David T. Courtwright


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

Cover Interview of October 31, 2010

The wide angle

When American historical writing entered its Humpty Dumpty phase, sometime around 1970, political and social history flew off in separate directions.  In No Right Turn I bring them back together.  The book could hardly do otherwise: “social issues” like permissiveness and crime moved to the center stage of American politics in the late 1960s and stayed there.

Religious conservatives waged a culture war against moral liberalization, but their campaign largely failed, thanks to Republican equivocation and corporate self-interest.  There was good money in bad conduct and, besides, it was awkward to inquire too deeply into what Rupert Murdoch was beaming through his satellites or the Mormon-run Marriott chain was showing in its hotel rooms.

And how does this book compare to others?  Well, think of Christopher Lasch without the grouchiness, David Stockman without the score-settling, and Thomas Frank without the mockery.

Though No Right Turn is more measured in tone than What’s the Matter with Kansas? its indictment of the GOP establishment is more sweeping.  Principled economic conservatives fared almost as badly under Republicans as did the moral reactionaries.  There’s more to the story than the fat cats using the yahoos.

I was surprised, or half-surprised, by my own conclusions.  When I started gathering material, in the early 1980s, I suspected that the moral counterrevolution against liberalism would peter out.  But I did not suspect that the economic counterrevolution would also fail.  After I read Stockman’s memoirs, The Triumph of Politics, I began to think otherwise.

A remark of James Pinkerton, a domestic-policy adviser to the first President Bush, seems particularly apt.  “The two things we learned in the eighties were entirely contradictory,” Pinkerton said.  “Socialism doesn’t work, and the most ideological President of the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan, couldn’t put an end to the welfare state.  He couldn’t even put a dent in it.”  We have been living with that contradiction ever since.

rorotoko.com Ronald Reagan strutting his stuff (Photo courtesy of the Reagan Library)

Revisionist writing tends to be dry.  To avoid that trap I emulated Arthur Schlesinger Jr., master of the provocative reinterpretation of an age dominated by populist politics.  I fleshed out my narrative with portraits of the era’s celebrated combatants: Clare Boothe Luce, the Kennedy brothers, Barry Goldwater, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan, Lee Atwater, Robert Bork, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Above all I was drawn to Richard Nixon, the key figure in American political history in the second half of the twentieth century.