The Magazine

Red Alert

A Blue journalist misunderstands America.

Feb 12, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 21 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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Building Red America

The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power

by Thomas B. Edsall

Basic Books, 320 pp., $26

Thomas Edsall admires conservatives the way some gourmets admire McDonald's: He respects how efficiently they do it even while hating what they do.

Edsall, a longtime Washington Post political reporter now at the New Republic and the Columbia Journalism School, has produced his latest in a series of books chronicling the rise of the modern conservative movement. As with any such lengthy engage ment with one subject, the book holds a mirror up to the artist as well, in this case to a political culture pervasive in contemporary liberalism. Edsall argues that the GOP has become America's predominant party in part by benefiting from key structural changes to our economy and society, but also by crafting a coalition that is internally cohesive, technically proficient, and able to keep political debate organized around issues that unite conservatives and divide liberals.

So even when Republicans lose, as they did last November, Edsall expects them to rebound. Not for nothing do other liberals consider Edsall a pessimist.

But animosity clouds his analysis. He comes to three striking conclusions that do not withstand scrutiny. He claims that conservatives have won partly because they are highly regimented, that today's Republican coalition is best understood as a bundle of prejudices, and that Republicans play dirtier than Democrats. He also claims, more interestingly, that greater freedom for market forces has favored Republicans and that Democratic leaders are too culturally liberal to play in the heartland. But these are lost in what amount to gross misportrayals of left/right politics in America.

The notion that conservatism's resurgence resulted from a top-down, highly coordinated strategy has become pervasive among liberals, who have responded by trying to create a coordinated political "infrastructure" of their own and to centralize the funding of progressive groups through organizations like the Democracy Alliance. Reflecting this thinking, Edsall says that conservatives have created a "highly coordinated network of individuals and organizations--with a shared stake in a strong, centralized political machine" and even a "system," in the singular.

This suggests, for example, that conservatives efficiently divvied up America's different sectors or electorates--gun-owners, antiabortion activists, tax cutters, and so on--and created an organization to mobilize each one. This is an explanation of modern conservatism that only a New Dealer could love.

To be sure, coordination can add value in politics, especially at the tactical level. But the historical record suggests that conservatism hasn't even been a house of many rooms; it's been a village of squabbling neighbors. This wasn't because no one had a plan for building a robust conservative movement, but because too many people had divergent plans. The result was fractiousness and competition. Rival groups pursued distinct domestic and foreign policy agendas, disagreed over strategies, competed for donors, jealously guarded mailing lists, erupted in personality clashes, and found their voices in diverse and bickering center-right magazines and columnists.

Moreover, and despite Grover Norquist's celebrated claim that diverse conservative goals are mutually compatible, different groups' agendas have often proven directly competing and sometimes mutually exclusive. That's why conservative activists in even single-issue areas like abortion or national security formed dozens of competing organizations. Any tight division of labor that we might detect in retrospect is largely an illusion.

In fact, it's illusory even now, since competition is ongoing. Just ask James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Gary Bauer's American Values, the National Evangelical Association, the Eagle Forum, the Family Research Council, the National Right to Life Committee, Concerned Women for America, the American Family Association, and the Southern Baptist Convention--and that's just Christian conservative organizations at the national level. For just such reasons, David Brooks has argued that conservatism's house is divided but stronger for it. All this makes ironic Edsall's lament that the Democratic party "is really a bunch of competitive interests."