October 2010

Mariya Strauss


An Interview with Kim Phillips-Fein

Kim Phillips-Fein’s 2009 book, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (recently issued in paperback under the title Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade against the New Deal) is making the rounds again as mainstream writers like Frank Rich of The New York Times struggle to understand revelations about the billionaires who are funding the Tea Party. If you read it, you will, in fact, understand a lot about how the conservative movement works. Bookslut interviewed her as she took a lunch break in her office at New York University.

John Boehner and others in the Republican party have come out with a formal proposal for very deep, across-the-board cuts to funding in public services and government agencies. And I don't know if it's clear yet whether the Tea Party politicians are backing this, but the timing of it just seems kind of ominous to me. For whom are these politicians like John Boehner bearing the flag?

I would say I think the response of people like Boehner -- they're responding to the Tea Party phenomenon. These movements that we are seeing and have seen throughout the 20th century -- to cut taxes, to cut social services, to roll back the welfare state -- they very frequently have received a lot of support from conservative businesspeople, who obviously have a very personal financial interest in seeing these kinds of programs rolled back. Businesspeople don't just see it as economic, they also see it as reflecting what seems to them the right way to organize the polity -- which is to have a government that does as little as possible, and to have the market, and by extension, the power of private businesspeople, control how the society is organized. So throughout the 20th century, we see these types of people backing and funding these kinds of campaigns. And it's not a surprise that with the Tea Party, the organizations that help organize and mobilize people also have received financial support from these kinds of companies.

At the same time, that's not all the Tea Party is. These movements are complicated because they bring together these types of wealthy funders with rank-and-file people who participate in these movements for a variety of other reasons. But I think the key thing is that they often present themselves as spontaneous uprisings or as a kind of authentic populist mobilization, and in fact they do tend to be bankrolled heavily by wealthy conservative businesspeople.

Right. And one thing I wanted to go into about your book is  you do a good job of showing that even though they manage to seem populist, that the businessmen -- because most of them are men -- who bankroll the public face of the conservative movement manage to either stay invisible or manage to seem like the calm hand at the wheel, that they're just kind of unemotional and in control and that they're just obeying what they consider to be intractable market forces. But in your book you show that actually some of these businessmen themselves are truly zealots. And that they really have this very strong alliance with the conservative intellectuals, or the conservative Christians. So I guess my question is, how do they pull off this appearance of being calm and disinterested?

That's a great question. One of the things that motivated me in writing the book was that a lot of historians who write about business tend to assume that businesspeople are pretty simplistic political actors. You know, that they tend to be motivated by very short-term concerns, like getting a tax break that will help their company, or getting some sort of subsidy. That they're very driven by tactical, immediate interests. And there is a part of this that's true. But what I was struck by when I was doing the research is how deeply political many of these people are, and how much they felt they were motivated by a very broad political vision. I mean, I think they're not -- I wouldn't say that they're zealots, exactly, or that they're freaks. In a way, they're activists. I think what drives them is not that different than what might drive activists on the left -- they have a vision of what they want the society to look like. What makes them different is that they have access to a lot of money, and to a kind of social position that enables them to act without the kind of questions and the sense of being challenged all the time that people who are not at the upper levels of society have to cope with. And so they have a tremendous confidence that comes from their social position -- from being these high-level executives. And they are driven by these broad ideas about how to re-organize the society.

One of the people that I talk about in the book is Lemuel Boulware, who was a vice president at GE throughout the 1950s. And Boulware really tries to make GE a kind of anti-union political force to offer the employees of the company a broad re-education in free-market economic ideas. He actually literally has a course that every worker at the company has to attend on company time where they will be taught free-market economic ideas. And he talks to other businesspeople about the importance of such programs; he talks about the importance of moving GE plants into states that have laws that are favorable to business. He really sees himself as an activist and an organizer in a war against the forces of labor and the New Deal more broadly.

You have a line in your chapter on him at GE where you even describe how he singlehandedly changed the contract negotiations with the workers. I mean, that was not being done at the time. So he really was innovating there.

