By James Kwak
(Actually, it was on Saturday.) I just read Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (W.W. Norton, 2009), by Kim Phillips-Fein. It’s a history of the resistance from the business community to the New Deal and how it gave birth to at least one major strand of the modern conservative movement. One of Phillips-Fein’s major points is that the conservative movement is not just a reaction to the civil rights movement, the 1960s, and the women’s liberation movement (and Roe v. Wade). Those trends gave the conservative movement more energy and support, but business leaders had for decades been trying to build an intellectual and political movement that could reverse the New Deal. And while some of them talked about Christian values, what they really cared about were breaking unions and lower taxes.
I think this is relevant because it gets at the question of what the modern conservative movement and the Tea Party are all about. There has been a lot of work on this issue, from a variety of different angles. David Campbell and Robert Putnam looked at longitudinal surveys and found that the best predictors of being a Tea Party supporter are being an activist, conservative Republican and wanting religion to play a larger role in politics—which implies that the Tea Party is just the same foot soldiers who have backed the conservative movement for the past thirty years. Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin (Chrystia Freeland summary here) studied one local Tea Party movement in depth and found that there is something new about the movement:
“We find that the Tea Party is a new incarnation of longstanding strands in U.S. conservatism. The anger of grassroots Tea Partiers about new federal social programs such as the Affordable Care Act coexists with considerable acceptance, even warmth, toward long-standing federal social programs like Social Security and Medicare, to which Tea Partiers feel legitimately entitled. Opposition is concentrated on resentment of perceived federal government ‘handouts’ to “undeserving” groups, the definition of which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes.”
Jane Mayer famously described the Tea Party as the creation or the tool of the Koch Brothers and former Gingrich lieutenant Dick Armey. And a number of scholars, including Thomas Ferguson, have argued that political conservatism derives its strength not from a shift in popular attitudes, but from the money provided by businessmen with an anti-regulation, low-tax agenda.
Obviously, as with any complex phenomenon, there are nuances and differences—between elite organizers and grass-roots supporters, and between people who came to the movement for different reasons. I don’t have anything particularly original to add here. But I think Phillips-Fein’s book strengthens the relative position of the pro-business, anti-union, anti-regulation strand in the genealogy of the conservative movement (as opposed to the family values strand, or the true libertarian strand).
It also contains this gem for anyone who thinks the American people suddenly developed warm and fuzzy feelings about the Constitution in the past two years. Describing the 1934 founding of the American Liberty League—a rabidly anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal organization—she writes (p. 10):
“The main topic of discussion was creating a ‘propertyholders’ association,’ as Irénée [DuPont] put it, to disseminate ‘information as to the dangers to investors’ posed by the New Deal. The group decided that the name of their association should not refer directly to property—it would be better to frame their activities as a broad defense of the Constitution.”