We're getting the right all wrong: The surprising origins of modern conservative movement

The conservative movement began in 1930s California, UC Davis professor and historian Kathryn Olmsted tells Salon

Published October 24, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

David Koch in a still from "Citizen Koch"
David Koch in a still from "Citizen Koch"

With the notable exception of #tcot and National Review's Kevin Williamson, most informed and engaged observers of American politics understand how central the civil rights movement — and the backlash against its successes — was to the creation of the conservative movement. The narrative has many well-known manifestations; there's the (perhaps apocryphal) story of LBJ claiming the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would "lose" the South for the Democratic Party for "a generation." There's the Southern Strategy. There's the GOP's embrace of "states' rights."

But what if that narrative is wrong — or at least incomplete? What if the conservative movement's creation happened earlier, and westward? What if the archetypal founder of the modern right is not a former Dixiecrat or a resentful "Reagan Democrat," but rather a mega-tycoon like, say, one of the Koch brothers? What if the foundation of conservatism as we know it wasn't laid by recalcitrant segregationists in the Deep South in the 1960s, but by anti-labor big businessmen in 1930s California instead?

That's the argument put forward by University of California, Davis professor and historian Kathryn Olmsted in her new book, "Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism." If she's right, it means the way we understand American politics today is due for some profound alterations. Recently, Salon spoke with Olmsted over the phone about her argument and its implications. Our conversation can be found below and has been edited for clarity and length.

What is the conventional narrative of how conservatism as we know it came to be? And what about that narrative struck you as incorrect?

The assumption is that this movement arose in the southeast of the United States in the 1960s and the 1970s, in reaction to the civil rights movement, and in the nation’s suburbs, in response to cultural issues like sex education and abortion.

I started writing a journal article about labor struggles in California in the 1930s and I got into the archives of agro-business leaders in California and conservative leaders around the country. The same themes that people talked about as rising in the 1960s were actually present in California in the 1930s. The same philosophies, the same strategies and even the same individuals.

So I believed that our narrative about the origins of modern conservatism needed to be revised. We need to think about it as coming from the West and as a reaction against New Deal labor laws.

Let’s talk about how the New Deal changed the status quo with regard to big business and labor. What was big business’ relationship with the government like in the years before the New Deal changed labor law in the country?

Most businesses were not anti-statist before the New Deal. They were very pleased with government intervention in the economy, since the government usually intervened to help big business: expanding their markets, imposing tariffs, controlling immigration, prohibiting alcohol and building large infrastructure projects. So big businessmen — especially in the West, where they needed a lot of government projects to develop the economy — were not anti-government at all.

Indeed, even in the 1930s, most large businessmen in California were very happy with certain parts of the New Deal. They liked The Agricultural Adjustment Act and were just thrilled by the subsidies they got for not growing crops. They were also very pleased with the New Deal’s dams and canals, because they brought them subsidized water. It was labor policies that really infuriated them.

So what was it about those labor policies that they hated so much?

What upset them was [the New Deal’s] giving workers government protection for the right to organize.

In the past, they had the legal rights to organize — but nothing stopped businessmen from refusing to deal with unions or firing people for belonging to unions. What changed in the 1930s is that the government says that workers have the right to collectively bargain and [employers] had to recognize that right or the government would intervene.

This infuriated a lot of big businessmen around the country, because they thought of it as government interference with their relationship with their workers. What was ironic about it in California was that the agro-businessmen who led the charge against New Deal labor laws were not affected by them.

Why not?

In order to get his labor laws passed, Roosevelt made a bargain with Southern legislators and said that these protections did not apply to farm and domestic workers [who were disproportionately African-American]. He had to make that exception in order to get those laws passed through Congress.

As a result, that meant that the farm workers in California weren’t covered by these laws. But they didn’t know that.

California farmhands thought the laws protected them, too?

The farm workers thought they were covered. They went out on strike in massive numbers in 1933.

