The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan
by Kim Phillips-Fein
W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 368 pp.
WERNER SOMBART’S hundred-year-old question about American politics—why does America not have a socialist movement comparable to those of Europe and Russia?—has not only faded away in the last couple of decades; it has been inverted. Younger historians have now started to ask why the American twentieth century contained so much conservatism—a question that is often coupled with a complimentary query: why has there been so much capitalism in America?
Sombart’s question about American socialism could be directly addressed to the late nineteenth century, when a serious Socialist Party arose in America with vibrant movements to its left, and as long as the New Deal was an open experiment, the prospect of American socialism could be viewed through the lens of national politics. Lyndon Johnson worked to expand the New Deal in the mid-1960s, and Robert Kennedy contributed his élan to the progressive tradition in the 1968 primaries. Some forty-one years after RFK’s assassination, however, 1968 can also be seen as a turning point, marking the terminus of American socialism and the ascendancy of a self-confident, pro-capitalist conservatism. This ascendancy remains a mystery, and as such, it is now attracting first-rate historical scholarship.
Kim Phillips-Fein has added a cogently argued, densely researched book to the growing shelf of historical literature on modern American conservatism. Its title—Invisible Hands: the Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan—contains two references within it. The first is to Adam Smith and his notion of the invisible hand, the idea that a market is not only rational and progressive but also self-correcting; and the second is to E.P. Thompson’s epochal work of labor history, The Making of the English Working Class (1964), which continues to reverberate in recent historical writing—as in Liz Cohen’s The Making of a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (1991) or, somewhat modified, in Michael Denning‘s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1998).
Phillips-Fein’s argument takes shape between the reference to Smith and the reference to Thompson. She traces the strategizing of various business and intellectual elites who admired Adam Smith and the principle of laissez-faire administration but who also were eager to work in concert, as invisible hands, to change the mechanics of American government. These “invisible hands” helped to engineer a major political movement—a conservative revolution that was first noticeable in 1964 when Goldwater ran on the Republican ticket and that became fact with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Aided by the “exceptional nature” of the New Deal, which Phillips-Fein presents as an impermanent American experiment in social democracy, conservatism arrived at a position of dominance by the 1980s.
IF A modern American conservatism has lasted into the twenty-first century, it began in the 1930s during the heyday of the New Deal. Its essence, Phillips-Fein contends, was not religious or segregationist sentiment or anti-communist but a particular economic theory that gave maximum scope to big business and associated small government, in the popular mind, with American freedom. Modern conservatives “believed that the free market was equivalent to freedom itself,” a conviction that traveled from the margins of the Great Depression to the heart of the late twentieth-century Washington consensus.
Phillips-Fein traces three distinct stages of modern conservatism as it evolved from ideas into a movement and from a movement into a political establishment. The first was intellectual: the critique of the New Deal waged without great fanfare in the 1930s and 1940s. Even in this improbable early phase, efforts were made to house ideas in institutions and through institutions to levy influence. The American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943, and the Mount Pelerin Society, a consortium of conservative economists, was founded in 1947.
Ronald Reagan began working for General Electric in 1954 and was responsible for the creation of a rhetorical “universe in which the corporation was the liberator and the state the real oppressor of the working class.” In 1960, Barry Goldwater published his ghostwritten Conscience of a Conservative, a book that forged the complicated ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—two Austrian-born theorists of economic conservatism—into “a compressed, elegant credo” with the aim of acquiring political power (the second stage).
Goldwater’s campaign tract was a popular success, although Goldwater suffered one of the worst defeats in presidential history—evidence that in 1964 the conservative movement had not yet reached maturity. For Phillips-Fein, the key factor in Goldwater’s defeat was neither the lingering nostalgia for JFK nor the perception that Goldwater’s foreign policy was extreme, but his failure to win over big business. “The businessmen went with Johnson in the end,” Phillips-Fein observes, leaving the conservative movement with a job still to do.
The conservative triumph, when it came, was dialectical. On the one hand, an attack on liberalism from the left made New Deal premises less self-evident and, with the divisions over the Vietnam War, helped to undo the mandate Johnson thought he had won in 1964. On the other hand, an attack on capitalism, popular among youth and within the counterculture, engendered a wider, more vigorous defense of the free enterprise system that conservatives had been rehearsing since the 1930s. As a result, the conservative movement gained new allies in the 1970s from the South and from the milieu of evangelical Christianity. Jesse Helms began his political career “in the world of business conservatism,” and Pat Robertson “insisted that the moral illness threatening the United States in the late 1970s had its roots in the nation’s political economy.”
Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party of the 1970s may have been receptive to pro-business politics, but it was Ronald Reagan who ultimately emerged as the patron saint of corporate America with his talent for courting “the business world while appearing to stand for principles that had little to do with the immediate interests of business at all.” For some on the left, Reagan was a Hollywood celebrity who had stumbled into the presidency, a charming fool whose constituency had been seduced by low-brow patriotism and media savvy.
Phillips-Fein places Reagan in an altogether different context, focusing on the long historical arc leading up to the 1980 election. Visible or invisible, hands had been building the conservative movement for decades, and a man unlikely to be mistaken for an intellectual presided over a movement that had begun as a diffuse body of ideas. Nor was Reagan a purely symbolic leader of the conservative movement: as president, he weakened the power of unions, lowered taxes, and elevated the status of business in a culture already inclined to be pro-business. Reagan proved to be the New Deal’s most committed and effective enemy, and in the movement‘s third stage, he not only translated conservatism into policy; he brought the movement to Washington, D.C., where it became an establishment.
