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5.0 out of 5 stars Fifty Years of American "Conservatism", 16 Feb 2013
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This review is from: Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (Hardcover)
New York University professor, occasional contributor to the Baffler and The Nation, Kim Phillips-Fein takes as her subject in "Invisible Hands" the history of the modern Conservative movement in the United States from its origins in opposition to the New Deal to the inauguration of the Reagan administration.

While I'm pretty sure Phillips-Feins sympathies are to the left, she manages to deal with the motley crew of Conservative activists, politicians and businessmen who make up the Conservative movement during the half century she covers in an impartial manner. She details the movement from its roots in opposition to the New Deal: that particular change in the political environment after the inauguration of FDR in 1933 to one that was conducive to the growth in the influence of ordinary working people (in particular their Unions), and a growing trend for (some) politicians to recognise that the ordinary Americans interest was not always identical to that of American Businesses.

The story continues with the second world war (during which conservative/business interests regained a degree of power and influence), the gradual post-war roll back of Unions and Liberal politics during the oppressive years of McCarthyism, through to the Goldwater run for the presidency in 1964. Goldwater failed in his run, but the victor - Lyndon Johnson - failed to keep out of Vietnam: the growing involvement in that miserable War and the financial costs undermined his "Great Society" program, the last substantial attempt by an American President to govern with a relatively Liberal domestic policy (which in a European sense would be roughly equivalent to a diluted version of Social Democracy). Within fifteen years of the Goldwater failure, the movement is backed by serious money, has parlayed that money into substantially successful attempts to win the war of ideas (through well funded think tanks and foundations), turned the focus of popular politics away from socio-economic issues to those of the so-called "Culture Wars", and has a congenial figurehead for the 1980 election campaign: Ronald Reagan. The rest is another story. . .

"Invisible Hands" is also excellent on the individuals involved from the ostensibly cerebral Milton Friedman and the Mont-Pelerin Society of von Hayek and von Mises, to the more combative characters such as Jesse Helms and Barry Goldwater. But this is far more than a study of individuals: it tells the story of the movement as it grew, and how the connections between the disparate elements of the movement coalesced (she plausibly makes a case for the failed Goldwater run for president in 1964 being critically important to that process) eventually leading to the Reagan presidency.

Kim Phillips-Fein has written a fine and scholarly work, which contains a substantial amount of research, is written in a clear and comprehensible manner, and it's her first book length publication. It is one I'd thoroughly recommend to anyone who has an interest in how Politics actually functions as opposed to the simplified storytelling which by and large passes for news.

Another excellent book on American Conservatism I'd recommend, though it leaps forward to the post-Reagan era, would be Thomas Franks account of Conservatives in power: The Wrecking Crew.
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S Wood
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Location: Scotland

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