George Bush and John Kerry can be forgiven if their campaigns seem a bit unfocused of late. After all, no one seems able to agree even on where the electorate's sympathies lie. Some see a disaffection with the administration over its Iraq misadventure and for neglecting kitchen-table concerns. Others see a 50-50 nation, ideologically polarized, with a sliver of independents holding the balance. Still others perceive a newly conservative mood after Sept. 11, in which toughness will carry the day.
The public pulse is elusive partly because every piece of news we receive today is immediately hurtled into a cyclotron of spin. Party mouthpieces, line-toeing columnists, television pontificators and attitude-heavy reporters all interpret each political development so relentlessly that many citizen bystanders wind up more confused than enlightened. Instead of forming opinions based on information from the media, we have to search for needles of information in a haystack of supplied interpretation.
Several new books from leading journalists promise to help untangle the web of ideology, rhetoric and instant messaging that defines politics today. In some cases, however, their efforts to distill the public temper only add more glib judgments to the fray.
In The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America (Penguin Press, $25.95), John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, writers for the British newsmagazine the Economist, hope to use their transatlantic remove to offer perspective on the American mood. They don't seem to realize, though, that their warmed-over analyses may strike many Stateside readers as familiar and outdated.
Micklethwait and Wooldridge endorse the picture of the United States as a bastion of conservatism, especially when compared to European nations. "America tolerates lower levels of government spending than other advanced countries, and far higher levels of inequality," they note. Yankees are more punitive concerning crime, keener to use armed force and stingier in providing public benefits. We love God and guns.
To explain this anomaly, Micklethwait and Wooldridge excavate from the 1950s hoary notions about "American exceptionalism": once-fashionable theories, that for one reason or another -- its abundant land, its religious diversity, its lack of a feudal past -- the United States never experienced the socialist agitation or suffered the ideological bloodshed that roiled modern Europe. America is conservative, they suggest, because it was born that way.
Alas, the authors don't seem to know that since the 1950s, reams of scholarship have refuted, or at least rendered naive, these old chestnuts. Many historians, for example, debunked the frontier thesis that saw the West as an easy outlet for expansion; others have pointed to a robust American tradition of radicalism that gives the lie to notions of a trouble-free political evolution. Besides, if America's conservatism stems from time-honored national traits, how to explain what almost everyone in the '50s and '60s -- including the exceptionalism school -- took to be the nation's pervasive liberal character? Indeed, the authors themselves argue that the American citizenry has been lurching rightward for decades; when the authors aren't borrowing from the mid-century Tocquevillians, they're plundering the work of the new wave of historians who have proficiently chronicled the right's recent ascent. Micklethwait and Wooldridge never say whether they consider American conservatism a timeless national hallmark or a post-1960s trend.
There's another possibility, too: that America isn't as right-wing as today's conventional wisdom supposes. As Hendrik Hertzberg has reminded us with commendable regularity since November 2000, "More people voted for Vice President Gore than for Governor Bush [in 2000], and they didn't do so because Gore had the more pleasing personality."
That gem -- underscoring through subtle but trenchant implication that "liberalism"(or some variant of it) outpolled "conservatism" in the last election -- appears, along with a haul of other brilliantly wrought insights, in an indispensable new collection of Hertzberg's writings called Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004 (Penguin Press, $29.95). Throughout these 30-plus years, Hertzberg has been one of the left's most eloquent voices, mainly at the New Yorker and the New Republic magazines.
Long after we've forgotten Pat Robertson's presidential bid or John Tower's confirmation battle, these essays will bear rereading (and not just because Hertzberg's warnings about the violation of Tower's privacy, along with Gary Hart's, in 1987, presaged the frenzy of prurience that befell Washington in 1998). They're keepers because they don't just plead the case for contemporary liberalism but -- with their wit, humanity and exquisite understatement -- illustrate it.
