Monday, September 13, 2010

A progressive's 5 best books about conservatism

Progressive author and political commentator E. J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, columnist for the Washington Post, professor at Georgetown University, and author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right.

Jonathan Rauch interviewed him about books on conservatism for FiveBooks. One book on Dionne's list:
Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal by Kim Phillips-Fein.

[Rauch]: Why Kim Phillips-Fein from 2009, a very recent book?

[Dionne]: Academia, and in particular academic history, almost out of necessity runs a little behind where things are. What you’re seeing now is a flourishing of academic scholarship on American conservatism. There are a lot of young scholars and often they are people of the left – Kim Phillips-Fein is a person on the left and often the perspectives are critical and yet they are also respectful. Another book that might have gone on this list is Rick Perlstein’s book on the Goldwater campaign. Rick comes at this as a person on the left but writes with real understanding and respect about the Goldwater movement. Kim Phillips-Fein represents a large number of these scholars. What I found particularly interesting about this book is for us to understand that ideas have consequences, but monetary support for ideas has consequences too. She traces much of the support for ideas that have now become common currency on the right; the spreading of the ideas of people like Hayek or von Mises came from business people ardently opposed to the New Deal. She talks about the founding of American Enterprise Institute, which is certainly a very important event in the history of modern conservatism. In good left-of- centre fashion she lifts the veil a little bit and says, ‘Wait a minute – these ideas didn’t just gain traction because they were great ideas on their own.’ Lots of people came to them because they had the support of very influential people who had good reason to be opposed to the New Deal.

Does she or do you see this as nefarious or something to celebrate?

Well, I certainly don’t see it as something to celebrate because I disagree with the impact that the rise of some of these ideas has. Nefarious is a strong word, we are a free country and people can promote the ideas that they want. But I do think it’s helpful to demystify the process a little bit and I think she does that very usefully.

My friends at the Cato Institute never tire of complaining that, sure, there’s a lot of business money but most of it is on the wrong side – it’s not interested in smaller government; it’s interested in using government in the interest of business.

There are many different varieties of business money and there are many different postures that business takes in politics. First of all, some business folks made peace with the New Deal – some business folks were actually progressives and believed that the survival of capitalism depended on social reform. Some business folks just try to use their money to get whatever benefits and money they can out of government in a way that has very little relationship with principle. Once you’ve said all of that, there have also been business people who were opposed to unionisation, who favoured low taxes, who wanted to repeal inheritance taxes and, you know, without the Koch family, a very wealthy oil family, the Cato Institute wouldn’t exist. I wrote about that in my book Why Americans Hate Politics. I have a rather respectful chapter on libertarians but I also talk about the importance of the Kochs pushing these ideas to the fore. So I don’t think our friends at Cato lack for financing.

People forget that Barry Goldwater back at his peak was not just ferociously anti-communist, he was ferociously anti-union. That issue, which has virtually disappeared today, was at the core of conservatism in the 50s and 60s.

It’s still very important to conservatives. They have done all in their power to prevent the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, known on the right as card check, to make it easier to organise unions. They care a whole lot about who gets appointed to the National Labor Relations Board.

You do hear a fair amount about teachers’ unions.

Right, so now the attack is directed mostly at public employees because that’s the one sector where unions still have power. There are arguments about that that relate to policy; I’m not dismissing that. Nonetheless, that is the one sector where unions are still powerful. Unionisation in the private sector is now down to about seven per cent, and in the mid-50s 35 per cent of Americans belonged to a trade union. This long conservative campaign against unions has had a lot of success. There are other factors but they have been successful in their objective.
Read about another book on E. J. Dionne's list.

--Marshal Zeringue