The Hands that Built the Conservative Movement
Source Dave Anderson
Date 09/09/01/23:07
The Hands that Built the Conservative Movement
Michael Kimmage

Invisible Hands:
The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan
by Kim Phillips-Fein
W.W. Norton & Co., 2009, 368 pp.

WERNER SOMBART'S hundred-year-old question about American politics—why
does America not have a socialist movement comparable to those of
Europe and Russia?—has not only faded away in the last couple of
decades; it has been inverted. Younger historians have now started to
ask why the American twentieth century contained so much
conservatism—a question that is often coupled with a complimentary
query: why has there been so much capitalism in America?

Sombart's question about American socialism could be directly
addressed to the late nineteenth century, when a serious Socialist
Party arose in America with vibrant movements to its left, and as long
as the New Deal was an open experiment, the prospect of American
socialism could be viewed through the lens of national politics.
Lyndon Johnson worked to expand the New Deal in the mid-1960s, and
Robert Kennedy contributed his élan to the progressive tradition in
the 1968 primaries. Some forty-one years after RFK's assassination,
however, 1968 can also be seen as a turning point, marking the
terminus of American socialism and the ascendancy of a self-confident,
pro-capitalist conservatism. This ascendancy remains a mystery, and as
such, it is now attracting first-rate historical scholarship.

Kim Phillips-Fein has added a cogently argued, densely researched book
to the growing shelf of historical literature on modern American
conservatism. Its title—Invisible Hands: the Making of the
Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan—contains two
references within it. The first is to Adam Smith and his notion of the
invisible hand, the idea that a market is not only rational and
progressive but also self-correcting; and the second is to E.P.
Thompson's epochal work of labor history, The Making of the English
Working Class (1964), which continues to reverberate in recent
historical writing—as in Liz Cohen's The Making of a New Deal:
Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (1991) or, somewhat modified,
in Michael Denning`s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American
Culture in the Twentieth Century (1998).

Phillips-Fein's argument takes shape between the reference to Smith
and the reference to Thompson. She traces the strategizing of various
business and intellectual elites who admired Adam Smith and the
principle of laissez-faire administration but who also were eager to
work in concert, as invisible hands, to change the mechanics of
American government. These "invisible hands" helped to engineer a
major political movement—a conservative revolution that was first
noticeable in 1964 when Goldwater ran on the Republican ticket and
that became fact with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Aided by
the "exceptional nature" of the New Deal, which Phillips-Fein presents
as an impermanent American experiment in social democracy,
conservatism arrived at a position of dominance by the 1980s.

IF A modern American conservatism has lasted into the twenty-first
century, it began in the 1930s during the heyday of the New Deal. Its
essence, Phillips-Fein contends, was not religious or segregationist
sentiment or anti-communist but a particular economic theory that gave
maximum scope to big business and associated small government, in the
popular mind, with American freedom. Modern conservatives "believed
that the free market was equivalent to freedom itself," a conviction
that traveled from the margins of the Great Depression to the heart of
the late twentieth-century Washington consensus.

Phillips-Fein traces three distinct stages of modern conservatism as
it evolved from ideas into a movement and from a movement into a
political establishment. The first was intellectual: the critique of
the New Deal waged without great fanfare in the 1930s and 1940s. Even
in this improbable early phase, efforts were made to house ideas in
institutions and through institutions to levy influence. The American
Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943, and the Mount Pelerin
Society, a consortium of conservative economists, was founded in 1947.

Ronald Reagan began working for General Electric in 1954 and was
responsible for the creation of a rhetorical "universe in which the
corporation was the liberator and the state the real oppressor of the
working class." In 1960, Barry Goldwater published his ghostwritten
Conscience of a Conservative, a book that forged the complicated ideas
of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises—two Austrian-born theorists of
economic conservatism—into "a compressed, elegant credo" with the aim
of acquiring political power (the second stage).

