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Issue #19, Winter 2011
Enemies of State
First Principles: The Role of Government
Rick Perlstein
More consistently, and more effectively, the work of subverting activist government has proceeded through what industry euphemistically calls “education.” Another way to describe it is paid propaganda. If the federal government’s infernal power to make direct payouts from the public treasury and to put voters on the public payroll has felt to conservatives like a form of legalized political cheating, they have responded with a form of cheating of their own. Between 1934 and 1937, NAM’s public-relations budget increased twentyfold, to $12 million in today’s dollars, comprising a majority of the flagship business organization’s annual expenditures. “Don’t tell ’em, sell ’em,” was the watchword of the head of NAM’s PR efforts, a DuPont Chemical executive named J. Warren Kinsman. “In the everlasting battle for the minds of men,” he argued, only modern marketing techniques were “powerful enough to arouse public opinion sufficiently to check the steady, insidious, and current drift toward socialism.”
The du Pont family is infamous in American political history for sponsoring a conspicuous failure: the American Liberty League, a conservative attempt to politically unseat the New Deal coalition. It was never able to shake its reputation as a front for extremists and plutocrats. Its spectacular collapse by 1940 is one reason historians have traditionally considered the conservative political movement a dormant force through the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s–a time, literary critic Lionel Trilling misleadingly pronounced, when there were “no conservative ideas in general circulation.” The PR efforts of figures like Kinsman were surely more effective than all that. In 1950–the same year the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) landmark “Treaty of Detroit” with General Motors secured pioneering cost-of-living adjustments and other generous benefits that seemed to point the way to the hegemony of a uniquely American form of social democracy–NAM circulated no fewer than 4.5 million pamphlets, publications, and comic books to schoolchildren arguing that ideologies like UAW President Walter Reuther’s were un-American and would spell the downfall of the republic. They watched NAM-distributed films that argued, 50 years before Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, that it was the German public’s indifference to the expanding economic power of the state that produced Nazism. NAM carried an entire full-time staff to produce its national radio program, “Industry on Parade,” which proved surprisingly popular in the heartland, ranking among Oklahoma City’s top five programs and attracting more Milwaukee listeners in its time slot than “Meet the Press” (which unlike “Industry on Parade” did not feature its own singing group). NAM had another crew traveling the country to deliver two-day seminars to businessmen on how to “become better champions of the American way.” According to Elizabeth Fones-Wolf’s Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, in 1954, “school superintendents estimated the investment in free material at $50 million, about half the amount public schools spent annually on regular textbooks.” That exceeds a third of a billion in today’s dollars. By any stretch of the imagination, anti-government conservatism was an idea very much in general circulation.
A large part of such education was counter-education–wrenching workers away from what they were learning about how the world worked from their unions, to which one third of them belonged. The Foundation for Economic Education, formed in the great strike year of 1946, specialized in publishing pamphlets for placement in factory break-rooms: texts like “The First Leftists,” which argued that Reutherites were akin to the French Revolution’s Great Terror; “31 Cents,” on the alleged amount of taxes wasted from each dollar in wages; and “Roofs or Ceilings?” in which a young Midwestern economist named Milton Friedman argued that rent control was on the verge of rendering masses of American citizens homeless (the National Association of Real Estate Boards circulated half a million copies). The poetic key to such texts was well summarized by a cork manufacturer active in the movement: Unless citizens were “thoroughly grounded in knowledge of, faith in, and practice of the principles on which the American republic rests, they will be easy prey for demagogues.” The logic counterposes something akin to revealed truth–“principle,” “faith”–on one side, to a mere will to power on the other: “demagogues,” politicians willing to subvert civilization itself just for the sake of buying votes. “A monthly check to you–for the rest of your life.”
The General (Electric) Interest
The ambit and ambition of such thinking would grow wider and wider across the decades. Consider the career of perhaps the most important injector of such ideology into the bloodstream of Americans who were not businessmen and did not work under them in factories. He bears the obligingly Dickensian name of Lemuel Ricketts Boulware, and he is perhaps the most influential American most Americans have not heard of. Beginning in the late 1940s, he was General Electric’s “vice president for public and community relations,” a job title that spoke to his globalizing ideological ambitions. His main job was merely negotiating labor contracts, but he understood the work as political guerilla warfare: figuring out ways to speak directly to workers, over the heads of their unions, in, as Boulware’s best historian, Thomas W. Evans, explains, “a constant campaign, going on each day for years.” Boulware compared the job of his 3,000 “Employee Relations Managers” to that of General Electric salesmen “giving a turbine customer the information and guidance that would cause the latter of his own free will to want to do what we recommended as to the selection of the equipment and the signing of the order.”
ISSUE #19, WINTER 2011
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Susan Webster:
Maybe our country needs a depression or severe recession periodically so that the "average American" is touched by financial hardship and can see how social programs and legislation like the health care bill are necessary parts of our government. But then again I remember reading about one of those "average Americans" voicing her concern about how she didn't want the government to start running social security and mess it up. Would we still be a democracy if voting depended on having an adequate IQ?
Jan 23, 2011, 4:48 PM
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Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
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