Hertzberg jokes self-effacingly about his "boringly moderate and consistent" views, and he's not one of those pundits who try to gain readers and buzz through calculated ideological surprises, like David Brooks defying expectations to back gay marriage or Thomas Friedman supporting the Iraq war. But if Hertzberg's stands are seldom shocking, you want to read him anyway for the cleverness and elegance with which he makes his points, and for the profound reasonableness that he reminds you lies at the heart of liberalism. Who else during the 2000 campaign flap over Bob Jones University's prohibition on interracial dating had the discernment to see that liberalism had actually won a profound, irreversible victory, in that even the most conservative Republicans weren't defending the ban?
Quiet voices like Hertzberg's, alas, usually get drowned out in today's cacophonous political debates, dominated as they are by the right-wing news media -- what journalist David Brock calls The Republican Noise Machine (Crown, $25.95). A former lieutenant in the vast right-wing conspiracy, Brock traces how, since Richard Nixon's day, conservatives have worked to delegitimize the mainstream media while building their own alternative network of foundations, think tanks, newspapers, TV channels, publishing houses and the like. This media operation is one reason that, despite America's ideological equipoise, conservatism often appears to predominate. Through its coordinated use of this media machine, Brock shows, the right now routinely reframes political discussions to its own advantage.
Brock has been working of late with Democracy Radio, a group that, like the liberal network Air America, is seeking to offset the right's supremacy in the talk-show market. For years liberals have struggled to find a rabble-rousing broadcaster (first on radio, now also on cable) to counterbalance loudmouths like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews. The failure has been ascribed to a dearth of financing or a paucity of sufficiently belligerent hosts, but even some of the left's sharpest polemicists, such as Mario Cuomo and Alan Dershowitz, have tried and fallen short.
As it happens, Hertzberg weighs in on this question in another piece reprinted in Politics. "The main obstacle, probably, is neither financial nor ideological, but temperamental," he notes. By and large, liberals news junkies "wouldn't think it was fun to listen to expressions of raw contempt for conservatives -- oh, maybe for a little while now and then, just as some occasionally tune in Limbaugh to give themselves a masochistic thrill or to raise their blood pressure, but not enough to sustain an industry." Responding less to rage, bullying and simple moral edicts than to irony and felicitous argument, liberals will typically turn not to Democracy Radio but to essays like Hertzberg's.
Or, for that matter, those of E.J. Dionne Jr., a veteran Washington Post columnist. Although Dionne may lack Hertzberg's inimitable wryness, he possesses in spades other traits that also epitomize the liberal sensibility: Painstakingly fair-minded, his writings radiate an earnest resolve to ponder complex problems and reach reasoned judgments. In Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge (Simon & Schuster, $24), he too addresses the dilemma of how such progressive values as pluralism, toleration and equality can endure -- and even thrive -- while the Limbaughs crowd the dial and Fox rules cable news.
"The United States is not naturally a right-wing nation," Dionne asserts, contra Micklethwait and Wooldridge. Delving deeper than Brock's it's-the-media analysis, he sees the right-wing propaganda apparatus as just one factor in the conservatives' ascendancy. More fundamental, he observes, is the asymmetry between the two parties' political styles.
Since the 1990s, Republicans have brooked little dissent or compromise in pursuing their agenda. From the Clinton impeachment to the 2000 election recount to the post-9/11 debates over war and patriotism, Dionne says, conservatives have engaged in ferocious, unyielding and effective partisanship. They can use the media so well because they have "forged a united front" and a clarity of purpose that "does not exist in any comparable way on the center-left."
The Democrats, meanwhile, have been consistently timid and defensive, whether in legislative tussles, political street-fights like the Florida recount or the war of ideas. In the 2002 elections, most Democrats avoided taking a firm stand on whether to invade Iraq, worried that, as in the first Gulf War, they'd choose the wrong side. In 2003, they collapsed in their opposition to Bush's third straight tax giveaway to the rich.
