‘My God was bigger than his’

Colin Kidd

  • The Right Nation: Why America Is Different by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
    Allen Lane, 450 pp, £14.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9738 9
  • Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet by James Mann
    Penguin, 448 pp, US $16.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 14 303489 8
  • Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image by David Greenberg
    Norton, 496 pp, £9.99, November 2004, ISBN 0 393 32616 0
  • America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism by Anatol Lieven
    HarperCollins, 274 pp, £18.99, October 2004, ISBN 0 00 716456 4

Since the ‘stolen’ election of 2000 the Republican Party has set out its values with a starkness not revealed even during the despised regimes of Nixon and Reagan. This has yielded a rich seam of material for satirical film-makers, caricaturists and polemicists, though at some cost for dispassionate analysis of the political scene. Cartoonish simplicities abound. The electoral geography of the United States, so vividly realised in the 2000 presidential election results, appears to possess its own crude straightforwardness, with Republicans dominant in the conservative heartland but enjoying less appeal on the urban coastline.

On closer inspection, the Republicans lose none of their menace, but they also provoke a degree of puzzlement, as much on the right as on the left. In The Right Nation, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, two centre-right journalists who work on the Economist, ask why only 54 per cent of voters earning over $100,000 a year voted for Bush in 2000. Why does the party of big business, deregulation and tax-cutting engender less confidence among the most prosperous beneficiaries of its policies in New York and California than it manifestly does in the poorer ‘fly-over’ states? The answer lies, of course, in the recent history of the culture wars and in George W. Bush’s clear identification with the militancy of the Christian Right. Bush plausibly and successfully campaigns as the Christian plain man voicing the grievances of the common people against the pampered liberalism of an elite typified by John Kerry, though both Bush and Kerry were educated at Yale, and both – creepily – belonged to the Skull and Bones. It is not altogether fanciful to view Bush as the accepted voice of underprivileged, blue-collar America. On the other hand, the traditional Republican elite – the stereotypical Episcopalian financiers of the North-East – has no quarrel with Darwinism or abortion, and is made uneasy by the party’s deference to trailer-park religiosity. And the flat-earthers know when they are being patronised. Old-style Republicans who fail to appreciate the overwhelming importance of the right to life – whose superior breeding, perhaps, makes them reluctant to sport a lapel pin in the shape of a ten-week-old foetus’s feet – are now known as RINOs: Republicans In Name Only.

The plight of the RINO plays a crucial part in the hidden history of the modern Republican Party. The First Family contains its own underappreciated RINO: George H.W. Bush. Conviction politics played little part in the career of the senior Bush, who had a reputation for being ‘somewhat to the centre of centre’. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to see him as a man without principles. An upright Yankee, his career in Texas notwithstanding, he inherited and upheld the progressive principles of high-minded North-Eastern Republicanism associated with the Bush dynasty. In particular, the Bushes were known for the solid patrician support they lent to the cause of birth control. In 1950 this association undermined the first Senate race of George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott, who later served two terms as senator for Connecticut. This wasn’t a small matter. Connecticut was then one of two states which prohibited the sale of condoms. The vexed issue of birth control was resolved only when the Supreme Court’s adjudication in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) uncovered a latent right of sexual privacy within the constitution, a discovery which anticipated a parallel legitimation of abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973). At this stage in the dynasty’s history, the Bushes were happy to confer social respectability on the worthier aspects of the permissive revolution. Prescott was a member of Planned Parenthood, and George H.W. Bush was so enthusiastic in the dynastic cause during his early years in Congress that he earned the nickname ‘Rubbers’.

The gulf between this gentler strain of patrician Republicanism and George W. Bush’s redneck populism makes a mockery of party labels. However, American historians and political scientists have long since abandoned the notion that party identity provides a reliable indicator of political beliefs. Instead they subscribe – broadly speaking – to an interpretation of American political history as a succession of ‘party systems’ punctuated by transformative events, most obviously ‘critical elections’, which have brought about ‘realignments’ in parties (or in the meanings of party). Although today’s Republican Party can trace a continuous existence back to the 1850s, the term ‘Republican’ was first applied to an American political group in the 1790s, during the first party system, when the Founding Fathers differed over the policy prescriptions of Republicans and Federalists. Curiously, it is today’s Democrats who can more plausibly invoke an ideological lineage going back to the Republican Party of the 1790s, a radical organisation led by Thomas Jefferson. The first party system gave way around 1830 to the battles of the Whigs and the Jacksonian Democrats. The emergence of today’s Republican Party during the 1850s as an open adversary of Southern ‘Slave Power’ and the advent of the Civil War in 1861 shattered this second party system, and ushered in the seemingly familiar conflict of Democrats and Republicans. In the 1890s, tensions between agrarian and industrial interests enshrined a new set of meanings in these two broad political coalitions. Traditionally, the Republicans had identified themselves as the party of ‘free labor’. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s brought workers firmly into the Democrat fold, however, inaugurating the fifth party system, whose divisions were further exacerbated by Lyndon Johnson’s social reforms in the 1960s and by the Reaganite counter-revolution which followed in the 1980s.

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[*] Secker, 306 pp., £12, September, 0 436 20539 4.