With my grades turned in, I’ve been reading the new books I’ve assigned for next semester. One of my new courses is a grad class on America from 1945 to the present. Going in, I was determined to assign a bunch of these new books on the history of conservatism. I had already read Bethany Moreton’s work on Walmart (and so much more), so I knew that was going on the syllabus. I got that new biography of Ayn Rand and liked it, but frankly Ayn Rand was such an awful human being (irrespective of her political views) that I really didn’t want to make students read about her for an entire week. By far the best of this new genre, in my opinion, turned out to be the one I hadn’t read before I put it on the syllabus: Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal by Kim Phillips-Fein.
If you’ve read any of these works, you’ll know the common trope in all of them is to describe conservative organizational patterns without condemning them. I’d put money on the fact that all three of these authors are liberal Democrats, but since they also academics, they aren’t writing polemics. The most important thing is to describe how ideas that were once at the fringe of the political spectrum moved to the center and Phillips-Fein does that particularly well.
I was absolutely stunned at how often the businessmen she quotes said and wrote things which sounded like they came out of the mouths of modern Tea Partiers. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that all the stuff coming out of conservatives’ mouths these days that get made fun of on the liberal blogs I read has a history, but that history is on grand display here. She never talks about contemporary politics in the book, but it jumps off of nearly every page nonetheless.
This is the part of this blog post where I should be giving you an example. This may not be the best illustration of what I mean, but I had this quote marked:
“Is there any difference in principle between the taste that leads a householder to prefer an attractive servant to an ugly one and the taste that leads another to prefer a Negro to a white or a white to a Negro, except that we sympathize and agree with one taste and may not with the other?”
The author of that excuse for blatant racism? The Disaster Capitalism pioneer, economist Milton Friedman. I also had this quote marked from the diary of Barry Goldwater:
“Today as I sit in the Senate in the year 1979 it is interesting to me to watch liberals, moderates and conservatives fighting each other to see who can come out on top the quickest against those matters that I talked so fervently and so much about in 1964…Now that almost every one of the principles I advocated in 1964 have become the gospel of the whole spread of the spectrum of politics, there really isn’t a heck of a lot left.”
That serves as a good reminder of something that ought to be in any discussion of the rise of conservatism: No matter how brilliantly their organization effort was, it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if there weren’t plenty of pandering liberals and centrists willing to give their insane ideas intellectual legitimacy by adopting them outright or at least aping their assumptions.