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Review of: Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan, by

Kim Phillips-Fein’s book tells the story of the American conservative movement from the 1930’s to 1980. It is well written, an easy but in-depth read that covers a lot of ground involving people, politics, ideology and social background of the time. The author keeps the story moving.

During the 1930’s Great Depression there began a contest between the American business, corporate world, and the social welfare and economic policies of the New Deal launched by the Roosevelt administration. For the next half century, this struggle defined American conservatism and its anguish over, and animosity toward, the New Deal legacy of governmental involvement in America’s market and social welfare programs. Conservative Americans, and primarily conservative business professionals, saw governmental control, tampering or interference in the marketplace and individual lives as a mortal threat to such American ideals as individual initiative and entrepreneurialism, the self-reliant work ethic, anti-collectivism (namely anti-communism), and family and religious (that is Christian) values.

Though Americans generally acquiesced to Washington D.C.’s Depression and World War Two era economic dictums, in the postwar years conservative businessmen and free market advocates quickly resumed questioning and challenging the 1950’s economic “mixed model” of governmental oversight working in tandem with the free market. Unionism and strikes were very contentious. The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Board was established in 1935 to support union and management in working together to resolve issues. But management’s suspicions of left wing, communist agitation persisted. The persistent disputes and strikes during the postwar years became anathema to corporate America, General Electric being a prominent case examined in Invisible Hands. It was during this time that the former movie star Ronald Reagan, and future California governor and U.S. president, began his absorption of doctrinaire, free-market conservatism while hosting in 1954 General Electric’s television show, “GE Theater”. He quickly became GE’s mouthpiece for boosting the virtues of the free enterprise system to GE’s employees and the public at large

It was the radicalism of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, however, that especially spurred conservative concern and response. The civil rights protests, the anti-Vietnam War movement and the baby boomers’ counterculture antipathy toward business and consumerism alarmed and offended conservative America. The turmoil of change was distressing, disruptive and threatening to the “The Establishment” or status quo (predominantly white, middle class, and male): race riots, desegregation and busing, feminism, the sexual revolution, environmentalism, Watergate, Nixon’s presidential resignation, the Arab Oil Embargo and the subsequent Energy Crises with inflation, and the waning of America’s postwar dependable affluence.

In 1971, Lewis Powell, a Virginia lawyer and business executive, and soon to be a U.S. Supreme Court justice (1973), delivered the Powell Memorandum to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It was a missive that powerfully, and not without some paranoia, argued the conservative dread of the destruction of America’s free market economy by liberal and leftist designs. By the late 1970’s, conservatism was shifting the focus from predominantly economic issues to concerns that would be labeled “social values,” such as the crime rate, birth control, abortion, religious expression (again, Christianity in particular) in public schools and government, gun rights, and taxes. These were issues that increasingly resonated with the economically and socially disenchanted middle class. Though social values and conservatism were always intertwined, they played well into Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign of 1980, where they were reluctantly at first, but soon effectively drew on the appeal of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority message to attract conservative voters.

In the author’s appraisal, Reagan’s presidency left conservative aspiration largely unfulfilled. Though the free market ideology and the business world ascended in public esteemed, Reagan’s eight years as president did not see a shrinking of the federal government with its deficit, welfare and subsidies. The rust belt continued to rust through a deep depression and unemployment approached 10 percent. But even so, with the collapse of the Soviet Russia, capitalism and free markets seemed to be given a worldwide green light, since there was no apparent alternative economic model forthcoming.

The author points out that the New Deal came to an end during Democratic President Bill Clinton’s two terms: the dismantling of welfare, Wall Street deregulation, the expansion of trade, and no comeback for labor. The job seekers became atomized competitors in the labor market, unaided by a collective sense that unions provided for many workers in earlier times.

Finally, Kim Phillips-Fein advises the reader not to romanticize postwar liberalism. Without popular protests, it would have ignored and resisted civil rights, desegregation, and sexual equality. Its liberal leaders led America into Vietnam and were mostly incapable of dealing with the economic crises of the 1970’s.

There is much more to Invisible Hand than conservative ideology. There are many interesting accounts about people and the circumstances that drew them to conservatism. For decades, these true believers touted virtues like hard work, industriousness, self-reliance, individualism, and thrift. Those are admirable and wise virtues, but there are others like generosity, compassion, charity that matter as well. After the Reagan years, American conservatives tried to re-brand themselves as the kinder, gentler, compassionate conservatives. The re-branding never worked.

Readers will find Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein a worthwhile read. Its story is an important precursor to the one told by Jane Mayer in Dark Money, where it is referenced several times.

Allen McCullough

June, 2017

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