Why the Winners Lost

No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, By David T. Courtwright, Harvard University Press, 337 pages, $29.95

"You have to give the nuts 20 percent of what they want," President Richard Nixon once said of conservatives, according to his aide Patrick Buchanan. And that is what the GOP proceeded to do for the next 40 years after Nixon's election, David Courtwright maintains in No Right Turn, a lively and quirky new history of "the long national struggle over morality" between 1968 and 2008.

According to Courtwright, Republican presidents of the past four decades practiced a politics of "bait and switch." As candidates, Republicans condemned liberal permissiveness and the nanny state, but they "could not govern as reactionaries," because of "corporate interests, boomer lifestyle preferences, middle-class and retiree entitlement expectations, and secular media." So Republican presidents threw crumbs to the base by attacking crime, drug use, and welfare dependency but otherwise kept the nuts at safe remove.

Here is another history of the contemporary United States starring the 1960s. In Courtwright's hands, the tale goes like this: Outraged by new lifestyles, Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, and a divisive war, conservatives joined forces across religious and ethnic lines. Meanwhile, white elites and minorities united to expel hard hats and machine politicians from the Democratic Party, yoking it to an agenda of sexual and racial equality, environmentalism, and economic justice. That new politics attracted secular and religious liberal Americans on the left and repelled counterrevolutionaries on the right.

To Ronald Reagan's delight, Jimmy Carter got caught in the crossfire. In the 1980 election, according to Courtwright, feminists upset by Carter's tepid support for abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment "cut off their party's nose to spite its nominee's face" and deserted the Democrats. At the same time, Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell brought into the GOP his own followers, who were equally disenchanted with Carter, the fellow evangelical whom many had embraced in 1976. From then on, moral conservatives stuck with the Republicans -- for all the good it did them.

By 1984, Reagan had changed the national mood. As long as their Social Security was safe, Americans welcomed his attacks on regulation, progressive taxation, and unions and his celebration of wealth. Predictably, however, Reagan undercut moral conservatives by ignoring their concerns and naming Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, where she helped save the right to abortion. Like other Republican leaders, he understood that neither baby boomers nor media moguls wanted to dial back "the moral clock" to a time before the 1960s when extramarital sex was taboo and Hollywood featured husband and wife in separate beds.

Curiously, according to Courtwright, the "two revolutions of the self" -- the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the Reaganite release of economic self-interest -- reinforced each other. Instead of being left or right, Americans had "evolved a politics in which it was possible to be morally left but economically right, or vice versa." Like the writer Thomas Frank, then, Courtwright observes that "more freedom" had become the mantra of rich, white men and cultural libertines alike. Unlike Frank, Courtwright suggests that the Democrats' lifestyle liberalism left moral conservatives with religious convictions nowhere to go, except toward the corporate interests that called the GOP's tune.

By the time that the collapse of the Soviet Union placed the culture war front and center, Courtwright continues, white Southerners such as Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and George W. Bush had moved overwhelmingly to the GOP. Southerners led "the next great offensive against liberalism" with much the same results. The second Bush turned out to be a "clumsy" version of Reagan, though he pleased the moral conservatives by nominating anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. As a presidential candidate, John McCain followed the Republican playbook by giving "the nuts" Sarah Palin in 2008, but "the media novelty of a sexy Evangelical politico-mom" could not overcome a bogged-down war and an economic meltdown. At least on election night, the culture war seemed to become history. Game over.

The book's theme -- the "ragged continuity of left-liberal trends in an age of rising Republican fortunes" -- is a paradox that may comfort many liberals. Courtwright stresses that, despite Republican administrations, abortion has remained legal, although the Bush appointees to the Court helped uphold the congressional ban on what is variously called "late term" or "partial birth" abortion. Courtwright likens the conflict over abortion in our time to the conflict over slavery during the antebellum era. For him, abortion haunts every significant skirmish -- not just the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas confirmation controversies but even "the climactic battle of the Culture War," the Lewinsky scandal and the debates in Congress over Bill Clinton's impeachment. "The failure to decisively restrict legal abortion," Courtwright says, "was the single greatest defeat moral conservatives suffered during their apparent political ascendancy."

There is much to admire here. Though the prose is sometimes too cute, No Right Turn is a wonderful read. Courtwright engagingly profiles figures from Clare Boothe Luce to Johnny Carson. He has gone to all the archives, interviewed all the right people, and thought deeply about his findings. Pundits, pollsters, and other scholars have made the broad contours of his argument familiar, but he tells his story with plenty of fresh twists and turns.

Yet Courtwright's history is also idiosyncratic. Just as he places too much blame on feminists for Carter's failures, so he makes abortion carry too heavy a load. True, the survival of abortion is a symptom of "a larger failure to restrict behavior once deemed criminal or deviant." And Courtwright does not altogether ignore battles over race, environmentalism, gay rights, AIDS, gun control, health care, school prayer, and pornography. To him, though, they are all part of the backdrop to abortion.

Where are Anita Bryant and Harvey Milk, the busing battle, and the debates over the American exit from Vietnam and whether Iraq is Vietnam redux? Immigration restriction and affirmative action only merit sustained discussion when the Reaganites do not want to risk "offending employers who hired low-cost nonunion Latino and Asian workers under a diversity rationale." Where are the fights over borders and California's anti-immigrant Proposition 187? Where are the arguments about affirmative action that vexed higher education and the workplace from DeFunis and Bakke through Gratz and Grutter, the steelworkers in Weber through the New Haven firefighters in Ricci?

It's also not clear that abortion has been so divisive. Not even all who equate abortion with murder want to outlaw it, and popular support for keeping abortion legal has remained consistently strong over time.

Indeed, in their book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Morris Fiorina, Samuel Abrams, and Jeremy Pope draw on data collected by sociologists Paul DiMaggio, John Evans, and Bethany Bryson suggesting that Americans' social attitudes have converged over time. The pattern is one of partisan elite, not popular, polarization. These findings are not inconsistent with Courtwright's. They do, however, make one wonder whether, as Courtwright concludes, the 40-year period from 1968 to 2008 should be called "the Culture War."

Whatever you call the era, Courtwright's provocative book raises two obvious questions: Is it over, and if so, what's next? While rightly reminding us that historians are not soothsayers, Courtwright does conclude with predictions. Since the stakes are high, politics are cyclical, and voters remain resentful, a conservative Republican resurgence would not surprise him. Given ballooning deficits, a right turn in fiscal policy (spending cuts, perhaps) may yet occur. To Courtwright, however, a flowering of moral conservatism is less probable.

This may be wishful thinking. Not since Ronald Reagan nearly wrested the Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford in 1976 have mainstream Republican politicians seemed so scared of members of their own party. If Tea Party activists and Virginia Thomas, the Supreme Court justice's wife, are right that "a big tidal wave is coming," guns, God, gays, and gynecology may dominate another day.