Conservatism's Hollow Defeat

The intellectual right, now in the wilderness, keeps deluding itself about supposed past glories.


Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, by Kim Phillips-Fein, New York: W.W. Norton, 368 pages, $26.95

The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution, by Gregory L. Schneider, Lanham, Md.: Rowan & Littlefield, 264 pages, $39.95

In Invisible Hands, the New York University historian Kim Phillips-Fein recounts a group of businessmen's efforts to push pro-market ideas. At one point she describes a document, the "Powell Memo," that is now notorious among those who posit a vast, successful right-wing conspiracy to institute rapacious laissez faire: a 1971 Chamber of Commerce report, written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, suggesting conservatives launch a concerted attempt to influence the universities, media, and courts in an ostensibly free-market direction. One of the closest of Powell's friends, a man he especially wished to convert, was the general counsel of General Motors.

Since then, GM has continued to advocate trade barriers. And today,in the era of the "new New Deal," we see it at the forefront of ensuring that all the rest of us are on the hook to ensure the company can navigate the rough waters of the "free market."

The lesson, not fully internalized by Phillips-Fein, is that free-market advocacy is not the success that books like hers crack it up to be. For conservatives and activists who have linked their lives, reputations and fortunes to the Republican Party, it's a time of reappraisal, retrenchment, and recrimination. Just six years ago, their team controlled the executive branch, both houses of Congress, and a majority of gubernatorial seats. Since then the party has fallen dizzily, weighed down by an unpopular war, a deadly hurricane, and a deepening recession. Republicans have lost control of the White House and Capitol Hill, and now hold just 22 governorships.

What's particularly galling to true believers is that the candidate who knocked them off their perch, Barack Obama, is a man they labeled the most socialist, culturally liberal, and downright un-American foe they've faced since George McGovern. With the choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for vice president—a decision that seemed at first madcap, then inspired, and now highly contentious—conservatives appeared to have rallied their troops by election eve 2008. And still they were smacked down mercilessly at the polls. Neither experience nor war nor patriotism nor taxes nor immigration nor values nor populism could seal the deal for party nominee John McCain. The GOP, and by extension conservatism, now seems thoroughly repudiated.

That conclusion, too, would be shortsighted. With varying degrees of severity, Republicans have looked like they were stranded in the wilderness several times during the last few decades. In the 1964 election, Barry Goldwater got drubbed and Democrats won control of more than two-thirds of both houses of Congress. The Republican Party could not have—and hasn't since—looked more dead. Yet the GOP managed to hold the White House for 28 of the next 44 years.

Republicans seemed dead three decades ago as well, with President Jimmy Carter managing our national disco party and the Democrats enjoying a 119-seat lead in the House and 17-seat lead in the Senate. Two years later came the Reagan landslide.

Two new histories of the American right, Phillips-Fein's Invisible Hands and Gregory L. Schneider's The Conservative Century, should help Republicans and conservatives assess their current predicament in calmer terms. But the books also inadvertently indicate that in many ways the right has been doomed all along. The GOP will have a future after the age of Obama, but not because of the allegedly eternal liveliness of conservative ideas. The less comforting truth is that the right has shown an amazing ability to fool almost everyone, from average voters to academic historians like Schneider and Phillips-Fein, into believing that the conservative movement has won key victories and substantially achieved its most important goals.

In a little more than a decade, the field of conservative history has gone from neglected to overcrowded—especially given how often the books tell more or less the same story: Anti-FDR (and sometimes anti-Semitic) kooks in the fever swamps of opposition to the peaceful postwar liberal ideological consensus are tamed by the elegant but infuriating William F. Buckley, whose cleaned-up and intellectual coalition of ex- and anti-communists begets Goldwater, who fails to win the White House but succeeds in being Barry the Baptist for the Reagan-Christ, who with the help of such props as '60s cultural madness, stagflation, and Jerry Falwell brings sweet redemption for this questionable but still vital set of ideas, whose reign, cheered or regretted, continues apace under both Democrats and Republicans as welfare is reformed, communism collapses, and further wars are waged. You can find that basic story, sometimes admiring and sometimes slightly scolding, in texts ranging from Lee Edwards' The Conservative Revolution (1999) to Jonathan Schoenwald's A Time for Choosing (2001) to John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's The Right Nation (2004).

These two new contributions offer fresh perspectives on the narrative. Schneider is a historian at Emporia State University and the author of Cadres for Conservatism, a fine 1998 study of Young Americans for Freedom and the conservative strain in '60s student activism. In The Conservative Century, he shows that the positions held dear by the self-defined conservative movement have not in fact been conserved. Rather, they have been shifted and adjusted to changing circumstances, as an electoral—as opposed to philosophical—tendency must shift.