Right, he was innovating. And he's a totally respectable person, but he's really driven by these very strong political ideas about what is best for the company and, he thinks, also for the broader society. And his ideas are informed by self-interest, but I don't think it's right to say that they are kind of limited by it. And I think that people think of businesspeople as being these kind of narrow political actors, when actually, they are just like any other group of people in the complexity and range of their motivations.

You show in the book how the businessmen bankroll the intellectuals. They start think tanks, then recruit the politicians and either give them their education or pick people who are already in their circles. And they never hesitate to invest personal wealth in their fight against liberalism. So why would you say this aspect is important for liberals and progressives to understand?

There are a couple of important lessons. There's one sense in which you could say we see this as something of a model. That at the end of the New Deal and World War II, we have this group, a relatively small, informal group of businesspeople who are quite committed to turning back liberalism. And who become involved in a quite long-term campaign to fund ideas, to fund politicians, to fund anti-union strategies, and to work against liberalism. And I wouldn't say that the existence of this group was not by itself enough to bring about the success of conservatism. But they were able to keep the conservative possibility alive for a long time, until for broader social reasons it was able to move to the forefront. And you could say that that long-term vision -- that interest in working with intellectuals, that interest in sustaining institutions until the right moment arises, that that offers a kind of model for liberals and progressives to follow.

At the same time I also think there is a way in which it is important to be aware of the differences -- that these people have a very different structural position than most liberals and progressives. They have access to wealth in a way that most liberals and progressives don't, and there's also that the real strength of any left movement has to come from connections between people, and from a grassroots organizing base. That is really the strength of the great social movements of the 20th century -- of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement -- these movements did not win the victories they did because of the same types of arrangements that helped conservatism prosper.

So in a certain way there's something that people can learn from it, and in another way, maybe it offers a counterexample of what liberals and leftists would need to think about -- what they don't have, what they are up against, and to think of how to counter it with other types of tools that are more available.

You also describe pretty frankly the deep cynicism with which businessmen came to the realization that they just weren't going to succeed on their own, how just with greed as their message they weren't going to succeed. And so in a way their organizing could be seen from your book as more of a triumph of messaging than as a triumph of actual organizing.

Yeah, good point. At the end of World War II and the New Deal, they really felt they had been defeated. And that they had to figure out a new way to spin what they were saying.

You mentioned before their interest in working with Christian groups, and I think it is interesting the ways that they sought to do this. For example there was a whole effort in the 1950s -- this was one of the more extreme versions of this -- but there was an effort by a group of conservative ministers, but also getting money from major corporations and fundraising and working with that group, was a group called Spiritual Mobilization which sought to show there was no tension between the gospel and the market.

It suggests how successful ideas of social gospel had been earlier in the 20th century.

Social gospel is the more progressive gospel of Jesus where he...

The idea that Christians have a responsibility to help the poor, for example. Or that there is something in the teachings of the New Testament that suggests having some sense of social justice is an important part of your faith. And these people were very committed to trying to find ways to say just the opposite: that Christ was motivated by profit and by self-interest because he was teaching what you had to do to get into heaven. Or these whole kind of readings of the Bible that were intended to show that there wasn't any tension between capitalism and the drive to get very very rich. From an early point there was a sense that there should be ways to find areas of common ground with resurgent evangelicalism.

Spiritual Mobilization did not get that far. It was too narrowly focused, but I think in a way that Billy Graham and the Cold War context for evangelical crusades in the postwar period really came out of the churches. Spiritual Mobilization was almost too much. It just didn't have much traction in the real world. But it gives a sense of how people were thinking and their sense that it ought to be possible to make this kind of coalition.

And of course then Jerry Falwell succeeds in the late '70s and early '80s with it.

One of the interesting things about Falwell that people don't know is that he was -- people think about Falwell, and they rightly think about his participation in the culture wars -- his opposition to feminism, his anti-gay statements, and that is definitely part of what was driving him. But if you look at his writings, it is really amazing how much there is in them about economics. And he quotes Milton Friedman at length, he writes about the overwhelming state bureaucracy. And there are particular reasons for this. There are particular reasons why conservative Christians in the 1970s felt as though the state was encroaching on the church in certain ways. And so they had a commonality with the businessmen opposed to regulation and the welfare state. But it was just very interesting; I was very surprised doing the research to see how much Falwell and Moral Majority publications have to say about free-market economics.