Dionne traces this Democratic meekness back to the McCarthy era, when conservatives smeared liberals as "pink" and unmanly for their Cold War stances. In time, the "soft on communism" slur spawned a litany of like charges: Liberals were soft on crime, defense, morals -- and now terrorism. Eventually, many voters put stock in these accusations, and so did Democrats. They grew fearful of taking liberal stands, lest they seem out of touch with the electorate's putative toughness. Now, after years of muting their convictions or taking up conservative ones, Dionne concludes, "Democrats forgot how to fight back." Ironically, by failing to defend their values, they've given substance to the perception that they won't lead decisively.
The gendered rhetoric of "soft" and "tough" that Dionne adduces represents but one dimension of another conservative feat: controlling the language of politics. "It is hard to express your own beliefs," Dionne says, "if you are forced to speak in the tongue of your opponents." From the sullying of words like "government" to the justification of policies in market terms -- calling the immunization of babies, for example, "an investment in human capital" -- conservatives have tipped the public debate in their favor by shaping the vocabulary we use to wage it.
Also incisive on this topic is the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, whose journalism is compiled in Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times (PublicAffairs $18.95). Although Nunberg ranges over many kinds of words, including shrewd meditations on the teenager's "like" and the growing vogue of "Caucasian" instead of "white" -- his observations on political speech are especially valuable in revealing how words inform our understanding of issues.
For example, Nunberg sees the word "capitalism" as making a comeback, replacing the old staple "free enterprise" -- "the homey, chamber-of-commerce name" devised in the age of robber barons "to dispel the noxious images that had grown up around capitalism." ("Capitalist," however, "is still in the closet.") He ruminates on why the archaic-sounding "class warfare" can continue to perform rhetorical heavy-lifting for the right. And his essay on George W. Bush's fondness for "evil" simultaneously credits the president with wresting potency from the overwrought word while warning that his overuse of it -- five mentions in the 2002 State of the Union address, 10 in a speech the next day -- risks draining it of meaning.
Given how skillfully the right now sets the terms of political debate -- framing issues in the media, throwing Democrats on the defensive, molding the political vocabulary -- liberalism, whatever currency its principles continue to enjoy, would seem beleaguered indeed. What are the prospects for a revival?
It's possible that conservatives will overreach, as they did in 1995 after winning the House and Senate; Bush's decision to govern from the right and not the center has already alienated some moderate Republicans and independents. It's also possible that the Democrats will get the backbone transplant that Dionne prescribes. Gov. Howard Dean has proved that being liberal need not mean projecting a wimpy image, and the unexpected popularity of numerous Bush-bashing books points to a new feistiness on the left.
There's another scenario for a liberal renewal, too. Jorge Ramos, a Miami-based broadcaster on Univision, argues in The Latino Wave: How Hispanics Will Elect the Next American President (Rayo, $24.95), that the nation's rising Hispanic population is scrambling the old electoral formulas. Ramos's book isn't exactly rigorous scholarship. He states, for example, that Latino voters delivered Texas to Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1996, and that Bush's inroads with Latinos in 2000 reversed the trend; in fact, no Democratic presidential candidate has won the state since 1976, and Bush was always a shoo-in there. Still, Ramos's wide-ranging portrait of Latino politics confirms that this critical constituency, though hardly monolithic, gravitates naturally to the Democratic party -- and the White House's efforts to woo them are forcing the Democrats to address their concerns ever more assiduously.
On the other hand, no iron law of demography or history guarantees a midcourse correction. Sometimes, power begets not a backlash but more power. History can be a snowball as well as a pendulum. For now, the conservative temper that Micklethwait and Wooldridge detect in America can be safely judged an overstatement. But if the administration and its foot soldiers keep playing politics with their characteristic zeal, and if liberals continue to equivocate, this fantasy may, before long, become a reality. *
David Greenberg is the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image," the winner of the 2003 Washington Monthly book award. He teaches American history at Rutgers University.