Monday, October 19, 2009

The Right Nation

The Right Nation: Why America is Different by two journalists from The Economist is all about underlying structures. It is also the best book I have read on conservatism in the US. The authors don’t sneer, they don’t condescend, they can think and write about right-of-centre politics in terms other than as moral and intellectual pathology. If one genuinely wants to understand underlying structures in American politics, and why the US is different, this is the book to read.

The authors start with the history, showing how the rise of modern US conservatism grew out of the triumph of American liberalism. This is a point many miss; that (US) liberalism was in a profoundly dominant position which it lost partly because its policies were too often seen to fail and partly because it got too detached from the concerns and perspectives of too many Americans. They then turn to various streams that fed into contemporary conservatism, try to tease out the direction things are heading and examine Ameican exceptionalism, finishing with a chapter about living with the Right Nation.

The authors consider how conservatism could overreach, a normal problem of any successful political movement. Indeed, as I read it, I came to suspect they underrated the capacity for US liberalism and the Democrats to regenerate in a new form (as has happened). The scandal thread that runs from Watergate to the torture controversies show conservatives succumbing to narcissistic worship of their own noble intentions. US conservatives are clearly not immune to their beliefs blocking understanding of awkward bits of reality.

The authors are comfortable with the idea that the US has a particular history that lead to the rise of particular politics – which extends across the political spectrum. Too often, progressivist commentators see their own politics as “real” politics and anything else as aberration (hence all the nonsense about there being “no Left” in the US, or US politics being somehow “Mickey Mouse” and a parody of the real thing). The authors avoid another form of wishful thinking – that US power will wane and do so quickly. The authors point out that the US is 30% of world GDP, 40% of world R&D spending and the only major developed nation with a young and growing population (Pp390-1).

If one wants one’s prejudices confirmed about evil the US, US politics and particularly US conservative politics are, this is not the book to read. If one wants to be informed and understand, it certainly is.

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