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Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan by Kim Phillips-fein
Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan

RMN, August 13, 2009

Contemporary Republican Party derangement and disarray is best understood as the logical consequence of the Conservative Movement’s successful crusade to capture that party and make it an agent of the status quo and the party of no. Assembled under corporate sponsorship with rich men's money the movement was designed to roll back the New Deal for the purpose of preserving the wealth, privilege and power of corporate elites and their faithful shills. Conservatives bathed themselves in the self-serving delusion that capitalism was under siege by socialists, communists, and unbathed weathermen when, of course, no serious or sustained domestic challenge to capitalism in the US has ever occurred, not even during the 1930s. What does occur, too infrequently or too late as recent events prove, is intermittent scrutiny of business practices and political corruption for purposes of protecting the public good. (Note: the MSNBC lineup performs this public service in broadcast journalism with increasing coherence. Pay attention.)

Phillips-Fein's award winning scholarship could not be timelier today as bewildered Republicans search for modernizing principles with which to rejuvenate the party of Lincoln. Democrats might scour the pages to plan how to undermine, or co-opt for themselves, the tactics and trickery used by those who persisted for decades in building conservatism to a point where pro-people New Deal and Great Society policies were undone by under-funding, under-staffing, and appointing foxes to guard the hen house thereby thwarting Congressional intent expressed through the will of the people.

The author is successful in making this book a lively history of ideas coupled with case studies of important but not always well known activists who built institutions such as conservative "think tanks" which often are organs of corporate propaganda masquerading as independent scholarship. These men of the far right, these "invisible hands" worked to publish magazines and devise business strategies to bust unions, intimidate counterparties, and fight regulation, taxation, and pro-people government programs such as health care, safe drinking water and breathable air. Short on patriotism, they played phony populist by allying themselves with whatever single-issue irritation was currently rankling the soul of evangelicals or the outgunned working class crushed by plant closings and outsourcing. (See Michael Moore for recent updates.)

At the cold heart of the Conservative Movement is a libertarian model of Free Market economics traced through Von Mises, Hayek, Freidman and the mistress of self-centeredness, atheist Ayn Rand. It’s the same old song and shows no tolerance for notions of a mixed economy, necessary regulation for the public good, consumer protection, responsibility to the community, and pro-people programs. It is an extreme model, and like the serpent’s seduction of Eve, always held out deceptively as a proxy for political freedom and democracy.(see China and Russia for co-existence of market economics and political tyranny) It reflexively reacts to block or roll back any government countervailing action which impinges on the business discretion and profit of the enterprise regardless of how bystanders might be injured or disadvantaged as for example when collateralized debt obligations leveraged at 35 to 1 are repeatedly repackaged and resold by banks collecting outsized fees. It is best represented by Reagan's famous shibboleth "government is the problem" when of course it was suspended government oversight that most recently triggered corporate corruption and a world threatening economic meltdown following a financial feeding frenzy that ran rampant over the savings, jobs, small businesses, and home ownership of ordinary people. One hopes that even conservatives without conscience can see the biting irony in Reagan’s statement and feel remorse. (Read Krugman again and again and again or if you prefer a more nuanced jargon-ridden discussion, watch Colbert. Did anyone catch Stewart’s flawless Utchi Mata takedown of Kristol? How about Lawrence O’Donnell’s Tai Otoshi of Dr. Doom?)

Not yet a media star like Doris, Douglas, Michael and Robert, Phillips-Fein has written a book that is becoming required reading for pundits, consultants, history buffs and political junkies and students in college courses in several separate academic disciplines. Furthermore, scattered among the early pages of text is Phillips-Fein's secret code. It promises to unlock the gate which appears likely to keep Republicans wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. It will erase Goldwater’s self-limiting movement mentality manifested when he said in his San Francisco acceptance speech: "Those who do not care for our cause, we don't expect to enter our ranks in any case." It will replace an obstructionist shoot from the hip strategy with a Higher Politics of National Reconciliation which has been long ignored by Republicans ever since Robert Welch, one of the architects of the Conservative Movement, called Ike a communist.

Salvation lies in the politics of Eisenhower Statesmanship. Stephen Ambrose, the Eisenhower biographer, years ago pleaded with Powell to toss his hat but Evangelicals objected cutting short one fabulous opportunity for renewing party greatness. In the meantime there is opportunity for Eisenhoweresque Statesmanship to lead the Republican Party in honest Health Care Reform. Eisenhower would approve. Teddy Roosevelt would approve. It’s there for any Republican who wants to reach for the brass ring. As when Dirksen rose to the occasion on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, perhaps Grassley, a man of good will despite prickly partisan edges, is the one to assume the mantle of leadership and restore honor to his party and reshape it into that worthy of being called the Party of Eisenhower Statesmanship. Grassley, because he is from Iowa where the people are good, the corn sweet, and fields accommodate all dreams.

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