In some sense they were also a little late to the party, right? Do you think that Falwell and the Moral Majority were just searching for where the power and the money were going to come from next, or do you think that he was a true believer?

It's hard to say. It's hard to separate the canny opportunistic side from the sense of principle and values. And there is something about the vision of the free market that actually in some ways does lend itself -- it marries nicely with some aspects of conservative Christianity. A sense of a kind of order underlying things that will work itself out if you just leave it alone and let it be. A sense that you have to live through great suffering in order to have a redemption on the other side. I think there are ways in which the two ways of seeing the world might have something in common. So I don't know if it's just opportunism or if it also speaks to something deeper.

And of course the politicians are drawing so much of their rhetoric from that Moral Majority language now. It feels like all of a sudden we woke up, and we suddenly had all of these born-again Christians in political power. I was reading in your book about Barry Goldwater and wondering why he wasn't more successful with his social-conservative-plus-business-conservative message, and now we have Sarah Palin who seems to have a similar base of support among middle-class and working-class parents and families who identify as Christian, who espouse family values and ideas of decency, taking back the country, et cetera. So how would you account for Palin succeeding where Goldwater failed?

Well, one thing about Barry Goldwater is that Barry Goldwater was actually not as socially conservative as modern Republicans, like Palin. Barry Goldwater actually was pro-choice. And I think he was actually fairly tolerant about sexuality. And these [positions] came out later in his career, in the late 1980s, because he tangled with the more socially conservative Republicans emerging around that time.

That's right, you say he wrote Newt Gingrich a letter saying he supported Clinton.

Right. [Laughs.] Which tells you something about Clinton, too. But he never had much use for the religious conservatives. Goldwater is really building off of this wave of conservative activism among businesspeople in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It's people who are involved in the conservative business political scene that encourage Goldwater to run for the presidency. His book -- The Conscience of a Conservative -- is actually ghostwritten by a National Review contributor, and the whole idea to write the book came from Clarence Mannion, who was an early conservative radio host. He proposed to Goldwater that they write this book, and the idea was they would then sell the book to conservative corporations, and then use the money generated by the book to help fund Goldwater's 1960 campaign for the presidency. Goldwater was wary at first; he said "I can't write," and didn't want to do it. But then he worked with this National Review writer who basically wrote it, and the book then did extremely well, and there was a much broader audience for it than they had originally imagined. So Goldwater comes out of this world of conservative business activists, and he is then able to make even greater political strides because he is opposed to the Civil Rights Act. And he helps break the old Democratic solid South because he is standing in opposition to all these early civil rights laws.

And as we saw with Rand Paul this past spring, [Goldwater] insists this is about federal power and states' rights, and autonomy of the states, and actually Milton Friedman is critical of the civil rights laws. Early, there was a strong opposition in this community to basic anti-discrimination legislation and overturning Jim Crow. However, even though Goldwater presented in these terms, in the South and around the country it is understood as opposition to integration. And opposition to civil rights. And many people who did not want to dismantle Jim Crow, many white Southerners, were drawn to Goldwater for that reason.

But nevertheless, despite this, it's 1964, it's the high tide of American liberalism, it's the high tide of the postwar economic expansion, and his message of opposition to Social Security, opposition to the unions, opposition to the use of the state, all of those things just do not have any traction at that time. Lyndon Johnson successfully portrayed him as a nutjob who might lead the country into nuclear war. So there's a lot of reasons why Goldwater goes down, but why Reagan, whose message has much in common with Goldwater's, was able to be successful in the late 1970s, after the postwar growth has stopped, after the wave of social tension and conflict of the '70s.

And then I think today, what is different about someone like Sarah Palin? I think partly she does have the socially conservative message to draw on, which appeals to people that Goldwater wasn't even really thinking about reaching. And she is tapping into a very different set of things than Goldwater was.

