How Elite Businessmen Bought Conservative Influence in the 20th Century

Have you ever wondered what American politics would look like if there were no conservatives in Washington?

This is exactly how politics did look for a good chunk of the twentieth century. During the Great Depression, in the decade following the 1929 stock market crash, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed with overwhelming bipartisan support a series of measures known collectively as the New Deal. You might recall from history class that the Depression marked a time when the excesses of Wall Street free-for-all-ism threw the American economy into a tailspin, and that the country followed Roosevelt as he abandoned classical liberal fears of big government. Roosevelt initiated large scale public works projects that gave millions of unemployed workers paychecks and improved the national infrastructure, created a social safety net that protected families from loss of income and prepared them for retirement, and finally, he tampered with economic development through regulations, fixed prices and wages, as he took control of key sectors like agriculture.

As a result of all this economic intervention and subsequent economic growth, the government grew huge and stayed that way, unquestioned by the series of Democratic and Republican administrations that succeeded FDR. In fact, it would be another thirty years before any serious political challenge to this big government philosophy would surface, and another twenty years after that before this challenge actually succeeded in undermining the New Deal order.

That challenge, which began with Barry Goldwater’s spectacular failure of a presidential campaign in 1964 and culminated in Ronald Reagan’s equally spectacular victory in 1980, owed its existence to a group of elite businessmen who headed companies like General Electric, Coors, and Du Pont. These men literally bought conservatism’s way back into political influence.1

Ever since the age of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan — the mid-to-late 1800s — Americans have had a love-hate relationship with big business. Amidst popular rejection of monopolies at the beginning of the 1900s, politicians from both parties worked to stymie their influence. This was highlighted by presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who made their names on their “trust-busting” activities, breaking apart the mega corporations in the name of fair competition.

Yet, after the successful cooperation of business and government in the fight to win World War I, the 1920s proved to be a Golden Age for these same corporations, which enjoyed the respect of the American people and the non-involvement of the American government as they, along with the American economy, grew bigger and bigger in the decade before the crash. As historian Kim Phillips-Fein put it, businessmen “had been trusted with the future of the nation, and not only had they gambled it away, they refused even to admit that they had done so.” (Sound familiar?)

During the Depression, business lost its political voice. Post-Depression efforts ultimately resulted in the New Deal — and, therefore, the start of the quest of businessmen to rebuild their political influence anew.

HayekAbsent a legitimate counter to government interventionism after the failure of free markets in 1929, they began by paying free market philosophers like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek to construct a viable political philosophy for them to stand on. They funded these philosophers (few that they were in this period of Keynesian consensus) to form intellectual societies to discuss their ideas, most notably the Mont Pelerin Society, formed in 1947 and still operating today, which brought together philosophers, economists, and businessmen to promote unfettered capitalism. They also secured for these intellectuals professorships in universities by agreeing to pay their salaries, significantly when the Volker Fund paid for seminal free market intellectual Hayek to hold a position in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago from 1948-1958.

Beyond saving the philosophy of free markets from total collapse after the Depression, businessmen also used their superior wealth to more directly influence politics. They underwrote conservative think tanks like the Foundation for Economic Education and the Heritage Foundation, which employed free market thinkers, most famously Milton Friedman, to write books and articles to promote their ideas, and later, to draft legislation which they could influence politicians to take-up. These think tanks became influential enough that they were providing 75 percent of congressional representatives with their analyses of legislation by the end of the 1950s while corporate political action committees took over campaign funding, pressuring more and more politicians to heed their ideas.

Beginning in the mid-’40s, pro-business organizations also compelled local governments in the Sunbelt region to construct a friendly “business climate” that provided lower corporate tax-rates and outlawed unions by agreeing to transplant their operations from the Northeast to the Southwest. This created regional competition for business patronage, which encouraged similar policies elsewhere.2

With their political legitimacy restored but still absent any real power, many businessmen began taking positions as political advisers in the sixties and, by the end of the decade, as government agents. For example, according to Todd Holmes, businessmen “choreographed Reagan’s every move, from tutoring him on the issues to writing his speeches and campaign scripts” while he was governor of California.3 In the seventies, these businessmen were not only backing politicians, but were themselves working in the apparatuses of the government. Meg Jacobs has shown that within the Nixon administration, for instance, there was “a core ideological group who saw as their mission the undoing of the regulatory world.” Unable to dismantle the regulatory agencies they detested, they instead served as agency heads to slow their operations, a process that would continue into the Reagan years and beyond.4

The final cog in the conservative ascendancy was the fusion of free market ideals and evangelical Christianity. Though this mixture may seem natural today, there wasn’t always such a clear link between the two.

Before the 1950s, most evangelicals stayed out of the secular realm of politics, or at the very least, did not rally around a singular political philosophy, especially not one based on materialistic consumer culture. Sunbelt businessmen like George Pepperdine helped foster this connection, not only within the confines of his Christian-business university, but also by establishing lines of communication between business and religious elites. With the rise of televangelism, charismatic preachers Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell attracted millions of followers. When, as a result of the inroads made in the 1950s, they decided to throw their support behind free market politicians, they brought with them their legions of followers who formed the backbone of the grassroots campaign that allowed Goldwater to earn the Republican nomination, thereby thrusting modern conservatism back onto the national stage for the first time.5

In the process, these evangelical entrepreneurs spread the gospel of free markets, creating a potent coalition of business interests (economic conservatism) and Christian moralism (cultural conservatism) that dominates the Republican Party today. (The marriage between these two sects has grown tenuous in light of recent events.)

Conservative businessmen, motivated by an economic philosophy at odds with federal policymaking, quietly rebuilt their political standing by funding intellectuals to establish a coherent philosophical base, pressuring local governments to cave to their demands for better employer working conditions, directing and funding political figureheads to champion their cause, and by fusing two political programs into one united conservatism. After their greatest victory in 1980, a wave of deregulation struck the country, which both Republican and Democratic administrations contributed to thereafter. Then came 2008, when a Wall Street left to its own devices yet again let the country down and sent the world economy reeling. This time, however, businessmen were not forced out of political influence, as, by that point, their teeth had sunk deep into the infrastructure of American politics.

photo: George Pepperdine statue at Pepperdine University, via Wikimedia Commons

1. Unless otherwise indicated, the claims made here about the role of businessmen in reviving conservative politics are based on the research presented in: Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).

2. See: Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, “Counter-Organizing the Sunbelt: Right-to-Work Campaigns and Anti-Union Conservatism, 1943-1958,” Pacific Historical Review Vol. 78 (1): 81-118 and Elizabeth A. Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).

3. Todd Holmes, “The Economic Roots of Reaganism: Corporate Conservatives, Political Economy, and the United Farm Workers Movement, 1965-1970,” The Western History Association, Vol. 41 (1): 61-85.

4. Meg Jacobs, “The Conservative Struggle and the Energy Crisis,” in Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

5. Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).