The Right Stuff

Two books analysed the US presidential election outcome before it happened

Listener: 18 December, 2004

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

Politically, Americans are not like the rest of us. Personally, they have been as courteous and hospitable to me visiting them as a Fulbright New Zealand scholar, as I expect New Zealanders to be to American visitors. But their re-election of George W Bush illustrates the underlying political differences, for, in some ways, challenger John Kerry was to the right of, say, our National Party, while the US Congress became dominated by the Right in 1994.

A couple of books published before the US election, but presaging its outcome, explain some of the reasons. The Right Nation, by Brits John Micklewhite and Adrian Wooldridge, who write for the (London) Economist in the US, identify four key differences between the US and Europe (and implicitly New Zealand). First, the US has a vigorous network of right-wing, privately funded think-tanks providing intellectual leadership.

Second, Americans are more individualistic. Two-thirds of Americans reject the notion that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces out of our control”, whereas the European rate is less than half. Practically, Americans look for individual solutions to public problems, where most other rich nations contemplate collectivist ones. Yet, although their rhetoric is anti-government, US practice is often the opposite. The states that voted for Bush in 2000 received government transfers of around $US90b a year from the states that voted for Al Gore; Bush increased government spending far more than his Democrat predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Third, Americans are more patriotic. Eight out of 10 say they are proud of their country, and six out of 10 Americans say their culture is superior to other cultures, about double the European rate.

Perhaps most fundamental is America’s religiosity. Two out of five go to church at least once a week; six in ten say that religion plays a “very important” role in their lives, more than double the European figures; 39 percent describe themselves as “born-again Christians”. Micklewhite and Wooldridge argue that America’s heritage as the first secular state meant its churches had to entrepreneurially recruit members rather than rely on the inertia of an established church. (That cannot be totally true, for it has not happened to the same extent in New Zealand.)

What’s the Matter with Kansas?, by Thomas Franks, puzzles over why working people in the US heartland vote against their class (ie, economic) interest, since the Republicans’ tax cuts benefit the very rich. Franks, best known for his One Market Under God, sees the poorer voting on a “values” basis, without understanding that eventually tax cuts will have to be paid for by everyone, not least the poor – presumably in inferior government services.

Both books describe how Bush’s Republican Party has been captured by the Christian right at the expense of its traditional moderates. To this unholy tension add neo-conservatives, who promote patriotism and individualism, and business, which promotes business interests. The coalition is kept together by a first-past-the-post/winner-takes-all electoral system, and a glossing over of the hard issues that face the US: the Middle East, fast-rising government debt, looming resource depletion, a failing health system, a deeply divided nation …

There are some fascinating American right-wing thinkers (including economists), but, more often, the Right’s public rhetoric consists of clichés inconsistent with known facts, Even so, American politics is so important to the future of the world, that this column will be returning to these themes. In the interim, I was struck, while visiting the John F Kennedy Library in Boston, by how different American politics was 40 years ago when it espoused values of a collective underpinning of individual effort, expanded the role of the state where the market had manifestly failed, and committed itself to significant international involvement with humility.

The library’s walk-through exhibit of Kennedy’s life begins with his saying, “For the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinions without the discomfort of thought. Mythology distracts us everywhere – in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic affairs.”