Dossier Politics

American Elections: The Conservative Temptation

by Thomas Grillot & Pauline Peretz , 22 October 2012

Our Books and Ideas dossier on the American presidential elections will make no forecasts - instead it will look back on four years of Democratic leadership at the White House and four years of right-wing radicalization inside and outside of the G.O.P. Whoever wins will have to deal with the Tea Party, and the record shows it will not be easy for anyone.

When Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, political pundits announced a long-term realignment of American voters that was bound, they thought, to reverse a decades-old trend towards conservatism – a movement which had been initiated by Reagan in 1980 and taken to extremes by George W. Bush Jr. after 2000. All those whom Obama’s charisma and his agenda of change had reconciled with or initiated to political engagement, minorities, younger voters and women, would for a whole generation, so said the analysts, stand in the way of any further progress of a political right increasingly obsessed with morality and anti-statism, regardless of a forthcoming national economic disaster.

Alack and alas! It took but two years for a number of Democrats to meet defeat in Congress. They paid for the President’s strenuous management of a financial crisis that was compromising growth and endangering family incomes. More importantly, despite undeniable efforts towards financial regulation and health care reform, Obama angered his opponents without succeeding in inspiring his followers, taking on the image of an all too prudent, centrist president. The “new New Deal” he stood for was late in coming, and it gave the GOP time enough to regroup, rearm – and go rightward: undisturbed by John McCain and Sarah Palin’s defeat in 2008, the Tea Party kept gaining ground. Despite the lack of major political figures the movement proved tenacious, and always more radical in its anti-federalist stance.

Was Obama the reformer doomed to fail? Could he have used his political capital more efficiently? Would it have been possible to prevent any further polarization of American life? The Nov. 6 presidential elections will offer some answers to these questions. In the meantime, Books and Ideas has put together a panorama of the obstacles faced so far. In her review of George Edwards III’s Overreach Leadership in the Obama Presidency, Aurélie Godet looks at the limits of Obama’s agenda of reform. Christine Zumello’s essay on the Republican primaries examines the complex maneuvering that brought to the fore the no less complex (and increasingly right-wing) Mitt Romney. Romain Huret’s review of Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism gives a much needed historical perspective on the origins of a movement that has been claiming to “take back America”… for the last fifty years. And Jennifer Merchant’s « The War on Women » begs the question: just how far will the American right go in its drift towards always more conservatism on social issues and fewer rights for women?

One more effort, Americans, if you would become reformists!

Articles already on line:

Aurélie Godet, « Les limites du pouvoir présidentiel », published on La Vie des Idées, 1st October 2012

Jennifer Merchant, “The ’War on Women’”, published on La Vie des Idées and Books and Ideas, 22nd October 2012

Christine Zumello, “The Making of the Republican Candidate”, 30th October 2012

Dossier's Articles

by Thomas Grillot & Pauline Peretz, 22 October 2012

To quote this article :

Thomas Grillot & Pauline Peretz, « American Elections: The Conservative Temptation », Books and Ideas , 22 October 2012. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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