Schneider is accurate enough in identifying what most self-conscious conservative intellectuals and activists have embraced from the mid-'50s on: muscular foreign policy and aggressive nationalism (against first the commies, now the Islamofascists), traditional Christian values (as they are understood at any point in time), and at least lip service to free markets as opposed to government economic engineering.

Schneider starts with the pre-Buckley right of forgotten journalists and literary figures such as Albert Jay Nock, Ralph Cram, Seward Collins, Paul Elmer More, and the Southern Agrarians. (If the figures he discusses held social attitudes that moderns would find unforgivable, such as belief that blacks could never be whites' intellectual equal, he makes sure to let you know, even if those attitudes had nothing to do with their core political beliefs.) Schneider then shows that when William Buckley, a young Yale and CIA man on the make, tried to forge a viable postwar political coalition out of the various strains of conservatism (something few of the pre-war figures gave a fig about), some of the more unsightly Old Right ideas were bleached from the conservative cloth. Among them: distrust of the leveling and centralizing powers of unchecked mass democracy and forthright opposition to everything about the welfare/warfare state launched by Franklin Roosevelt. The Buckley coalition was an eternally uneasy and shifting amalgam of traditionalism, constitutionalism, libertarianism, and a bloody-minded enmity toward international communism.

Schneider, who manages to keep a poker face when it comes to revealing his own politics, does a spirited job of walking through the standard post-Buckley history, but with a careful emphasis on what was new about its traditionalism, what was tossed away in its conservatism, what was statist in its supposed defenses of liberty. We see the intellectual movement adjust to the political realities of abortion, to the death of the "state's rights" approach to civil rights, to the acceptance of an entitlement state that might be adjustable on the margins but won't go away, and to any advance in state spending and even thought control (the right-wing youth movement was born in a campaign for loyalty oaths) in the name of fighting communism.

Schneider might not agree, but the lesson that comes through most clearly is this: War is the health of the state and the death of a principled movement supposedly dedicated to keeping the state limited. From the Cold War to the Iraq war, conservatives—and certainly Republicans—have sacrificed liberty in the name of national security.

Phillips-Fein's focus is more specialized and fresh. Rather than the standard Old Right/BuckleyGoldwater/New Right/Reagan progression, Invisible Hands focuses on the businessmen and financiers who either bankrolled or pursued right-wing ideas in the worlds of advocacy and commerce.

The book starts with entertaining summations of some figures and organizations that have been ignored by most histories. They include Leonard Read, founder of the Foundation for Economic Education; his mentor, W.C. Mullendore of Southern California Edison; and their associates, the curious crew who ran the Christian libertarian advocacy group Spiritual Mobilization. (These and other figures are treated at length in my own Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.) Spiritual Mobilization fell apart, among other reasons, because of some of its leaders' fascination with Eastern mysticism and psychedelics. (This was in the hung-up 1950s, mind you.) Phillips-Fein also does a good job of relating some of the entertaining conflicts between American businessmen and European academics in the firstdecade of the libertarian Mont Pelerin Society.

There's a reason most books about the right don't recount these tales, or at least not in great detail: The intellectual and political tradition they represented was modern libertarianism, not modern conservatism. Phillips-Fein elides this point by telling a story about conservatism that pretty much ignores what became its constitutive aspect: foreign policy and the Cold War, which is the battleground on which the nascent libertarian and conservative movements fought and eventually separated.

Even in purely economic terms, all the people and organizations Phillips-Fein discusses after moving past Read, Mullendore, and the Spiritual Mobilization crew—General Electric's anti-union wizard Lemuel Boulware (one of the linchpins of this book, and of Ronald Reagan's intellectual development), the American Enterprise Institute, the Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce, Amway—were far milder in their dedication to untrammeled free markets than those first proto-libertarians. Phillips-Fein's mixing of the two traditions makes her book more interesting and colorful, but it also makes her intellectual history more muddled and confused.

Invisible Hands doesn't evince a great deal of respect for its characters. Phillips-Fein, a contributor to such left-wing journals as The Nation and In These Times, dismisses the thinking of the businessmen she chronicles, from the DuPont family to Sterling Morton of the Morton Salt Company, as "little more than the desperate attempt of a few rich men to shore up their declining position in society."

She derisively quotes their opinions about Social Security without noting that they were absolutely right about its budget-busting improvidence. She quotes modern GE CEO Jack Welch praising early GE bigwig Boulware by quoting his epigram, "companies don't provide job security—customers do," clearly intending to mock it, especially after her many detailed scene reports from bygone labor unrest. But the maxim is undeniably true.

While Phillips-Fein isn't 100 percent solid on all the nuances of the ideas of the Austrian libertarian economists Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, she is far more savvy than most nonlibertarians who grapple with them in noting that their thinking was not conservative—that is, they were not defenders of any existing plutocratic privilege. Instead, they stood for the notion that "the market created a space of freedom, a world in which individual action could revolutionize society."

