Big Think Interview With Kim Phillips-Fein

A conversation with the assistant professor of history at the Gallatin School at New York University.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: What is modern conservatism?

Kim Phillips-Fein: Well, conservatism -- people who write about conservatism know that the idea is a vexed one in some ways, that conservatism as a political ideology contains within itself several different strands that are in some ways really at odds with each other.  So one strand flows from I guess you would say the reaction against the French Revolution and Edmund Burke, and the whole idea that it's impossible for people to consciously make efforts to change society; that doing so is dangerous, that it destroys tradition, it destroys organic social relationships, and that it ultimately will lead to violence and social chaos.  So in some ways you really shouldn't try to change anything.  You should -- the only way that things can change and should change is slowly, through unconscious processes and the working out of organic relationships.

So I think that's kind of one -- one strain is an attempt to conserve things, to keep them the same, to not allow too rapid or radical change.  This in some ways is at odds with the other kind of major stream of modern conservatism, which focuses on the market and allowing the market to do its work without interference from the state.  And the thing is that even though there's a lot of continuity between these positions in some ways, where the people who **** are pro-market want to prevent the conscious intervention of the state or of collective groups imposing their will on the market.  So in that sense, a certain hostility to the use of reason or to any effort, any belief that people really can shape their own history -- a sense you should stand back and let things happen.

At the same time, the market itself brings about radical social transformation.  And economic development and capitalism -- the growth of capitalism really radically transforms all of those older social relationships.  It changes family life, it changes community life, it changes religious life.  So those kind of bulwarks of society that for Burkeans seem so important to protect are actually really threatened by the market.  So in this way these two sides of conservatism intellectually seem at odds with each other.  At the same time, I think they do have certain underlying similarities; you know, this hostility to rationality, this sense that inequality is acceptable, okay, the necessary way of the world.  It's this certain hostility to the state.  So it's a funny thing:  on the one hand they're different, on the other they have certain tendencies that maybe are not as different as they might seem.

Question: When did the modern conservative movement begin?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Right.  The birth point.  Right, right.  Well, I think the way people see the modern conservative movement in America has gone through several shifts.  One kind of -- oftentimes the way it's been seen is that there a kind of dominance of liberalism in the immediate postwar period after World War II.  Liberalism was dominant, and it was really only in the late '60s that it began to break down when the liberal order was attacked by the new left and by radical groups, which in turn were attacked by -- the radicalism of these groups prompted a backlash from the people who had previously made up the backbone of the Democratic Party, white, working-class ethnic voters in cities in the north, and also the support of the white south for the Democratic Party.  So frequently the way it's been seen is that there was this backlash in the late '60s and early '70s, and that led to Nixon's election and then later on to Reagan's election at the end of the '70s and the decline of the New Deal order.  So that's one way it's been seen.  And **** there have always been other ways that historians have seen the rise of American conservatism.  Many have linked it back to the immediate postwar period itself, when you see the growth of an intellectual conservatism, the founding of National Review in the mid-'50s, the -- some people go back even further to the New Deal and see the reaction against the New Deal as the real birth point of modern conservatism.

So there's an -- and the suggestion that there's been kind of the growth of a grassroots conservative activism throughout the '50s and '60s and '70s and that that movement, that kind of forward-looking grassroots movement, is really what has given conservatism its staying power; not just the backlash of the late '60s and early '70s, but also this longer underlying trend.  I mean, I think there are historians who go further still and say the Ku Klux Klan, the rise of big business in the late 19th century, that you can find the dominance before the New Deal of a laissez faire set of economic ideas, that all of these parts -- kind of racial conservatism, religious fundamentalism, market ideology -- all of those things go back before the New Deal.  And so in some ways they were there waiting to be reawakened.  So that's yet another view.  

Question: How has conservatism bolstered Republican power?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Right.  Well, I would say first -- well, one thing is I think that the Republican Party is different from the conservative movement.  And really, especially in the postwar period, this is important to keep in mind because there were also liberal Republicans, and so there's a lot of -- the two are not -- you know, they're not the same.  And also, the conservative movement, I think, has had a lot of impact on the Democrats as well.  So in some ways it's always a little confusing what the relationship is between the political parties and these social movements.  Well, I think the -- you know, there are -- I guess there are different schools of thought about this, but there is one perspective that suggests that the ability of conservatives to attract these very dedicated grassroots activists in places like Orange County, California, that that enabled the movement to just kind of slowly grow almost under the radar screen until it was able -- kind of consolidated its power and that the activists carrying out the work of the movement were doing really the same kind of thing that civil rights activists were doing or labor activists, union activists, were doing.  They're slowly kind of meeting to go one on one, holding kaffeeklatsches, participating in rallies, that kind of activity.  And slowly but surely they built a movement.