Phillips-Fein’s research into the institutional structure of the conservative movement is meticulous. Some of the ground has been covered before. The evolution of conservative economic thought can be found in George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (1976) and the fusion of this thinking with the Goldwater campaign in Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001). In The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2009), Sean Wilentz portrays some of the same figures who populate Invisible Hands. Yet Phillips-Fein arranges her material into a new synthesis, using archival research to date and describe the exact set of connections that formed at mid-century and that went on to precipitate the Reagan Revolution. She does this with an eye for the vivid—and at times for the entertaining—detail. She moves among the history of ideas, movements, institutions, and political change in prose that is clear and engaging.
At the same time, the book’s title promises more than it delivers. This is a history of the conservative movement with only one chapter devoted to culture and religion, and even here the economic impulses of evangelical Christianity garner attention as opposed to the problems of tradition and modernity, piety and ethics that preoccupy many evangelicals. In fact, it is only evangelical Christians who matter in her analysis; Catholics fall outside her purview, although their contributions to the modern conservative movement have been formidable.
The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, without which modern conservatism might never have coalesced, is mentioned only once and in passing, and the politics of race, though touched upon in the footnotes, are also not a part of this story. Most surprising of all, Reagan figures only as the prophet of economic laissez-faire. A B-movie actor who entered politics because of his Hollywood encounters with communism and whose passion for anti-communism was of a piece with his passion for small government, Reagan‘s political career began and ended with the cold war.
The making of the conservative movement cannot be reduced to economics, even if economics was at its center and even if, as Phillips-Fein demonstrates, the capacity of wealthy conservatives to fund the conservative movement was a crucial factor in the movement’s eventual political impact. Neglect of the cold war contributes to making this a hermetically American book, with American politics as its own benchmark. Phillips-Fein thus misses two opportunities. The first is for comparison: Margaret Thatcher and Thatcher-ite conservatism are a regrettable absence in this book. The second is for contrast, since America’s economic conservatism is unusual to the point of being bizarre when examined next to the political culture of continental Europe, Russia, Asia, and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.
The major problem with Invisible Hands, however, is not so much its narrow focus on economics or its rigorous focus on America; it is its hazy image of the 1970s. The early chapters on conservatives and the New Deal are excellent. The 1960s attack on the free enterprise system is concisely rendered and makes complete historical sense. The 1980s as a decade of conservatism is also unimpeachable and is the core phenomenon Phillips-Fein is devoted to explaining. But the 1970s are a confusing piece of this puzzle.
Twice Phillips-Fein resorts to meteorological metaphors when characterizing the transitional 1970s. The seventies, she writes, were a decade in which “a broader intellectual and political climate shifting toward the right” mirrored “the intellectual climate of declining Keynsianism.” A few pages later, this same transition is sketched in the passive voice: “The ideas carefully honed during the years when conservatives had been excluded from power were taking the place of the old faiths of the New Deal era.” It is as if the country’s actual dramatic move to the right cannot be precisely described or explained; it can only be noted like an abrupt alteration in the weather. This may be a problem of wording in Invisible Hands, but it also goes to the core of its argument.
Phillips-Fein is eloquent and erudite when it comes to the question of small-group agency—the ideologues and the affluent and the ambitious who converged in the hope of moving the political center rightward—but all this maneuvering would have been useless if the ideas of the conservative movement had not resonated so powerfully with the American public. The libertarian Ayn Rand became a literary sensation in the 1930s without a conservative movement behind her, ; Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom acquired cult status against the odds of academic publishing in the 1940s; and Phillips-Fein writes of Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative “tapping into a market for conservative ideas that no one had really known existed.” Phillips-Fein, who does so much to illuminate the infrastructure of the Reagan Revolution, does not speculate enough about the hearts and minds of the grassroots revolutionaries—about the change in weather that turned the vigorous Lyndon Johnson into a figment of the past and the elderly Ronald Reagan into an emissary from the future.
PERHAPS THE modernity of modern conservatism has been exaggerated, and the task of future historians will be to go farther back in American history. In the early republic, the anti-federalist voice was not conservative in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, it set a precedent for “anti-Washington” thinking that reached a fever pitch in the 1850s and was one impetus for the Civil War. This is a precedent with twentieth-century echoes.
Enthusiasm for business and technology was an organic aspect of nineteenth-century American culture. The entire pattern of settlement in the American West, with the government perpetually lagging behind the settlers, made for an unusual relationship between the economy and the state and was woven into the myth of American individualism, upon which Goldwater and Reagan were both virtuosic improvisers.
The sheer geographic size of the United States also has implications for the modern welfare state: Denmark and Holland are easier to govern as social democracies than the massive United States—in which Washington, D.C. is often a distant reality to many of its citizen and in which the country at large is often a distant reality to those living and working in Washington. Circumstance imposes several degrees of alienation between the American citizen and the federal government.
Phillips-Fein is persuasive in her efforts to push the history of modern conservatism back to the 1930s, an endeavor that could be broadened by other scholars. This, combined with a sharper understanding of the 1970s, may finally elucidate the question posed by Werner Sombart in 1906–a question that has been transformed in recent decades from a question about socialism into a question about capitalism.
Michael Kimmage is an assistant professor of history at the Catholic University of America. His first book, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, appeared with Harvard University Press in the spring of 2009.