Kim Phillips-Fein is an assistant professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She specializes in the history of the conservative movement in the second-half of the twentieth century and economic philosophy of conservatism. She has contributed to the Nation, the London Review of Books, New Labor Forum, Baffler, and In These Times. Invisible Hands is her first book.
Jonathan Mok: How does one start out writing a book about the history of the conservative movement?
Kim Phillips-Fein: I decided to write about the conservative movement in the early part of this decade, not long after George W. Bush was elected for the first time, because conservatives seemed to have been so successful in reshaping American society and politics, especially with regard to economic ideas.
In the 1990s, all of American culture seemed to be celebrating capitalism and the free market. The Clinton administration adopted many of the central ideas advanced during the Reagan years, criticizing big government and ending welfare state programs—and Bush promised to take this even farther, with tax cuts that exacerbated economic inequality.
But despite the triumph of free-market economic principles, most popular discussions of conservatism were all about abortion, gay marriage, and the Christian right. I thought that in order to have a full picture of the movement’s history it was necessary to look in more depth at its economic politics, and in particular, at the ways that its success reflected the organizing efforts of elites, not grass-roots rebellion. After all, these wealthy business leaders are the people who have benefited most from conservative victories in the United States.
Jonathan: Why did you decide to limit the book to the Reagan era? Bush tried to consolidate his base through massive tax cuts, opposing abortion and trying to define marriage as the institution between a man and a woman. Compared to Reagan, Bush was more ideologically revolutionary, no?
Kim: I ended the book with Reagan because it’s a history book about conservative businessmen during the years when their movement was out of power. The history of the United States after Reagan’s election is in many ways a history of what conservatives did once they were in power, and that’s a different story than understanding how their movement took shape.
Today, many conservatives are trying to distance themselves from Bush, saying that Reagan was a true conservative and Bush is an impostor. This is false—Bush’s policies were those that the movement had advanced for a long time, from his tax cuts to his support for privatizing Social Security to his overall attitude that the market and private enterprise can be trusted whereas democratic government cannot.
Although “conservatism” claims to be a philosophy of moderation, seeking to slow rash changes and protect existing norms, the reality is that in the United States the conservative movement has always sought to undo the institutions created during the New Deal, regardless of the social consequences.
Jonathan: Do you think that the success of conservative movement , which was achieved by the victory of Reagan in 1980, was actually just coincidental since the stagnation and high unemployment in 1970s encouraged the public to consider conservatism as a way to economic growth and job creation?
Kim: I don’t see the victory of Reagan in 1980 as a historical accident or coincidence at all. It is true that the economic recession of the late 1970s provided an atmosphere in which conservative politics could thrive, since the Keynesian liberalism of the postwar era seemed to have been discredited and voters were looking for new solutions. We also shouldn’t overlook the political context of the early 1970s—which saw a massive strike wave and widespread criticism of business and capitalism in the context of the Vietnam War, as well as a rising backlash against the victories of the civil rights movement. These, too, played a role in the success of the right.
But did the recession have to lead to a victory for market ideas? Did social conservatism necessarily go hand-in-hand with attacks on the New Deal and the welfare state? Free-market conservatism flourished in the late 1970s in part because of the considerable financial and political resources that business conservatives had devoted to building organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and the Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, all of which advanced different kinds of free-market solutions to the problems of the decade. They had attacked and undermined organizations such as labor unions that had once offered an alternative. As a result, in the 1970s their program for dealing with economic difficulty came to seem like the only viable one.
What happens during an economic crisis—as we’re learning today—reflects the distribution of power and the political and intellectual organizing that has gone on in previous years. So while the recession of the 1970s created a climate favorable to Reagan, the movement that he represented actually grew out of decades of resistance to the political economy of liberalism. Even Reagan himself had a long history as an activist in the world of the business conservatives, going back to his days as a corporate spokesman at General Electric at a time when the management of the company was engaged in a fierce struggle with the union that represented its workers.
