Historically the US became a world power as a result of its belated involvement in World War One, which for obvious reasons at the time was not called that but instead the Great War. Much has been written about Wilson’s losing attempts to rewrite the structure of world governance after that war and much more will be devoted to this theme in the future. Yet, it was the Second World War that positioned us in the most dominant position, one that many claim made the 20th Century the American Century. This conflict destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans, leaving many regions in waste and denuded the participating European countries of infrastructure, population and resources. It also clearly divided the region into camps, divided most egregiously by what Churchill called the Iron Curtain.
It was the USA that benefitted from this shift in political, military and economic power. That one of the winners was the Soviet Union, which practiced an economic system that had been held in suspicion for more than two decades by that time, a polarized world resulted and infused the politics of America with a conservatism that is still percolating and which reacted adversely to anything that involved state control and management of the economy.
As the war wound down, and indeed throughout much of the 30s when the world was in the Depression, economists argued about the correct direction for governance related to economic decisions. The two main systems were described then by Hayek and Keynes, though Marx was certainly on view in many places but rejected by the West’s leadership (there were Communist political parties in most Western countries in the 30s) . In the US, under FDR, there was much state intervention in the economy and the arrival of war only exacerbated this trend. We are still arguing about the efficacy of government intervention and control based on this experience.
After 1929 capitalism was on its heels and classical liberal economics that espoused laissez faire lost much of its audience. Interestingly, Walter Lippmann, one of the most influential journalists of the century, promoted discussions about how to reinvigorate capitalism and liberalism. Prior to the war he formed, with Hayek, a colloquium to discuss governance and economics and this group morphed into the Mont Peleron group after the war. The congress attendees disagreed on many points: Is freedom an end in itself or merely a means? Is liberalism (here the term was referring to 19th century economic laissez-faire ideology) only the rigorous application of the laws of economics or an ideology? Does liberalism have to take into account the provision of social security? Clear oppositions surfaced several times. With regard to the question of industrial concentration, it was criticized by the economists, whereas the industrialists defended the trusts. Thus, the backers of the Colloque Lippmann were not of one mind along many dimensions. (page 48 The Road from Mont Peleron)
Recently there has been more attention given to this small, exclusive group of individuals, most of whom initially were economists, who met at the invitation of Hayek to a region of Switzerland to found a movement that still has the name of the initial meeting place, the Mont Pelerin Society. That society included Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, James Buchanan (a figure discussed briefly in the previous blog), and ultimately Charles Koch.
James Buchanan became a Nobel Prize winning economist, who went from UVA to George Mason University, where he set up a think tank the initiated and promoted conservative, libertarian economic views. These views grew out of the Austrian Economic School, Hayek and other individualist voices who felt any interference in competition in a free enterprise system should be avoided by the state, whose goals should only focus on impartiality and the security of the citizens. Socialism was the supreme enemy, though any support given the by the state would be attacked. As events unfolded, even public schools were unacceptable, civil rights decisions were government meddling in states’ rights, income taxes were government coercion and the federal bureaucracy was fraudulent waste.
It turns out his views were caught by the likes of the Koch brothers. They and a wing of the GOP used the caveat of education and the changing media and the US Congress and Supreme Court to gather momentum around the agenda that includes less government, less regulation, less involvement in individual decisions. Also in that movement was a big push to reduce taxation. What occurred is the list that follows. As an historian, I have been working on these thoughts for years and now feel the composition of the list and thoughts about the impact on the US contained with each topic’s background are more relevant than ever. Future blog posts will deal with each topic independently, even though they all overlap each other in the American story.
- GOP fear of communism and by extension any thoughts that resemble what they claim is a socialist solution. That we can now use the term and that Bernie Sanders has had such an appeal within the under thirty age group is heartening to the future of the country, though the recent actions by the present Congress point to an all out attack on social programs set up in the 30s and again in the 60s.
- GOP weakening of government regulation of the air waves and by extension the Internet. From the 1920s expectations when radio came into being for the masses, to the 40s when television was added, to the 80s when it was cable to this century when the internet became the issue, there have been clear signals that Conservatism wants to use the media to spread its message. Whether this is free speech or a propaganda attempt is a complex question. The rise of Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Spencer, Bill O’Reilly and the list goes on comes from a very concerted effort by wealthy backers to push their messages.
- Civil rights and education. The long troubled history involving racism was put under additional stress in the 60s with the events originating in the South. This led to laws that attempted to desegregate communities, specifically in schools. The white flight to the suburbs and the growth of independent schools ensued. The appointment of DeVos as EdSecy is an example of a part of the GOP wing’s desires to control the educational process for their own good. What is education and best practice is one of the most critical questions this country should be asking.
- Think tanks, CPAC-like groups (see its speakers list below) and private funding for many ideological issues. Going back to Buchanan and others, the educational institutions, private think tanks and money flowing into Congress increased drastically in the past three or four decades. Within this is the “Southern Strategy”, the rise of ‘false news’ claims, hoax claims about scientific positions, Citizens United, etc.
- The big question, involved in all of these, is, “How do you separate an ideological stand from one that seems to point to a selfish position?” The old saying that a democratic is a person who hasn’t yet been robbed and a republican is a person that wants to keep everything he earns or inherits is still on the table. The GOP now has several wings within its caucus: The Tea Party libertarians, The Rand Paul libertarians (he is more of a true libertarian of the Ayn Rand type), the Paul Ryan ideologues who walk over dead bodies because those bodies must be lazy and deserve it, the old GOP wing that harkens back to Reagan and his compassionate conservatism (though they often misuse his words and actions and are already revisionists on much), a few Teddy Roosevelt Republicans who understand science and conservation but wish for limited government control of financial matters and it seems many that just like the power and money that comes from working for corporations’ needs.
Mont Pèlerin Society https://www.montpelerin.org
From an interview in the Slate with MacLean about her book, Democracy in Chains…..The most important thing I want readers to take from this book is an understanding that the Koch network and all of these people are doing what they’re doing because they understand that their ideas make them a permanent minority. They cannot win if they are honest about what they’re doing. That’s why they’re doing things in the deceitful and frightening ways that they are.
And that, I think, is a sign of great power for the majority of people, who I think are fundamentally decent, and agree on much more than we’re led to believe.
CPAC Conservative Political Action Conference founded in 1973 speakers Donald Trump, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Pat Buchanan, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Tony Snow, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Allen West, Michele Bachmann, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Gary Johnson, Mike Pence, Jeanine Pirro, Betsy DeVos, Lou Dobbs, Nigel Farage