Goldwater's campaign tract was a popular success, although Goldwater
suffered one of the worst defeats in presidential history—evidence
that in 1964 the conservative movement had not yet reached maturity.
For Phillips-Fein, the key factor in Goldwater's defeat was neither
the lingering nostalgia for JFK nor the perception that Goldwater's
foreign policy was extreme, but his failure to win over big business.
"The businessmen went with Johnson in the end," Phillips-Fein
observes, leaving the conservative movement with a job still to do.

The conservative triumph, when it came, was dialectical. On the one
hand, an attack on liberalism from the left made New Deal premises
less self-evident and, with the divisions over the Vietnam War, helped
to undo the mandate Johnson thought he had won in 1964. On the other
hand, an attack on capitalism, popular among youth and within the
counterculture, engendered a wider, more vigorous defense of the free
enterprise system that conservatives had been rehearsing since the
1930s. As a result, the conservative movement gained new allies in the
1970s from the South and from the milieu of evangelical Christianity.
Jesse Helms began his political career "in the world of business
conservatism," and Pat Robertson "insisted that the moral illness
threatening the United States in the late 1970s had its roots in the
nation's political economy."

Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party of the 1970s may have been
receptive to pro-business politics, but it was Ronald Reagan who
ultimately emerged as the patron saint of corporate America with his
talent for courting "the business world while appearing to stand for
principles that had little to do with the immediate interests of
business at all." For some on the left, Reagan was a Hollywood
celebrity who had stumbled into the presidency, a charming fool whose
constituency had been seduced by low-brow patriotism and media savvy.

Phillips-Fein places Reagan in an altogether different context,
focusing on the long historical arc leading up to the 1980 election.
Visible or invisible, hands had been building the conservative
movement for decades, and a man unlikely to be mistaken for an
intellectual presided over a movement that had begun as a diffuse body
of ideas. Nor was Reagan a purely symbolic leader of the conservative
movement: as president, he weakened the power of unions, lowered
taxes, and elevated the status of business in a culture already
inclined to be pro-business. Reagan proved to be the New Deal's most
committed and effective enemy, and in the movement`s third stage, he
not only translated conservatism into policy; he brought the movement
to Washington, D.C., where it became an establishment.

Phillips-Fein's research into the institutional structure of the
conservative movement is meticulous. Some of the ground has been
covered before. The evolution of conservative economic thought can be
found in George Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in
America since 1945 (1976) and the fusion of this thinking with the
Goldwater campaign in Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry
Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001). In The
Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (2009), Sean Wilentz portrays some
of the same figures who populate Invisible Hands. Yet Phillips-Fein
arranges her material into a new synthesis, using archival research to
date and describe the exact set of connections that formed at
mid-century and that went on to precipitate the Reagan Revolution. She
does this with an eye for the vivid—and at times for the
entertaining—detail. She moves among the history of ideas, movements,
institutions, and political change in prose that is clear and

At the same time, the book's title promises more than it delivers.
This is a history of the conservative movement with only one chapter
devoted to culture and religion, and even here the economic impulses
of evangelical Christianity garner attention as opposed to the
problems of tradition and modernity, piety and ethics that preoccupy
many evangelicals. In fact, it is only evangelical Christians who
matter in her analysis; Catholics fall outside her purview, although
their contributions to the modern conservative movement have been

The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, without which modern
conservatism might never have coalesced, is mentioned only once and in
passing, and the politics of race, though touched upon in the
footnotes, are also not a part of this story. Most surprising of all,
Reagan figures only as the prophet of economic laissez-faire. A
B-movie actor who entered politics because of his Hollywood encounters
with communism and whose passion for anti-communism was of a piece
with his passion for small government, Reagan`s political career began
and ended with the cold war.

