Modern conservatism grew from California roots

Americans associate the Golden State with liberalism, but California gave Ronald Reagan to the nation and before him, Richard Nixon.
Americans associate the Golden State with liberalism, but California gave Ronald Reagan to the nation and before him, Richard Nixon. National Archives

With this week’s Republican presidential debates in Simi Valley, the modern conservative movement returns to its roots.

Americans associate the Golden State with liberalism, if not flakier ventures. But California gave Ronald Reagan to the nation and before him, Richard Nixon. Nixon got his initial blessing from Herbert Hoover, the first California president and America’s founding conservative, who, in opposing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, gave us the conservative movement we know today.

Before the New Deal, America’s big businessmen often supported an expansive role for the federal government: The government built the roads, dams and railroads that expanded their markets, and it helped them prohibit alcohol and control labor. In particular, American companies could count on the U.S. government to turn a blind eye when employers cracked down on striking workers during the pitched labor battles of the 1870s through the early 1930s.

But when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, the federal government began to intervene in the economy in new ways. It started serving organized labor as well as organized capital. Washington empowered laborers by guaranteeing their right to join unions. These labor policies – especially when they helped people with darker skin or radical beliefs – prompted businessmen to launch a counterrevolution that continues today.

That counterrevolution began in California.

Strikes rocked California as the New Deal began. In 1933, 50,000 farmworkers walked out of the California fields, demanding that agribusiness titans recognize their unions. Farm laborers typically earned just enough daily to pay for food and gas to reach the next picking job. To help feed their families, children as young as 7 worked 12-hour days.

Roosevelt’s aides did not encourage these strikes, but they did not break them either. Moreover, they threatened to withhold New Deal subsidies from farm businesses that refused to submit to industrial mediation with the unions.

Agribusinessmen found the New Dealers’ support for mediation infuriating. And they did not merely complain about the changes sown by New Dealers: they organized. They lobbied state and local law enforcement to arrest union leaders for sedition. They assailed pro-labor students and professors at the University of California as dangerous Reds.

And they won. Having smashed the union threat in California’s fields, the growers attacked what they saw as the bigger problem: the New Deal itself. Or rather, they attacked the parts of the New Deal that benefited workers. They won over middle-class voters by hiring consultants to explain that the New Deal – or “creeping socialism” – was responsible not only for strikes, but for cultural changes: increasing secularism, racial diversity and women working outside the home.

Hoover, the president whom Roosevelt toppled, organized these anti-labor conservatives in the West from his Palo Alto home. He helped discover Richard Nixon in 1946 and encouraged businessmen to fund the then-unknown lawyer’s congressional bid. These same industries and individuals later supported the Californian who presided over conservative triumph in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan.

If they could see the debate this week, the leaders of the 1930s conservative movement would cheer the Republican presidential candidates of 2016. The leading contenders to succeed President Barack Obama share the beliefs of the New Deal’s opponents: they’re hostile to unions, suspicious of public higher education and wary of immigrants, particularly those from Mexico. They hire consultants who craft slogans warning about cultural threats while singing the praises of unfettered capitalism.

Even though there’s only one Californian, Carly Fiorina, on stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library this week, they’re all coming home.

Kathryn Olmsted is professor and chair of the history department at UC Davis. She is the author of “Right Out of California: The Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism.”