Respond to this Article June 2004

Frontier Myth

The spirit of the American pioneer did not inspire modern-day conservativism.

By Michael Lind

American readers of the "Lexington" column in the British newsmagazine The Economist often have the same response to its survey of a particular U.S. state or region: Many of the details are right, but the picture as a whole is not quite recognizable. American readers of The Right Nation, by The Economist's U.S. editor John Micklethwait and its Washington correspondent, Adrian Wooldridge, may have similar reaction. Micklethait and Wooldridge are intelligent, entertaining writers, and first-rate reporters. But their analysis of both contemporary American politics and U.S. political history is as conceptually flawed as it is politically biased.

The Right Nation
by John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge
Penguin Books, $25.95

Although the authors claim that "we are not members of either of the two great political tribes that dominate the American commentariat," the truth is that they and The Economist belong to the libertarian wing of the right (and the imperial wing, too--The Economist was a cheerleader for the disastrous war in Iraq). By repeatedly attributing the political success of the Republican right to its alleged roots in America's core political traditions, the authors lend credence to Reagan Interior Secretary James Watt's 1980s claim that the real distinction is not between liberals and conservatives but between liberals and Americans.

The thesis of The Right Nation is that the present Republican ascendancy is the result, not of a temporary national political coalition and the exaggeration of the conservative minority's power by the electoral college and the Senate, but rather of deep trends in American society whose values are represented more truly by Republicans than by Democrats. The Republican Party is not a loose coalition of different groups, but the political manifestation of a "right nation"--a coherent conservative tribe which Micklethwait and Wooldridge all too often identify with America as a whole. What the European left hates about the "right nation"--religiosity, laissez-faire economics, the gun culture, foreign policy unilateralism--are precisely the features that make the United States "American," according to these two British writers.

As this summary suggests, The Right Nation is a contribution to the emerging literature which holds that American society, and not merely the electoral college, is divided into a conservative "red nation" and a liberal "blue nation" (their "right nation" is simply another word for "red nation.") In reality, the "red nation/right nation" does not exist, except on maps of electoral college voting. The Republican Party electorate today is largely a coalition of three distinct subcultures--Southern whites, Northern Catholic "ethnics," and Prairie Protestants of Yankee, German, and Scandinavian descent (Jewish and non-Jewish neoconservatives are important in the elite but not the electorate).

Micklethwait and Wooldridge do not analyze the Catholic ethnics or the Prairie Protestants, without whose votes the Republican Party would be a minority coalition representing only the former Confederate states. They recognize the Southern influence on the right, but tend to treat the South's synthesis of God, guns, and free trade as though it were a variant of a common national conservative tradition. But if the base of the right were Catholic ethnics in the Northeast and Midwest, American conservatism would resemble European Christian democracy, combining social conservatism with support for a strong and paternalistic welfare state. And if conservatism were defined by Prairie Protestants, it would be a synthesis of fiscal restraint and social liberalism. (By the same token, there is no "blue" or "left nation" either; the groups that make up the Democratic Party's electoral coalition share little in common other than a desire to elect Democrats.)

In addition to perpetuating the red/blue fallacy, Micklethwait and Wooldridge repeat the conventional wisdom about the divide between America (religious, gun-loving, libertarian) and Europe (secular, pacifist, statist). The real division, however, is not between the United States and Europe, but between the more individualistic English-speaking nations as a whole (sometimes called the Anglosphere) and the more statist societies of continental Europe. Once the South is factored out, the United States looks much more like Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Like many foreign (and East Coast) observers, Micklethwait and Wooldridge can't distinguish the Yankee-Germanic West from the Anglo-Celtic South (which includes Texas, more a Southern than a Western state). They erroneously attribute America's fundamentalist religiosity and gun culture to its historic frontier experience: "Yet many of the rootless people of the new frontier combined this reinvention with a fierce thirst for the solace of religion….Meanwhile, the frontier also inured Americans to violence. Guns were essential to people who were taming a wild frontier." But the Southern right finds its closest allies on social issues not among heartland Lutherans but among urban Catholics. And the gun culture is alien to Prairie Protestants, whose social values, according to recent surveys of "civic culture," remain close to those of the Midwest and New England--even if they do vote for Republicans nowadays.

The truth is that the fervent Protestantism and the penchant for violence of the Bible Belt South are not responses to the American frontier environment. These traits are ethnic inheritances that the Scots-Irish brought with them from Northern Ireland in the 18th century and took with them as they moved from the Appalachians to the Ozarks to finally, Southern California in the 1930s as "Okies." The historian David Hackett Fischer, the journalist Kevin Phillips, and others, including myself, have written at length about this topic, so Micklethwait and Wooldridge have no excuse for recycling the discredited "frontier" thesis at this late date. Indeed, as Britons they should recognize the close religious and cultural affinities between the Scots-Irish American South and Ulster.

The Right Nation is just as misleading when it comes to the history of liberalism and conservatism. Today's liberalism is treated as a continuation of the liberalism of FDR and LBJ; thus, the authors entitle one chapter "The Melancholy Long Withdrawing Roar of Liberalism." By the same token, they treat today's conservatism as an outgrowth of the Goldwater-Buckley conservatism of the 1960s. In doing so, they follow the conventional wisdom--but that is no excuse. The truth is that the post-60s Civil Rights Democrats--essentially a coalition of left-liberal blacks, Jews, northern Protestants, and Latinos--were a new, different party, not a later stage of the New Deal Democrats whose coalition included Southern segregationists and Catholic social conservatives. By the same token, today's Republicans are dominated by former Southern Democrats or "Dixiecrats." The electoral maps appended at the front of the book, which show the two parties switching their regional bases, are labeled "The Changing Geography of the Right Nation." This label makes sense only if one equates "liberal" with Democrat and "conservative" with Republican. But the South has simply exchanged right-wing Democrats for right-wing Republicans.

"If our story has been one of conservative success, it has also been one of liberal failure," Micklethwait and Wooldridge write. Really? Liberals in the New Deal tradition have been defeated in their attempts to create universal health-care coverage, a goal since the 1930s. But the far more numerous defeats of the right have forced conservatives to abandon their goals and crawl toward the center. In the Cold War, Reagan dropped the right's "rollback" policy and adopted the liberal containment strategy. The Republican right has not only abandoned its opposition to Medicare but has also extended its scope and cost. A Republican Supreme Court has struck down sodomy laws and upheld affirmative action. Plans for partial privatization of Social Security are compatible with that program's purpose; indeed, President Clinton almost proposed the idea. Government policies encouraging widespread single-family home ownership and suburbanization, which Micklethwait and Wooldridge identify with conservatism and the frontier (again, the damned frontier!) are examples of successful New Deal social engineering.

Unable to repeal any major New Deal/Great Society/Civil Rights program, and lacking anything beyond trivial policy initiatives (like faith-based welfare), the Republican right has focused on making the tax system that funds the Rooseveltian state more regressive--a bad policy, but hardly a conservative counter-revolution. Micklethwait and Wooldridge concede: "It is worth admitting 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." The profound failure of the conservative counter-revolution against the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Civil Rights revolution proves the enduring power of the center in American politics. If Micklethwait and Wooldridge had written a book about how centrists have frustrated both conservatives and the left and had titled it The Central Nation, they would have broken with the conventional wisdom. But they would have been right.

Michael Lind, the Whitehead senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: The Southern Takeover of American Politics.


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