I think, though, that it actually is problematic to see conservatism as a purely grassroots movement and that one of the things that really makes the conservative movement different is that it's always been able -- throughout the postwar period -- it's always been able to attract a lot of support from business organizations and from very wealthy individuals and donors, and that they're -- these people have played, I would argue, a disproportionate role in driving the movement forward.  So in some ways what you really need to kind of ride out defeats, what you need to ride out the losses that are part of any attempt to change society, one thing you really do need is, you need money and you need an infrastructure.  And conservatives have access to that in a way that I think labor activists just don't and civil rights activists don't, and so they are able to survive defeat in part because they are connected to people who have a lot of social power regardless.  So I think, you know, the grassroots activism is an important part of the story, but it's not the whole story; you need to look at the financing and the institutions and the role of companies and these groups that don't rise and fall with elections or with a particular legislative battles.

Question: Has the face of conservative America changed?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Right.  Do people see conservatives differently?  Well, I think it is -- I think really since **** the election it's interesting:  we've seen an enormous amount of condescension and hostility that -- from liberal groups towards conservatives.  And it is a combination -- it's both seeing them again as really weird, freakish, outside the mainstream, and a lot of the ideas that are being circulated in the conservative movement today are kind of crazy and paranoid.  I mean, the idea that Obama isn't really an American, or the idea that -- the image of the death panels for health care.  I mean, there is something really paranoid about these ideas.

At the same time, I also think that it is confusing, and it obscures the way things really are, to treat these people as though they are -- you know, with this kind of just looking down on them and their ideas.  And also I guess one thing about it is that it marginalizes the extent to which a lot of the ideas of the conservative movement have really entered the mainstream.  And I think one of the things that we really need to look at today, historians and anybody interested in politics, are the successes of the conservative movement and the way that it really has been able to shape both political parties and the whole way that we think about politics, the way we think about America, the way we think about the role of the state.  It seems to me that in some ways what people should start to do is stop studying only the conservatives and start looking at the mainstream and the consensus and how that has shifted, I think in large part as a result of the work of the conservative movement, but, you know, kind of conceived broadly.

Question: How has conservatism shaped the Democratic agenda?

Kim Phillips-Fein:   Well, I think that the biggest, deepest impact is really in economic ideas, and there's just a lot -- the kind of old confidence in the idea that the state could, you know, by taking -- the state had the ability to take positive action in order to change economic relationships and create a more equal, fair, just economy.  I think that the contemporary Democratic Party, even under Obama, is not committed to that in the same way.  And I think one place we really see this actually is with regard to labor unions and the really complete lack of commitment of the Obama administration to passing labor law reform.  I think we see it all over, though.  I think you can see it in the health care debate, in the way in which what's actually being talked about now is substantially watered down and is quite far from anything like a single-payer program, which might actually -- which many experts think would have the greatest chance of actually delivering on the goal of truly universal health care.  But it's not on the table; it's just nowhere in the discussion.  Not nowhere, but it's definitely not in the -- it's not what is being talked about in Congress.  So I think that kind of thing, that there's a way in which the center of political opinion has really shifted.

Question: Is Obama post-partisan?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Is Obama a post-partisan president?  Well, no, I don't think that it is -- I think the whole concept of post-partisan is problematic in that it's -- you know, the way that things really change is through people being willing to take positions and fight for them.  And I think the idea that you can avoid the fight or transcend it in politics is just not right.  And Obama, as a community organizer, should have known better.  I think in the 1936 election, we have FDR speaking in Madison Square Garden, saying if the forces of organized business are united against him, he welcomes their hatred.  That's not a post-partisan position, but that is the kind of position that you need to, I think, really make things change.  And I think with Obama it's interesting:  clearly he tries to -- you back away from conflict, but it's impossible to actually avoid it.  In the ways in which he's been attacked for the reforms that he's tried to put through, especially in health care, you can see this dynamic where he's putting something forward that seems quite moderate, really.  But it doesn't matter how moderate it is; it still gets attacked.  And so that's why I think it's -- I don't think he is a post-partisan president, but I also think it wasn't really the right thing to try for.