The businessmen then blamed the New Dealers for creating new attitude among their workers, even though they hadn’t been legally protected for their strikes. They had been inspired to go out on strike and demand unionization and higher wages, and that infuriated the largest owners in the corporate farms in California.

Yet despite the businessmen’s accusations that the New Deal was communistic, you argue that Roosevelt’s motivations were, in a sense, conservative. How so?

Roosevelt was not a socialist. He saw himself as the savior of capitalism and he believed it was necessary to help the economy recover to figure out a way for workers to earn more money.

Rather than tax the rich and redistribute the income to the poor, he decided that he would encourage [workers] to collectively bargain so they could join unions that would help them raise their wages. Once they had more money, they would spend more money, and the economy would recover. It was his attempt to help the economy recover without too much government interaction.

Nevertheless, big business in California responded to the New Deal with accusations that it was radical. And their accusations weren’t limited to the economic realm, right? They claimed he was trying to upend the social order, too.

They said they believed that Roosevelt was making the state the source of subsistence and benefits, instead of the family. Therefore, [they said,] his policies were absolutely an assault on the family.

They also linked Roosevelt with socialists and, further to the left, communists. Communists, of course, had very progressive ideas about gender roles and race equality. So the opponents of the New Deal said, “Look, he is just a communist and communists are atheists, want women working outside the home and want to help Mexican-Americans in California organize and essentially challenge white supremacy.”

They associated Roosevelt’s liberalism with what they saw as radical changes in gender roles, racial hierarchies, and religious attitudes in California.

So even though you’re shifting our focus away from the South and the response to the civil rights movement, it doesn’t sound like you’re downplaying the role racism played in creating this movement.

Race is very important. But it was a different dynamic in California, because there weren’t as many African-Americans [there]. Instead, the racial issue was the division between white Californians and [Latino]/Asian immigrants (and a small number of African Americans).

Another dynamic that’s still important today, which you trace to this time and place, has to do with the ideological spectrum in American politics. A lot of people have argued before that the U.S. doesn’t really have a left; it has a center-left that is pretty similar to the center-right in a lot of Western European democracies (Democratic Party), and it has a right and far-right (the GOP); but no left. How do you trace this, too, back to California in the New Deal era?

You can really see this as being used as a conscious political strategy by the right.

In the 1934 campaign for governor in California ran Upton Sinclair, a former socialist and world-famous author. He got the Democratic nomination. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t endorse Sinclair and, at the end, the Roosevelt administration really distanced itself from Sinclair. They did not want to be called socialists. They didn’t want to be associated with him, even if meant losing the California governorship for the Democrats.

Didn’t really work, though, did it? Roosevelt was called a radical leftist all the same.

In the [’34] campaign, the professional political consultants who were hired by the Republicans associated the center with the left and accused the center of coddling the left. This was at a time when the center was distancing itself from the left.

It was a strategy that, for the center, did not work. But the right discovered that it was very useful to associate the center with the left. They used this technique in 1934, and they would refine it and use it elsewhere.

I’ve saved the biggest question for last. Namely, if we accept your narrative of the birth of modern conservatism, how should that influence the way we understand our politics today?

I think that we need to consider the importance of labor and anti-labor politics in the rise of the “new right.”

Yes, it was about race and cultural issues. But it was also about a struggle between employers and workers; and employers’ anger over having to share more power with workers. If we understand that, we see that the origins of the movement are in the 1930s, when that wealth and power was just being taken away from employers.

So the New Deal really matters. It was a real shift in American politics, and it caused a re-alignment not only on the left but also on the right.

And if we understand the importance of labor for conservative politics, then we can see the significance of the right’s attack on labor today. It is because [unions] have been key to social democracy in the United States since 1930s. And the opponents of social democracy realized that at the time and that’s why they mobilized against the New Deal. They have been fighting against labor unions and social democracy ever since.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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