Corporations and the rise of American conservatism.

Author:Phillips-Fein, Kim
Position:Essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

Late in the spring of 1981, only a few months after being sworn in as president, Ronald Reagan mailed his old friend Lemuel Ricketts Boulware a set of autographed golf balls for his eighty-sixth birthday, accompanied by a personal note: 'Dear Lem--in case I do something wrong--hit one of these with a 9 iron or a "wedge" and I'll feel it' (1).

The two men had known each other for almost thirty years, ever since they met at General Electric (GE) in the 1950s. Reagan had gone to work as a spokesman for the industrial giant after his Hollywood film career began to wane, hosting the company's hour-long television drama programme and touring plants to give pep talks to workers, while Boulware was in charge of labour relations and community affairs for the company.

But even in the 1950s, Reagan and Boulware were not only colleagues and acquaintances; as Reagan's note suggests, they were also political allies. During the years when Reagan worked at the company, Boulware believed that GE was in grave danger, threatened--as was all American capitalism--by the power of the labour unions and the expanded federal government that had been created by the New Deal. From his position, he tried to work toward a goal that seemed impossible at the time: to turn back the central institutions and the reigning ideas of New Deal liberalism, and revive an age of laissez-faire.

In 1981, with Reagan in office, it seemed to Boulware as though the agenda he had sought to establish for decades might finally be on the verge of success. He wrote back to the president thanking him for the gift: 'Here's to your creative and courageous program of correction continuing to live up to its great promise--for you and all the rest of us' (2).

The 'liberal consensus' and its enemies

The rise of conservative politics in post-war America is one of the great puzzles of American political history. For much of the period that followed the end of World War II, conservative ideas about the primacy of the free market and the dangers of too-powerful labour unions, government regulation, and an activist, interventionist state seemed to have been thoroughly rejected by most intellectuals and political elites. Scholars and politicians alike dismissed those who adhered to such faiths as a 'radical right,' for whom (to quote the Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter) politics 'becomes an arena into which the wildest fancies are projected, the most paranoid suspicions, the most absurd superstitions, the most bizarre apocalyptic fantasies' (Hofstadter, 2002, 99). How, then, did such ideas move from their marginal position in the middle years of the twentieth century to become the reigning politics of the country by the century's end?

Historians and social critics often explain the successes of conservative politics by pointing to the backlash against the victories of the social movements of the 1960s, the cultural reaction against the radicals who fought for civil rights, feminism and gay and lesbian rights and who protested against the Vietnam War. The 1970s defection of white working class people alienated and frightened by the liberal programme shifted the politics of the country far to the right.

The argument is that in the days before the onset of the culture wars, a 'liberal consensus' dominated American politics, especially around economics. During the thirty-odd years between the rise of the New Deal and the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, when the Democratic Party held the White House for all but eight years, many political leaders and social critics believed that there existed a general consensus that the federal government had an important role to play in shaping economic life and helping to redress the ordinary inequalities of a capitalist economy. The fierce and open conflict between rich and poor that had dominated American politics in the early years of the twentieth century had largely disappeared.

Businessmen responded to this era of liberal dominance in a variety of ways. Many supported the New Deal order inaugurated by Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom some of them saw as one of their own)--and not without reason, as it fostered a period of relative prosperity and peace. They accepted the general framework of Keynesian economics, acknowledging that government spending could help counterbalance destructive recessions; they saw the welfare state as a necessary social safety net. And indeed, despite the persistence of divisions of class and race, those years saw dramatic improvements in the standard of living for most Americans, as the economy grew without accelerating the inequality between rich and poor.

But if one looks beneath the surface of the post-war years, it is clear that the 'liberal consensus' on matters of political economy was never absolute. Even at its zenith, liberalism was far less secure than it appeared to be. And one of the main challenges it faced began with those prominent business leaders who were outraged by the New Deal, which they saw as a fundamental challenge to their power and their place in American society. Their antagonism toward the economic order it created never fully abated. Rather, these impassioned, committed individuals found ways to nourish their opposition, to resist liberal institutions and ideas, and to persuade others to join in fighting back, until the liberal order began to falter and they could help to bring about the slow and pervasive revolution that would culminate in Reagan's victory in 1980.

It is important that we understand those determined few, those ordinary businessmen (and I use the word advisedly, for they were mostly men) from companies of different sizes and from various industries, who worked...

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