Question: What’s next for the Republican Party?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Right.  Well, this is a great question:  will the Republican Party come back in the midterm elections?  Will it come back in 2012?  I -- I think that it -- as a historian, it's so dangerous to predict the future, and one is very reluctant to really play fortuneteller.  I don't know whether it'll come back in the midterm elections or in 2012.  It certainly seems like it's in a lot of internal chaos right now -- no good leaders emerging.  It seems to be playing an almost entirely kind of negative role in terms of attacking Obama, but not able to really formulate a coherent response.

At the same time, I think that the underlying dynamics that gave it strength in the past are still there.  I mean, it continues to have cadres of grassroots activists who are very committed to it, as we've seen in the disruptions of the health care town halls over the summer and the tax day protests and the like.  And it also continues to have, I think, the support of a large number of business people and a kind of intellectual infrastructure of think tanks and political organizations devoted to -- not the Republican Party necessarily at all times, but certainly to an anti-government set of positions.  And I think that if Obama did try to take things farther to the left that we would see a stronger reaction against it from those groups and from those people.  And unless there's another kind of political movement that comes into existence around something like health care that can really counter it, I think that they -- you know, the underlying ingredients for conservative success are still there; they haven't really changed.  So I don't know whether it will happen in the midterm elections or 2012, but I definitely think that I wouldn't write the Republican Party or that kind of movement conservatism off as dead by a long shot.

Question: What divides the Republican Party?

Kim Phillips-Fein:  Well, I think that today there is -- the Republican Party seems like it's really divided into these different single-issue groups, and -- although there are certain -- I mean, I think it's not -- I think there's been a lot of discussion of the centrality of social issues in the conservative movement today and the sense that -- and different conservative commentators themselves, like George Will, have criticized the rest of the movement for becoming too committed to these social issues, to anti-abortion politics, anti-gay marriage, and letting go kind of the real issues of the market and lower taxes and so on and so forth.  And so there's this sense that the social conservatives are really running the show.

You know, I think that it is complicated -- I mean, I would both say that there's this question of what's happened to the mainstream.  But I think even in the Republican Party there are still a lot of people who are very committed to this low-tax, anti-regulation program.  The problem is that -- and I think the two sides -- people have always been able to kind of hold both positions, and even though it seems like there ought to be a conflict, in actual practice there isn't.  And we can talk more about how these positions hold together, but I think they do for people.  And so it's not experienced as a contradiction exactly.  I think the real issue for the real anti-government, the hardcore anti-government people in the Republican Party is that the recession and the financial crisis has really called their ideology into question in a way that it hadn't been challenged for some time, and so just this sort of pure American ideology now seems irresponsible, like it led to this huge panic.  And so I think it's harder to advance it in the same kind of confident, directed way that we've seen in the past.

So I think -- it's funny; you see other people in the Republican Party, maybe in response to the total failure of their ideas with the recent economic events, trying to advance other ways out.  The problem is that they're not -- the problem for them is that they're really not committed to it, and so I just think it creates real problems.  There's just something too contradictory about saying the state can be used in this way but not that way.  I don't know.  I think it's internally incoherent for them.

Question: Will the libertarian movement strengthen?

Kim Phillips-Fein: I think it's just hard to be a libertarian today or to win new supporters to libertarian causes, in the wake of the recession and fiscal, financial crisis.  At the same time, I think there's a lot of criticism of the bailout and of the actions of the state with regard to the auto industry, and a sense that Obama represents business interests in some ways, or has been willing to work with business people and hasn't taken them on directly.  And I think this actually does fuel a certain libertarianism.  I see it among my students, actually, a sense that there's this relationship between business and government, and neither is really standing for the market, and that the market is the way to success and prosperity for everybody.  So I feel like that idea actually is given a lot of strength by things like the bailout and by Obama's relationship with the financial sector and banking industry.  And so I think that kind of thing -- I mean, that actually would speak to the more rapid resurgence of conservatism, I suppose, this sense that there's this cozy nexus and a feeling of being outsiders and wanting a kind of economic life that isn't in this relationship with the state.

Recorded October 22, 2009