The Economist, have written an original, probing, and engaging examination of conservative politics in America. Their book offers more than a survey of the rise of Ronald Reagan or the policies of George W. Bush--although it contains much of that. Instead, The Right Nation is part social analysis, part history of ideas that examines how conservative ideology became such a defining feature of American life. Like Edmund Burke before them, the authors argue that America has always been a "fundamentally conservative nation" whose revolution, unlike the one in France, was about the limitations on government power. But since World War II, conservative ideology has become a reactive and, more recently, preemptive force that has shunted liberalism to the sidelines. Indeed, the authors argue that today's liberalism, in the hands of Bill Clinton or John Kerry, is merely a pale, centrist echo of conservative thought.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge never show their own political cards. But they clearly take conservative ideas seriously, and they examine both the popular appeal and the intellectual weaknesses of those ideas, from Russell Kirk's to Paul Wolfowitz's. Conservatism in the United States, they conclude, is another example of American exceptionalism. With its think tanks, intellectual quarterlies, mega-churches, policy entrepreneurs, and factional rivalry, the American conservative movement has no parallel in the conservative parties of Europe. On this point, it is hard to miss the wistful tone of these trenchant British observers.