The Roots of American Conservatism

The Roots of American Conservatism

Why do the politics of free markets and cultural reaction keep returning like some Republican Freddy Krueger?


When Barry Goldwater sought the Republican nomination for president in 1964, his opponents—especially Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney—pilloried him for holding views that had no basis in reality, which for them meant mainstream politics. Here was a politician who criticized labor unions and had made an enemy of the United Automobile Workers; who rejected any suggestion of peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union; who loathed Social Security and argued that the federal government should play no role in guaranteeing civil rights; and who warned of a growing criminal threat that he seemed to associate with unruly protesters. Perhaps worst of all, Goldwater refused to distance himself from the conspiratorial John Birch Society, accepting their support as he fought for the nomination. When his loyal delegates waged a dogfight at the Cow Palace and secured him the candidacy, he tipped his hat to the Birchers in his acceptance speech: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

For all the fear of extremism in 1964, neither Goldwater nor his opponents could possibly match the sheer spectacle of the 2016 race for the Republican nomination, with its distinct resemblance to a reality-TV show. Donald Trump’s gold-plated hair is the least of the attractions. With the various candidates taunting each other for being insufficiently pro-gun, anti-immigrant, or pro-life, mocking each other all the while with locker-room humor, it seems that the conservative movement has reached the end of the line. One by one, the putatively mainstream Republicans—the patient Jeb Bush, the stolid Scott Walker, even the obstreperous Chris Christie, all of whom did their duty by attacking public-sector unions, defending the right to work, and pushing tax cuts—have been kicked to the sidelines.

What appeals to Republican primary voters, especially those who are radicalized and revanchist and have a taste for nonsense and paranoia, is Ted Cruz’s “defense of religious liberty” and Trump’s rich-guy braggadocio, especially his visions of brown-skinned immigrant hordes stampeding over the American border to violently seize our jobs. The Tea Party is standing off against voters happy to jettison the old truisms of the free market in favor of a pumped-up nationalism, leaving David Brooks and National Review to tie themselves in knots explaining that none of this is genuine conservatism. The right has experienced schisms many times before, and its collapse has been predicted, erroneously, on many occasions, going back to LBJ’s victory over Goldwater in 1964 and as recently as Obama’s election in 2008. Still, the divisions and chaos unleashed by this primary season make one wonder: How long can this possibly go on?

For a generation, scholars of American politics, almost all of whom are liberals or on the left, have been driven by a sense of bewilderment about the right. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, they have puzzled over how, in the face of what seems to them its self-evident backwardness, the right’s politics of fantasy and rage has remained imperishable. Their work has looked for the origins of conservatism everywhere, from suburban kitchens to corporate boardrooms to academic departments. Their arguments are characterized by a distinct note of surprise and disbelief about the lasting power of conservatism. Wasn’t the politics of religious fundamentalism refuted in the Scopes trial of the 1920s, which concerned the teaching of evolution in public schools? Didn’t the 1929 stock-market crash and the Great Depression prove the folly of laissez-faire? Weren’t the Southern segregationists defeated by the civil-rights movement, and the role of women in social life and the workplace thoroughly transformed by feminism? Why, then, do the politics of free markets and cultural reaction keep returning like some Republican Freddy Krueger?

Historian Kathryn S. Olmsted’s Right Out of California enters directly into these debates, arguing that the origins of today’s conservative movement can be found in the agricultural plantations of California and the fierce labor conflicts that broke out in the state during the 1930s. Olmsted assumes that looking at support for the John Birch Society in the postwar California suburbs (as Lisa McGirr did in her pathbreaking Suburban Warriors) skirts the centrality of economics and labor history in the development of conservative ideas, just as historians who have examined the role of the business reaction against the New Deal on the national level gloss over the regional importance of the West in developing conservative coalitions.

Olmsted does indeed have an amazing story to tell. The largest agricultural strike in American history took place in the San Joaquin Valley in the summer of 1933, when nearly 20,000 cotton pickers walked off the fields. The next year, San Francisco was paralyzed by a general strike following the violent reaction to a longshoremen’s strike. The owners of the “factories in the field” responded to the pickers’ strike by painting the uprising as one that threatened to unsettle traditional norms of family and racial hierarchies, appealing to cultural conservatism in order to turn white workers against the union—and, more broadly, the labor policies advanced by the New Deal. At the same time, they depicted the New Deal itself as akin to socialism, even as the New Dealers sought to distance themselves from the radical left.

