David T. Courtwright


On his book No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America

Cover Interview of October 31, 2010

In a nutshell

When did America take a right turn?  Most people think it began with the chaos of the 1960s, the unraveling of the New Deal coalition, the rise of the New Right, and the return of market ideology.  The 1980 presidential election confirmed the conservative shift, ushering in a Republican golden age still evoked by those who claim Ronald Reagan’s mantle.

But how conservative, really, were the forty years after 1966, when liberal political power began to wane?  I believe that they were not very conservative at all.

The dreams of liberalism’s enemies—to overturn the New Deal, to overturn the moral and sexual revolutions, to overturn people’s reliance on government—all went unfulfilled.

True, Republicans used wedge issues to gain power, but once in office they could not govern as reactionaries. Corporate interests, boomer lifestyles, entitlement expectations, and the media weighed too heavily against them.

The most that Republicans could achieve was selective reaction through attacks on crime, drugs, and welfare dependency—vote-rich targets magnified by racial backlash. But religious conservatives made little progress on abortion and school prayer, and steadily lost ground on obscenity, gay rights, and legalized vices like gambling. Fiscal conservatives watched in dismay as the bills mounted.

President Reagan’s mélange of big government, strong defense, lower taxes, higher deficits, mass imprisonment, crony capitalism, and patriotic symbolism proved an illusory and unsustainable form of conservatism.  In the end, conservatives themselves rebelled against George W. Bush’s profligate brand of Reaganism.

If the Tea Party is any indication, their rebellion still has life in it—and is by no means aimed solely at Democrats.