June 14, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of excerpts from The Right Nation, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.
Sitting on a sofa with their plastic cups of coffee, Dustin and Maura look like a couple of twenty-somethings in a creative writing course: a sprawl of slightly scruffy sweatshirts, jeans and sneakers, Dustin in a baseball cap, Maura with her blond hair tied behind her head with a Native-American band. They both recently graduated from liberal-arts colleges on the East Coast, and they have traveled around most of Europe. Maura has worked for Habitat for Humanity in Malawi and done a spell at the European Parliament, and is about to start a job at a pharmaceuticals firm; Dustin interned at the White House, and is thinking about politics.
And those politics? Both are working for the Republican Party in Colorado Springs in 2002. Both are prolife "under any circumstances." Both immediately volunteer John Ashcroft, the fire-breathing attorney general, as someone they admire. Both support capital punishment and oppose gun control ("At college, people were like 'Why does anybody need guns?' and I was like 'Have you ever been to a ranch?'"). Both go to church every week. Both passionately support school vouchers. Both think government should be smaller and prison sentences tougher. Both regard the United Nations as a bit of a joke and support the decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. They dissent from the Right on some things they dislike any intolerance toward gays, for example, and they were initially nervous about dealing with Saddam Hussein unilaterally, though they both eventually supported George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq (Maura's fiancÚ, Jack, was among the troops). For Dustin and Maura, conservatism is a progressive creed. It is not about old people trying to cling to things, but about young people trying to change them. And that, they insist, is what America is all about too.
Few people in Colorado Springs would dispute that assertion. Nestled under Pike's Peak, the mountain that inspired "America the Beautiful," Colorado Springs is now one of America's most successful cities the home of "Silicon Mountain" and much of the U.S. Olympics bureaucracy. It is also one of America's most conservative cities. Almost all the local politicians are Republicans; more Libertarians than Democrats ran for the local state assembly in 2002.
Colorado Springs has long had a military connection, and it remains a favorite place for old soldiers to retire. But in the past two decades, the town has added two rather more Evangelical strands of conservatism. First, it has spawned a tax-cutting movement, which in 1992 pushed through a Taxpayers' Bill of Rights that bans Colorado's politicians from increasing any tax without first getting the electorate's permission. Second, in 1991, the town's leaders, battling with a recession that had left it the "repossession capital of America," used $5 million worth of incentives to lure Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry founded by Jim Dobson, from California. There are now one hundred or so other Christian organizations in the town. As a charity, Focus, which employs 1,700 locals, is prohibited from direct involvement in party politics, but it is enormously influential in Republican circles. Each week, 8 million Americans tune in to broadcasts by Dobson, a former professor of child psychiatry who has also written a succession of best-selling books on Christian parenting. It is now de rigueur for Republican presidential candidates to make a pilgrimage to the Focus campus.
More liberal-minded Americans prefer to dismiss people like Dustin and Maura, and places like Colorado Springs, as belonging to the extreme fringe. So do Europeans, who are accustomed to visiting Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco. In fact, however, at least one in three Americans supports all the principles that Dustin and Maura believe in, and in many cases, such as the death penalty, taxes and tough sentences, Dustin and Maura stand firmly with the majority. Twice as many Americans describe themselves as "conservative" (41 percent) as describe themselves as "liberal" (19 percent). Wander around America particularly Southern and Western America and you'll find plenty of towns that feel like Colorado Springs. As Republicans never stop pointing out, the counties that voted for George W. Bush take up far more of the map than the ones that voted for Al Gore.
These places help to explain modern America. They explain why George W. Bush is in the White House, why the Republican Party has won six of the past nine presidential elections and controls both houses of Congress, why every serious Democratic candidate for president supports mandatory sentencing and welfare reform, why the cultural capitals of Hollywood and Manhattan remain the exception and why the much disdained "flyover" land that lies between them is the rule.
This is not to say that America is on the verge of becoming a giant version of Colorado Springs. Politics is something of a tug of war, and there are millions of Americans trying to pull the country in exactly the opposite direction: witness the enormous groundswell of support on the Left for Howard Dean's presidential campaign. Maura, who now lives in Boulder, Colorado's most liberal town, spends a lot of her time arguing with friends about Iraq. America is more polarized than it has been for decades. Yet there is no doubt which pole is exerting the most force. The Right has been winning the tug of war and forcing its opponents in the Democratic Party to make compromises. All sorts of Bush haters not just in liberal America but in Old Europe might imagine that a Bush defeat in November 2004 would bring their nightmare to an end. But a Democratic president would still have to deal not just with the Republicans in Congress but with Colorado Springs, with Focus on the Family, with Dustin and Maura with the huge part of America we call the Right Nation.
Indeed, places such as Colorado Springs help explain why America is so different from other rich countries. Look at most of the controversies that divide global opinion, and the United States comes down on the conservative side. America tolerates lower levels of government spending than other advanced countries, and far higher levels of inequality, at least in terms of wealth. One in six American households earned less than 35 percent of the median income in 2002; in Britain, one of Europe's more unequal countries, the proportion of similarly disadvantaged households is closer to one in twenty. America is the only developed nation that does not have a full government-supported health-care system, and the only Western democracy that does not provide child support to all families. America is one of only two countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development that does not provide paid maternity leave and the other country, Australia, is actively considering introducing it.
America upholds the right to bear arms, the death penalty and strict sentencing laws: its imprisonment rate is five times that of Britain, the toughest sentencer in Europe. The United States is much more willing to contemplate the use of force in human affairs, even unilaterally, and much more wary of treaties than its allies. American citizens are far more religious than are European citizens, and far more traditional in their moral values. The United States is one of the few rich countries where abortion is a galvanizing political issue, and perhaps the only one where half the families regularly say grace before meals. It has taken a far tougher line on stem-cell research than almost any other country. Some of these positions are "Republican," but most of them enjoy broad-based support. Even taking into account Dean and all those liberals, America's center of gravity is to the right of Europe's.
John Micklethwait is the U.S. editor of the Economist and Adrian Wooldridge is its Washington correspondent.