How business broke the post-war consensus and gave us Movement Conservatism

tags: conservatism, polarization, liberalism

​Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of ​history at Boston College and co-​host of NPR's politics and history podcast Freak Out and Carry On and co-editor of We're History.

Today's "conservatives" are not true conservatives, they are dangerous radicals. Today's "liberals" are not "the left," or Democrats, as people seem to think. These terms have gotten all messed up, and getting them straight helps to make sense of today's politics. Here's a quick primer:

The philosophy of "conservatism" was articulated by British politician Edmund Burke in the 1700s shortly after the French Revolution. When mobs beheaded many of society's leaders, Burke pushed back against idea of democracy and suggested that political leaders should conserve the parts of society that promoted security and stability: property, religion, family, and community. Any changes to government policies should be based on facts and experience rather than ideology, because ideas divorced from reality could lead to the guillotine. 

"Liberals" took their ideas from another British thinker, John Locke, who believed that the government must be kept small so it didn't crush individuals with taxes or regulations. Locke wrote in the late 1600s, and his ideas came to America in the 1700s. But the idea of liberalism changed in America under Teddy Roosevelt in the early 1900s. He realized that the huge concentration of wealth among industrialists meant that, rather than hampering individualism, a big government was imperative to protect individuals from the extraordinary power of big business. So by 1912 or so, an American "liberal" wanted to protect individualism by using government power.

Until the 1950s, these descriptions were ideas about politics that described people's leanings, but they were not insults or party identifications. 

Coming out of the Depression and World War II, there was not a lot of daylight in America between conservatives and liberals. Pretty much everyone agreed with what was called "the liberal consensus," which was the idea that the government must regulate the economy, protect social welfare, and invest in infrastructure to prevent extremes of wealth and poverty and keep the country stable. Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt had started this with his New Deal during the Depression, and after the war, Republican Dwight Eisenhower had signed on with his own, slightly different, version of this, called the Middle Way. (Eisenhower backed the Interstate Highway System, which is still our biggest public works project ever, and produced a plan for national health care.)

But a few big businessmen hated this "liberal consensus." They didn't like the taxes it cost, but more than that, they loathed the idea that government bureaucrats could tell them how to run their businesses, regulating wages and hours, and insisting on safety measures. These businessmen insisted that this system, which was hugely popular with most of the American people-- Democrats and Republicans both-- was essentially communist, because the taxes necessary to pay for the newly active government redistributed wealth and crushed individual liberty. 

No one bought it. They had seen what businessmen would do to the economy unless they were checked: they had seen people living in shacks and eating out of garbage cans during the Depression. Americans dismissed the idea that the New Deal system, which had managed to keep the country afloat during the 1930s and then bankroll WWII, was a bad idea. 

In 1951, the son of an oilman, William F. Buckley, Jr., fresh out of Yale, gave an intellectual underpinning to the big businessmen's position. "God and Man at Yale: The Superstition of Academic Freedom" argued that the Enlightenment was wrong. Enlightenment thinkers had rejected leadership based on religion or birth, and instead argued that society moved forward when people made good choices after hearing arguments based on fact. But this must be wrong, Buckley wrote, because Americans kept choosing the liberal consensus. It was imperative for the nation's true leaders to stop using fact-based arguments, and to get rid of the newly active government by swaying voters with religion and the ideology of free markets. 

In 1954, Buckley and his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell laid out a plan to destroy the liberal consensus. In McCarthy and His Enemies, a book defending Senator Joseph McCarthy for his attacks on alleged "communists" in government, they divided America into two groups. 

On one hand were the "Liberals," who they insisted were basically communists (they capitalized the word to make it look like the Communist Party). This was not some group of conspirators; it was the vast majority of Americans: everyone, Republicans and Democrats both, who believed that the government should regulate business, protect social welfare, and promote infrastructure, and who believed in fact-based argument.

On the other hand were a very few "Conservatives" like Buckley, who must take America back to the world before the New Deal to protect the ability of businessmen to run the economy as they saw fit. Buckley and Bozell acknowledged that they were trying to overturn the current "orthodoxy" that had stabilized the country, and that they were doing so based on ideology. This was the opposite of true conservatism, and readers at the time noted that the plan was, in fact, radical.

Yet "Movement Conservatism" has come to define our politics. Any media that focuses on facts and arguments is, in this worldview, "liberal," even right-leaning newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. And this is why Fox News Channel could call itself "Fair and Balanced:" it provided information based on ideology, which balanced out the "liberal" news based on fact and argument. This is also why all universities are "liberal" so long as they promote fact-based argument. In this worldview "Conservatives" are not necessarily Republicans: Movement Conservatives took over the GOP in the 1990s and have read out of the party many people who are traditional conservatives. Instead, they are people who want to destroy the principles of the New Deal and the Middle Way and return America to a world where individual businessmen can do whatever they wish. They want to rework the government not because facts suggest it works best this way, but rather because they have an ideological conviction that this is the way the world should work. 

If you make decisions based on fact rather than ideology, regardless of your party affiliation or your conservative or liberal political leanings, you are one of the Liberals Buckley feared. As members of the current administration try to get supporters to ignore reality and believe whatever they say based solely on ideology, this sort of Liberal-- liberals and conservatives both-- need to stick together.

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