That makes sense. But bits and pieces of his message are ping-ponging around. I think it's important for readers and the public to know when they are being spoken to in code, and when political candidates, or the Glenn Becks of the world, are saying things that are meant to hook people, or meant as kind of a dog whistle to rally the conservative base.

It is interesting how much of the Tea Party rhetoric and Glenn Beck rhetoric is drawing on the language of conservative economic ideas and anti-government politics that I write about in the book. Anti-feminism, anti-gay sentiments, anti-gay marriage, those are all parts of the conservative program. But in a way, the Tea Party people have been trying to present themselves as not so concerned with “culture war” issues. They have been trying to say that what really matters to them are these questions about the size of the state. It's interesting -- Glenn Beck recently had a program, although I did not see it, that was all about the history of labor in America, an anti-union screed that would have been really familiar to any of the people that I write about. So the philosophical and rhetorical continuities are pretty remarkable.

I know you did much of your research at conservative archives and conservative research institutions. What were some of those institutions and how were you treated there?

I went to the Hoover Institution, which is associated with the conservative think tank at Stanford. I went to the Jesse Helms Center for Free Enterprise, which is an archive located in the tiny, tiny town that Helms grew up in, about an hour outside of Charlotte. There's almost nothing else there. You just get to this large structure with Grecian columns, and Jesse Helms's papers are there. I went to Bob Jones University, which is a fundamentalist college probably best known for its [former] ban on interracial dating, and which used to be a popular stop on the Republican campaign trail. I have to say that I was treated pretty respectfully at all of them. The staff of the archives was always friendly and helpful. Historians are really indebted to archivists and librarians. Without them, it would be impossible for us to do our work. So I really appreciated the support that people offered.

Do you have any sense of how your book is being received in those places? Have you had feedback from conservative readers?

The book was reviewed in several conservative publications. The reviews have actually tended to be pretty appreciative. I think that conservatives actually appreciate having some light shed on this part of their history. There's a sense that people learn things in the book that they hadn't previously known. They may say "The book has a tone critical of business," or people have said that the book confuses business politics with a kind of pure libertarianism. But I think among those readers, there is a market for this book. People have gotten a lot out of reading it. Now there are, on Amazon, people who have written in who have obviously not read the book but who are taking swipes or whatever. I mean, in some ways, I have been surprised because I think a lot of conservatives are very committed to a populist, grassroots understanding of their movement. And the book, I think, shows the limits of that approach if you really want to understand the structure of the conservative movement. So I think there is something in it that is likely troubling to many conservatives, and the hostile responses it has received probably reflect that.

I have one last question. I saw this on Twitter. I don't know if it actually -- I think it came from a journalist, but a Republican operative told them, apparently, that the Tea Party is like an extended temper tantrum -- if you ignore them, they'll go away. That struck me as kind of false. How does it strike you?

It seems too dismissive of the force of conservatism. One of the lessons of the book is that part of the reason that conservative politics are so strong in America is that there is this support for it among part of the business world. And that support still exists, and is able to help conservatism survive temporary setbacks and defeats. So I think there are reasons that this kind of politics keeps coming back even after people think that it's gone, along [with] the other types of grievances and political frustrations that are drawing people to conservative politics.

In 1964, when Barry Goldwater was defeated, there was a sense in the mainstream press that conservatism was dead, that the conservative revolt that Goldwater had symbolized had been defeated permanently. Obviously nothing could have been further from the case then. So the future is open. I wouldn't say that conservatism is definitely going to revive. But I think it's also wrong to be glib and dismissive about what this force represents.

The conservative politics and the business mobilization chronicled in the book has not just shaped the far right; it has also transformed mainstream liberalism. And the broad acceptance of ideas about the market and the limits of the state -- I think we can see it in the contemporary Democratic party as well. And in the reluctance of the leading Democratic politicians to support, for example, the Employee Free Choice Act. So I think there's a way in which the political triumph of the business mobilization hasn't just shaped the right. It has also shaped liberalism. And we have to contend with that as well. It’s also part of its legacy.