Sunday, 19 April 2009

“Invisible Hands”, by Kim Phillips-Fein (W.W. Norton)

Phillips-Fein-InvisibleHands “The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan”

For much of the period following World War Two, the ideas and policies espoused by the American conservative movement (i.e. the primacy of the free-market and the dangers of powerful labour unions, government activism and regulation) had largely been rejected, and FDR’s New Deal proceeded largely unhindered.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, a handful of prominent businessmen in America, in response to FDR’s New Deal, forged alliances aimed at protecting their profits and (in their eyes at least) rescuing America as a whole, from the encroaching “nanny state” and creeping socialism.

Invisible Hands takes a different approach to the rise of American conservatism than most books on the subject. As Phillips-Fein writes in the introduction to the book,

“This is a book about conservative politics. But it isn’t about the political leaders of the movement, the men like Reagan whose names and faces everyone knows. It is a book about businessmen… who supported and helped build the conservative movement that brought Reagan to power in 1980.”

While Reagan and his like do make minor appearances in the book (especially towards the end), Invisible Hands focuses more on the people behind the scenes of the conservative movement, charting the evolution of the movement through the post-war years, through the turbulent 1970s, Reagan’s administration and then finally bringing it up to date in a brief epilogue. The author outlines the institutions created to help disseminate conservative ideologies, and how they matured as the decades passed.

“Throughout the postwar period, these institutions and the people who created them were engaged in a conscious attempt to mirror and to counter the labor and countercultural political movements that challenged the dominance of business. But as those other social and political movements have been defeated, as the labor movement has dwindled and the left has been pushed back, the idea of a political movement of businessmen, so often referred to and dreamed of by conservative activists, successful in so many ways, has come to seem oddly melodramatic and out of place.”

The characters within are usually interesting and of diverse temperaments. Almost all are largely unknown, larger-than-life and sometimes eccentric personalities.

They include such notables as the Du Pont brothers, who had struck it rich during the World Wars producing weapons, plastics and the like, but were also pillars of their communities (Pierre Du Pont, for example, donated $4million to schools for Black children in the Jim Crow state Delaware). It would appear that the Du Ponts kicked the whole movement off with, in alliance with other businessmen, the creation of the (ill-fated and short-lived) American Liberty League, in 1934.

Other leading members of the cast include Leonard Read, William Clinton Mullendore, J Howard Pew, Any Rand (author of Atlas Shrugged), Jasper Crane, Lemuel Boulware (GE’s strike-buster), William F. Buckley Jr. (National Review founder) and Roger Milliken. All these people and more besides helped set up the think tanks, radio stations, magazine, and intellectual organisations (funded by business interests) that helped form the infrastructure of the conservative movement in the 1950s.

Meticulously researched, and skillfully written: the author’s prose are very clear and make for an accessible and fascinating (if at times rather dry) read. The author shows how a small group of businessmen cemented the opposition to the post-war “liberal consensus”, and engineered a slow-yet-steady turnaround in American politics.

Invisible Hands is an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at the rise of the conservative movement. It is especially valuable as it does not focus on the usual cast of characters – the Reagans, Goldwaters, and so forth – but rather those who helped create, organise and execute a pragmatic, step-by-step campaign that promoted a specific ideology and ultimately propelled these conservative ideas to electoral triumph in 1980. Equally, it is a look at the other side of the Republican party – that not associated with religiosity and intense culture-war tactics (though the adoption of Christian morality, etc., into the conservative tent is discussed in chapter 4). That being said, Phillips-Fein’s greatest contribution is the even-handed neutrality with which she approaches her subject, drawing Invisble Hands away from the bias-prone study of (conservative) US politics.

With plenty of books published in the last couple of years looking to the future of the conservative movement and Republican party (e.g. Ross Douthat & Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party), it is both refreshing and beneficial to read a book that lays out, in detail, its past and ideological history.

Also try: Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan (2008); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant (2006); H.W. Brands, Traitor to His Class (2008); Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy (2006); Dean Baker, The Conservative Nanny State (2006); Gregory Schneider, Conservatism in America since 1930 (2003)

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