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California in the 1930s was a state of extremes, divided between the desperate poverty of the agricultural labor force and the luxury of Hollywood. Not only was it the site of the labor controversies that Olmsted chronicles, but in the 1934 campaign for governor, the erstwhile socialist journalist Upton Sinclair, author of the muckraking classic The Jungle, launched his EPIC campaign (the acronym stood for “End Poverty in California”), which sought to sponsor cooperative farms and factories to directly employ and feed impoverished residents, impose a progressive income tax throughout the state, and create state pensions to support all aged and disabled people. The Progressive-era writer Lincoln Steffens (whose trip to Bolshevist Russia prompted him to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works!”) and his young wife, Ella Winter, were drawn to the strikes, and they managed to recruit writers like Langston Hughes and John Steinbeck to the cotton fields to tell the workers’ stories to the nation. Steinbeck’s 1936 novel In Dubious Battle relied on his conversations with cotton workers, though in the course of writing it he turned the crop from cotton to apples and wrote Mexican and African-American pickers out of the story almost entirely. He also replaced the freewheeling radicals who led the strike with grim, doctrinaire Communist ideologues.

Olmsted argues that the agricultural workers were far more racially and ethnically diverse than those depicted by Steinbeck, and their leadership more dynamic. In particular, she revives the memory of Caroline Decker, a young Southern woman who had become a party member not for ideological reasons or because she found the Soviet Union appealing, but simply because it was the group that seemed to be doing the most to challenge conditions of extreme poverty. Just 21 years old, she emerged as one of the leaders of the cotton workers, walking the picket lines wearing fashionable high heels and rallying groups of workers with whom she would seem to have had little in common. In Dubious Battle had no room for a figure like Decker, instead portraying the workers as (mostly white) innocents trapped between the cruelty of their employers and the rigid political fantasies of their (all-male) leaders.

Olmsted depicts the world of the agricultural workers and the radical circles that formed around them with great subtlety and care. In addition to portraits of Decker, Ella Winter, and Pat Chambers (another strike leader, also a Communist organizer), she uncovers people like Pauline Dominguez and her son Roy, a 7-year-old Mexican American who plucked cotton from dawn until it was too dark to see in the broiling heat of the fields. When such workers heard rumors that the new Roosevelt administration in Washington, DC, had guaranteed their right to form labor unions, a wave of spontaneous strikes broke out across the valley. Fruit and vegetable workers in particular sought to leverage time; the people who picked berries, peas, cherries, peaches, and lettuce walked off the fields at the height of the harvest, leaving the produce to rot. Their faith in Roosevelt, however, was misplaced: The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, like the Wagner Act two years later, would explicitly exclude agricultural workers from the right to organize unions.

The strikes were met with fury by the growers. “By all that is fair and just, have the American farmers no rights over Communists and aliens?” asked a San Joaquin Valley newspaper op-ed. As the organizing spread to the farms of the Imperial Valley in the southern part of the state, so did the reaction. Local police officials supported the kidnapping and beating of an ACLU lawyer who had agreed to speak about the right to strike. When the federal government set up a commission to gather information about conditions in the valley, the growers scoffed at the idea that they would be criticized for “defending life and property by the only means they had; that is, by arresting the treason-preaching ‘comrades’ and throwing them in jail.”

In an attempt to link themselves to the old Jeffersonian ideal of the small farmer, the agribusiness giants (with support from the broader corporate community) organized a group called the Associated Farmers to militate against labor rights and better coordinate their response to radicalism in the fields. The businessmen who played a part in the new effort sought to cover their tracks. As one representative of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce put it, the participation of other businessmen in the Associated Farmers “should be kept a deep, dark secret. This is the only way you can win the fight.” The Los Angeles Police Department aided the cause by honeycombing labor circles with anticommunist spies; the Associated Farmers also kept its own records on “known radicals, fanatics and Communist sympathizers.” Meanwhile, special press agents were hired to coordinate the opposition to Sinclair’s EPIC campaign. A cartoonist was hired to do subtle drawings—one depicted a bride and groom intimidated by a large black blob labeled the “blot of Sinclairism.”

As the backlash spread, the radical writers who had congregated in California grew afraid. Hughes was targeted by newspaper articles that taunted him as the “guest of ‘honor’ at parties,” noting that “white girls have ridden down the street with him, have walked with him, smiling into his face.” Afraid that he might be lynched, Hughes left California for Harlem. In the summer of 1934, Decker (by that time known as the “blonde flame of the red revolt” in the papers) and several other Communist organizers were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy; she was eventually convicted. Even at sentencing, Decker stood by her beliefs. “We are not being convicted as criminals,” she insisted. “We are convicted for union organization. The verdict is a conviction of thousands of workers, farmers and students with whom we have been associated.”

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In her final chapter, Olmsted suggests some of the ways that the California fields came to exert a surprising role in American politics well beyond state lines. Richard Nixon first ran for Congress against liberal Representative Jerry Voorhis, a former Socialist who had supported lettuce strikers. As governor, Ronald Reagan fought Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott. (He denounced the boycott on television while snacking on a bunch of grapes; grape growers ran an ad campaign urging Americans to embrace their “consumer rights” and “Eat California Grapes, the Forbidden Fruit.”) Clark Kerr, who would later preside over the University of California system during the 1960s, cited the strikes as formative for his politics, in particular his sense of the growers’ willingness to exploit fears about Communism to turn popular sentiment against the strikers. Olmsted describes the way that the Associated Farmers encouraged sympathetic businessmen to send telegrams and letters to California Governor Frank Merriam praising his hostility to the union, which in turn were celebrated by pro-grower papers like the Los Angeles Times as evidence of a grassroots rejection of labor. “After the invention of synthetic grass, political observers would call this technique ‘Astroturf,’” Olmsted explains. “President Richard Nixon would perfect the tactic, but it had its origins in the grower campaign against the unions.”

