Few question the “right turn” America took after 1966, when liberal political power began to wane. But if they did, No Right Turn suggests, they might discover that all was not really “right” with the conservative golden age. A provocative overview of a half century of American politics, the book takes a hard look at the counterrevolutionary dreams of liberalism’s enemies—to overturn people’s reliance on expanding government, reverse the moral and sexual revolutions, and win the Culture War—and finds them largely unfulfilled.
David Courtwright deftly profiles celebrated and controversial figures, from Clare Booth Luce, Barry Goldwater, and the Kennedy brothers to Jerry Falwell, David Stockman, and Lee Atwater. He shows us Richard Nixon’s keen talent for turning popular anxieties about morality and federal meddling to Republican advantage—and his inability to translate this advantage into reactionary policies. Corporate interests, boomer lifestyles, and the media weighed heavily against Nixon and his successors, who placated their base with high-profile attacks on crime, drugs, and welfare dependency. Meanwhile, religious conservatives floundered on abortion and school prayer, obscenity, gay rights, and legalized vices like gambling, and fiscal conservatives watched in dismay as the bills mounted.
We see how President Reagan’s mélange of big government, strong defense, lower taxes, higher deficits, mass imprisonment, and patriotic symbolism proved an illusory form of conservatism. Ultimately, conservatives themselves rebelled against George W. Bush’s profligate brand of Reaganism. Courtwright’s account is both surprising and compelling, a bracing argument against some of our most cherished clichés about recent American history.