The making of the conservative movement cannot be reduced to
economics, even if economics was at its center and even if, as
Phillips-Fein demonstrates, the capacity of wealthy conservatives to
fund the conservative movement was a crucial factor in the movement's
eventual political impact. Neglect of the cold war contributes to
making this a hermetically American book, with American politics as
its own benchmark. Phillips-Fein thus misses two opportunities. The
first is for comparison: Margaret Thatcher and Thatcher-ite
conservatism are a regrettable absence in this book. The second is for
contrast, since America's economic conservatism is unusual to the
point of being bizarre when examined next to the political culture of
continental Europe, Russia, Asia, and Latin America in the 1970s and

The major problem with Invisible Hands, however, is not so much its
narrow focus on economics or its rigorous focus on America; it is its
hazy image of the 1970s. The early chapters on conservatives and the
New Deal are excellent. The 1960s attack on the free enterprise system
is concisely rendered and makes complete historical sense. The 1980s
as a decade of conservatism is also unimpeachable and is the core
phenomenon Phillips-Fein is devoted to explaining. But the 1970s are a
confusing piece of this puzzle.

Twice Phillips-Fein resorts to meteorological metaphors when
characterizing the transitional 1970s. The seventies, she writes, were
a decade in which "a broader intellectual and political climate
shifting toward the right" mirrored "the intellectual climate of
declining Keynsianism." A few pages later, this same transition is
sketched in the passive voice: "The ideas carefully honed during the
years when conservatives had been excluded from power were taking the
place of the old faiths of the New Deal era." It is as if the
country's actual dramatic move to the right cannot be precisely
described or explained; it can only be noted like an abrupt alteration
in the weather. This may be a problem of wording in Invisible Hands,
but it also goes to the core of its argument.

Phillips-Fein is eloquent and erudite when it comes to the question of
small-group agency—the ideologues and the affluent and the ambitious
who converged in the hope of moving the political center rightward—but
all this maneuvering would have been useless if the ideas of the
conservative movement had not resonated so powerfully with the
American public. The libertarian Ayn Rand became a literary sensation
in the 1930s without a conservative movement behind her, ; Hayek's The
Road to Serfdom acquired cult status against the odds of academic
publishing in the 1940s; and Phillips-Fein writes of Goldwater's
Conscience of a Conservative "tapping into a market for conservative
ideas that no one had really known existed." Phillips-Fein, who does
so much to illuminate the infrastructure of the Reagan Revolution,
does not speculate enough about the hearts and minds of the grassroots
revolutionaries—about the change in weather that turned the vigorous
Lyndon Johnson into a figment of the past and the elderly Ronald
Reagan into an emissary from the future.

PERHAPS THE modernity of modern conservatism has been exaggerated, and
the task of future historians will be to go farther back in American
history. In the early republic, the anti-federalist voice was not
conservative in any meaningful way. Nevertheless, it set a precedent
for "anti-Washington" thinking that reached a fever pitch in the 1850s
and was one impetus for the Civil War. This is a precedent with
twentieth-century echoes.

Enthusiasm for business and technology was an organic aspect of
nineteenth-century American culture. The entire pattern of settlement
in the American West, with the government perpetually lagging behind
the settlers, made for an unusual relationship between the economy and
the state and was woven into the myth of American individualism, upon
which Goldwater and Reagan were both virtuosic improvisers.

The sheer geographic size of the United States also has implications
for the modern welfare state: Denmark and Holland are easier to govern
as social democracies than the massive United States—in which
Washington, D.C. is often a distant reality to many of its citizen and
in which the country at large is often a distant reality to those
living and working in Washington. Circumstance imposes several degrees
of alienation between the American citizen and the federal government.

Phillips-Fein is persuasive in her efforts to push the history of
modern conservatism back to the 1930s, an endeavor that could be
broadened by other scholars. This, combined with a sharper
understanding of the 1970s, may finally elucidate the question posed
by Werner Sombart in 1906—a question that has been transformed in
recent decades from a question about socialism into a question about

Michael Kimmage is an assistant professor of history at the Catholic
University of America. His first book, The Conservative Turn: Lionel
Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communism,
appeared with Harvard University Press in the spring of 2009.

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