Olmsted doesn’t try to make the case that postwar conservative activists literally looked to California for inspiration; she leaves the parallels implicit. (For example, the Koch brothers’ tactic of funding organizations with populist-sounding names—the Center to Protect Patient Rights, Americans for Job Security—is similar to the way the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce concealed its role in the formation of the Associated Farmers.) More than seeing a conservative playbook in Depression-era California, Olmsted is interested in locating what Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.” She wants to describe the conservative way of seeing politics, whereby any challenge to economic power automatically comes to be associated with a broader cultural assault—one so destabilizing that it threatens home, family, religion, everything most dear and important in the world.

But despite Olmsted’s assertions and her rich, gripping narrative, it’s not clear that California was the cradle of the national conservative movement after World War II. The conservative sensibility, with its brutal sentimentality, can be found in thinkers going back to the French Revolution and Edmund Burke. Nor is it clear that the American version of this worldview originated with California growers: In the United States, elements of it can be seen in the antiradical reaction during and after World War I, in the campaigns against the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 20th century, and even during Reconstruction after the Civil War, just to name a few occasions.

This raises a larger question: Why should we approach the conservative movement as though its origins spring from a single source, as though it were a riddle with only one correct answer? Rather than treating it as a bizarre mystery that needs to be explained, historians of American conservatism might start from the premise that elements of this worldview have been present throughout American history. Far from being surprising, this would be just what one would expect in a country with a history of plantation slavery, racial segregation, anti-union politics, and economic inequality. The desire to name the origins of the right, to dissect the movement and understand where it came from, reflects the notion that knowing what created it—and how it created itself—may make it easier to undo. Implicit in the quest for origins is the hope that conservatism is a discrete, autonomous force that can be easily disentangled from the rest of our common past. It’s as though revealing its secrets—naming them, pinning them down—might grant us the power to unmask and unmake it. The spell would be broken. By contrast, taking the full measure of conservatism’s scope in American politics may entail accepting it as an expression of certain constant beliefs and ideas in the country’s history—­ones that point to tenacious aspects of our social structure—rather than a strange, florid, and short-lived aberration.

Olmsted’s focus is on conservatism as a distinctive political tradition. But there’s a new movement afoot in historical writing that’s concerned with the broader conservative shift of the late 20th century, one that gives the self-conscious mobilization of conservatives less centrality. Instead, historians have started to look for the links and continuities between postwar liberalism and postwar conservatism, seeing the two as sharing many fundamental assumptions. Elizabeth Hinton, for example, has argued that the policies that led to mass incarceration grew as much out of Lyndon Johnson’s creation of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration as they did out of racial backlash in the 1980s. Emphasizing the role of the urban riots of the early ’60s in the passage of War on Poverty–­era legislation, Hinton suggests that the LEAA greatly expanded federal funding for local police departments, helping them acquire military-style arsenals and defining the social problems of the inner city largely as criminality. Johnson and the liberals around him feared black uprisings and the spread of violence, so they sought out ways to contain and manage the growing urban population of impoverished people of color. Over time, the emphasis shifted from healthcare and food stamps to three-strikes-you’re-out laws, but the impulse was the same.

Other scholars, such as Brent Cebul and Amy Offner, have argued for the deep continuities between the intellectual and policy framework of postwar liberalism and the neoliberal ideology that flourished starting in the 1980s. John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and other Democratic Party liberals of the ’50s and ’60s all pledged their faith in the centrality of the private sector, the importance of individual initiative, and the imperatives of economic growth; they also helped pioneer the “public-private” governance that is often associated with privatization in the 1990s. When postwar economic growth slowed, these liberals were able, with little cognitive dissonance, to shift their positions and adopt a far more skeptical stance toward labor unions, the public sector, and the idea of “big government.” The differences are ones of emphasis as much as they are evidence of one worldview being supplanted entirely by another. It’s not that liberalism and conservatism are the same; rather, our own conservative era evolved out of elements present in an earlier one, which must then bear some part of the responsibility for what exists now.

Olmsted’s fine book is an example of an earlier quest for the roots of American conservatism. Although its argument that those roots can be found in California’s labor struggles may be somewhat overstated, this shouldn’t turn readers away. People who need a break from the mayhem of the 2016 election could do far worse than to read about Sinclair, Decker, Steffens, and the children who picked the nation’s apples and peaches, and whose lives were rarely considered by the busy New Dealers in Washington (just as the young people who still toil in those fields make few appearances in electoral politics now). Olmsted’s stories of violence, upheaval, and idealism in California are reminders of how much is left out of American politics, both in the 1930s and in our own day.

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