January 01, 2021

Credit: Nnehring / Getty Images

This article was originally published June 19, 2020.

In the 1930s, America experienced the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the presidencies of both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. California, meanwhile, witnessed a serious shift in the Republican Party - a shift that would impact the entire country for decades to come. Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California Davis and author of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, says that all sorts of factors came together to make conservatives see the government “as a force for evil, instead of a force for protecting the markets.” From crops to communism, she explains how California paved the way for modern conservatism. 

Main Takeaways

  • Under FDR’s New Deal, workers’ unions began to form all over the country. Farmworkers were not included in those protections, but, in California, they began to organize with the help of the Communist Party. As workers went on strike, leaders of corporate agriculture began to feel that the government wasn’t on their side any longer. In an effort to push back against the progressive policies of the New Deal, conservative farm owners and businesses teamed up with social conservatives to build a political coalition that framed the New Deal as an attack on American values. 
  • The political tactics that worked to undermine New Deal progressivism have stuck with us. Olmsted points to the California governor’s race of 1934 between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair as foundational to conservative campaigns for decades to come. Sinclair faced coordinated attacks from his opponents, their allies in the media, and even an early political consulting firm. Merriam’s team leaned on themes of God and the family, claimed his opponent was “anti-American,” and even brought dark money into play. Some of the people that backed Merriam in 1934 later went on to champion Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 
  • Over the course of the last century, Olmsted says that historians wondered if we’d turned a corner and the country was growing increasingly progressive. It wasn’t until the 1990s that historians began to reconsider the power that conservatism still has in America. Today, historians see a split among those on the right: neo-conservatives (who have generally embraced a more international role for the U.S.) vs. paleo-conservatives like President Trump, who reflect the 1930s’ roots of conservatism.

More Reading

  • Jill Lepore, a previous guest of ours, wrote about the significance of the 1934 governor’s race in California, in an article for the New Yorker. She talks about the political consulting firm  —  the first of its kind  —  that Upton Sinclair’s opponent used. It deployed all kinds of new campaign strategies, from dark money to linking opposition policies with “un-Americanism.”
  • You can read more from Kathryn Olmsted about the story of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the rise of conservative media.
  • The Communist Party played a surprising role in the rise of modern conservatism in the U.S., and it may surprise some that it still has a presence in America. Here’s an article from the BBC about how the Communist Party has hung on so long in a country that has largely been hostile toward members.

conservatives, history, California, Culture, politics, Kathryn Olmsted, 1930s

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