The riveting story of how economic conservatism became one of the leading strands in American political thought.
Phillips-Fein (History/New York Univ.) follows conservatism from its birth as a big-business reaction to the New Deal to its zenith as a key element of the Reagan Revolution in the early ’80s. She eschews lengthy theoretical discussion of conservatism’s laissez-faire, small-government tenets, focusing instead on the unique individuals behind the movement, beginning with the wealthy du Pont family, who believed that New Deal economic reforms were nothing less than socialism, and eccentric, influential Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, who shaped conservatism into a fully formed ideology. During this period, conservatism would largely remain the purview of such big-business associations as the Liberty League and the National Association of Manufacturers, but it wouldn’t remain in backrooms for long. Phillips-Fein profiles the colorful characters who brought conservatism into mainstream popular culture during the ’50s, including National Review editor William F. Buckley and novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand. An extended section on General Electric executive Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, who expertly used conservative propaganda to help break strikes and achieve political goals, is especially revealing, particularly in the author’s analysis of his hard-right ideology’s influence on GE employee Ronald Reagan. Phillips-Fein ably examines the merging of economic conservatism, anticommunism and religious and moral thought. She details the influence of evangelists like Jerry Falwell, who successfully entwined conservative economic ideology and anticommunism in his version of Protestantism and gained massive popular support. Finally, the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Reagan in 1976 and 1980 show conservatism finally breaking through to the mainstream and becoming part of average citizens’ thinking. Readers may be sorry that the book ends with Reagan’s election. An examination of how conservative ideas shaped American politics in later decades would be most welcome, if executed with the same verve and skill that Phillips-Fein demonstrates here.
Engaging history from a talented new scholarly voice.