Jonathan: What would be the biggest legacy of conservatism today?
Kim: There are many legacies of the conservative movement, but perhaps the most striking has been the increase in economic inequality over the past thirty years. This is not, of course, only the result of conservative rule—it reflects broad shifts in the political economy of the United States and the world.
But free-market philosophy justifies doing little or nothing to prevent such widening inequality. It legitimates sharp divisions of wealth and income. It makes possible cutbacks in government and attacks on unions, and helps make it seem as though collective action can do nothing to help poor or working-class people.
As a result, inequality has risen, the social safety net has grown frayed, and living conditions for working-class people have worsened leading to an excessive reliance on borrowing and debt. All of this has helped to bring us to today’s financial crisis, and in the future, historians looking back may see our current predicament—which has its roots in the deregulation of finance and the stagnation of working- and middle-class incomes—as the ultimate legacy of the free-market movement.
Jonathan: Finally, do you have any predictions as to the future of conservative movement under the Obama administration?
Kim: In the months since Obama’s election, as the American economy has fallen apart, many have predicted the death of the conservative movement. As a historian, I’m loathe to make predictions about the future—I know how often they are proven wrong—but I don’t think that conservatism is dead at all. The institutions that business conservatives built over the postwar period remain alive and well—not just the think tanks, but all the lobbying groups and business organizations in Washington—and they continue to exert great pressure on the Obama administration.
The broad intellectual framework that justified the New Deal has been replaced by a much more market-oriented approach, and a new philosophy has not yet emerged. And the labor movement, which once provided electoral and political support for an alternative way to organize the American economy, remains in fragments. Should there be a real shift to the left in American politics—something that despite Obama’s election remains uncertain—it would likely be met by an equally fierce response from conservatives in the business community and elsewhere.
In addition to these continued sources of vitality, any political mobilization seeking to challenge conservatism will have to grapple with the ways that the movement has already succeeded in changing American society. In this sense as well the conservative movement will be with us for a long time to come.
This is a review of Invisible Hands: The Making of The Conservative Movement From The New Deal to Reagan (W.W. Norton. 2009).
2008 was probably the darkest year for the United States’ conservative movement so far. Economic conservatives suffered from the collapse of the financial industry. Social conservatives did not achieve most of their aims. Foreign-policy hawks were crushed by their inability to gain permanent victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While only time can tell whether or not the conservative movement will survive or perish, we must wonder how right-wing politics were able to capture the stage in the 1980’s.
Kim Phillips-Fein takes us all the way back to the 1930’s in her book on the subject. The origin of conservative movement, she argues, came from the members of privileged classes – such as DuPont Family, whose members tried to roll back the New Deal since it damaged the family’s control of plants and factories. She believes that conservatism as it is known today took shape in the 1970s, when economic and cultural conservatism were linked together.
After reading “Invisible Hands,” one still has to wonder why working-class whites came out to support politics that were actually hurting their jobs and welfare. I was also left longing for more details on the role of Christian leaders, tele-evangelism, and the particular way in which conservatism seems to be popular in the South.
Phillips-Fein’s writing, meanwhile, is so engaging that it seems a pity that the book’s timeline ends in the 1980’s. I personally can’t wait to have Phillips-Fein write a thorough take on the Bush years. Her perspective on Bush Sr. & Bush Jr. would have really rounded out this volume.
On the whole, the author offers us a new way of understanding conservatism in terms of its history and the personalities that populated it. The book challenges you to question the notion of freedom and American identity. Should freedom be merely economic? Should it come at the expense of sacrificing rights of millions of normal men and women, directly or indirectly? Will Christianity, racial tension, and white hegemony continue to define the United States mainstream in the years to come?
The old cliché applies – if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it. As the United States searches its soul in the year 2009, it would be beneficial to take a closer look at how it got to where it is in the first place, and Invisible Hands serves as a useful guide.