What Phillips-Fein doesn't stress enough, though one can deduce it from her story, is that far from being consistent class-based defenders of privilege, the business supporters of free markets were always eccentric outliers. She does note the Goldwater campaign's distress that since "we're not in the lead, the fat cats are holding back" on financial support, and explains that the business community was very wary of Reagan in the 1980 election, desiring not laissez faire but "reindustrialization policy" and thinking that tax cuts might be dangerously inflationary.

Truly radical free market policies, of the sort Read and Mullendore supported, have always been and remain a niche concern, not the focus of a major political party or movement. Businessmen in politics mostly have supported what they think they need to support to get by in a world of omnipresent government. That sometimes entails loosening a particular regulation or trimming a particular tax, but it almost never entails general advocacy of laissez faire.

Despite some blind spots, Phillips-Fein is an honest historian, and from her storytelling you can see that figures such as Richard Nixon—and even Goldwater in the desperate later days of his campaign—turned away from free markets to focus on law and order, the culture wars, and what she calls a "diffuse sense of alienation."

These things had little to do with intellectual conservatism and even less to do with free markets. But they are what dominates the electoral right to this day. Their current embodiment, with the war on terror now subbing for law and order, is the controversial Gov. Palin.

Sarah Palin is not mentioned in either of these books, which were doubtless finished many months before the Alaska governor was plucked from obscurity to become a national phenomenon. But as we move toward 2012, Palin is a synecdoche for everything the right has become in American politics. She continues to be held up as a serious and admirable force by nearly all varieties of the intellectual and activist right that want to remain members in good standing of the coalition.

Ronald Reagan was a great populist communicator, to be sure. But he was no Sarah Palin. He had decades of immersion in a serious set of ideas about markets and how they work, and he had experience communicating them via long speeches and radio presentations, many of which he wrote himself. Palin on the national stage is mostly experienced in stumbling through platitudes about low taxes and government not working, and whipping up resentment against the contemptuous elites out to get her.

In some ways she resembles the New Right populists of the 1970s and '80s, such as Richard Viguerie and Sam Francis, barreling through in opposition to the East Coast media elites. But Palin represents the worst of both worlds. She buys into the GOP elites' neoconservative foreign policy and wan verbal obeisance to free markets but yokes those positions to a populist anti-intellectualism that makes her unable to win over anyone who doesn't love her for reminding them of their kind of person. With U.S. demographics changing, and with an economic crisis turning those elites with whiplash speed away from the supposed victories for free market ideas described by Schneider and Phillips-Fein, that is not ground on which anything approaching serious intellectual conservatism will be able to thrive.

Politicians who call themselves conservative will have future electoral victories. But they probably will devote little energy to advocating the right-wing ideas chronicled in these books. Some will consider themselves culturally traditionalist, for example, but the traditions they defend will drift further and further from the mores of the mid-20th century, when contemporary conservatism was birthed. Palin gets credit for being a Christian traditionalist merely by having a big family and not making her teenage daughter get an abortion. In the 1940s, Christian traditionalists likely would have considered her terribly irresponsible for working an important job with that many kids, and a wild degenerate for allowing her daughter to be publicly disgraced by an unwed pregnancy.

And the free market? Under both Democrats and Republicans, the generaldirection of the U.S. government has been toward more spending, more taxing, and more federal control, even if Reagan did succeed in dramatically lowering the highest marginal tax rates. Otherwise smart observers such as Schneider and Phillips-Fein miss these facts, conflating the success of the Republican Party, as it comes and goes, with the success of conservative ideas.

Phillips-Fein expresses this confusion about right-wing success most baldly, declaring out of nowhere, to buttress the significance of her topic, that "the New Deal has been turned back." Except for court packing and the National Recovery Administration, every significant practice, and certainly every big idea, behind the New Deal has only gotten stronger in the last 60 years. Talk in liberal and journalistic circles abounds with hopeful references to a "new New Deal," and President Obama would probably get some Republican votes if he tried pushing through a modern-day Works Progress Administration.

Garet Garrett, the Old Right stalwart with whom Schneider begins his book, once wrote that the New Deal "entered the old form" of the U.S. Constitution "and devoured its meaning from within." Today, postwar conservatism has also seen its substance devoured from within. Conservative standard-bearers such as Palin and McCain are as devoted to bailouts and industrial policy and war as any New Dealers, and the right-wing intellectual tradition has withered into the narrow calculus of political gamesmanship within an ever-growing government.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty (bdoherty@reason.com) is the author of Radicals for Capitalism (PublicAffairs) and Gun Control on Trial (Cato).