How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California

today's conservatism

Most observers of the emergence of what has come to be called “conservatism” in America locate its roots in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. They point to the works of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand; the political campaigns of Barry Goldwater, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan; the pro-business decisions of the United States Supreme Court; and, perhaps more than any other factor, the decades-long efforts of extremely wealthy Americans to build a network of right-wing think tanks and other organizations to move public opinion to the right. Now, in Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, historian Kathryn Olmsted argues that the origins of the movement lie instead in the blood-stained labor conflicts in California’s Central Valley and Imperial Valley in the years before World War II.


Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism by Kathryn S. Olmsted (2015) 288 pages

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FDR, the New Deal, and the war in the fields

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is widely thought to have healed the most gaping wounds of the Great Depression and brought long-awaited justice to millions of Americans. There is, of course, a great deal of truth to this. Social Security, the minimum wage, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a plethora of alphabet agencies such as the WPA, the CCC, and others undoubtedly made life far more livable for millions of seniors, out-of-work men and women, and industrial workers. What is less well known today is that Roosevelt was only able to push his legislation through Congress with the support of racist and right-wing Southern Democrats, who prevented him from including agricultural workers in any of his signature programs. The large majorities of farm workers, both in the South and in California, who were African American or Mexican gained virtually nothing from the New Deal.

When their wages were slashed by the owners of the factory farms who even then dominated California agriculture, consigning millions of agricultural workers to starvation, labor conflict broke out in the fields. Motivated by the mistaken belief that New Deal legislation covered them, and encouraged by labor organizers who arrived on the scene to support them, California farm workers soon found themselves in often pitched battles with local law enforcement and the vigilantes egged on by the owners.

Olmsted argues that the packers’ and growers’ increasingly sophisticated efforts to organize themselves led not only to bloody conflicts but formed the backbone of the virulent opposition to FDR and the New Deal. She traces the emergence of right-wing organizations funded by California agribusiness to the selection and support of Richard Nixon as their champion and thence in a virtually straight line to the presidential campaigns of Goldwater, Reagan, and Nixon himself.

Anti-communism and labor conflict

During the years of the Great Depression, before Stalin’s crimes were widely known outside the Soviet Union and several years before his pact with Nazi Germany, thousands of intelligent and well-meaning young people in the United States flocked to the Communist Party. With the impatience of youth, many saw Roosevelt’s New Deal as half-hearted reform in the interest of saving capitalism (which wasn’t far from the truth). Some of the brightest young Communists rushed to the labor movement as a focus of organizing the “working class.” Often, established trade unions declined to move into industries where violence might break out. The Party then organized its own radical unions.

Sometimes alone, and sometimes in competition with existing unions, Communist organizers took on the toughest assignments — and it was in the agricultural fields of California that the conflict became most violent. Communists were often in the forefront of the clash with agribusiness. Unfortunately, their presence gave the packers and growers the pretext to raise the specter of a Soviet takeover in resisting the workers and afforded them the opportunity to speak out against FDR’s reforms because the Administration was “riddled with Reds.”

Olmsted argues that the resulting anti-Communist organizing that spread to the cities and engulfed the state’s Republican Party later formed the foundation for what we know of today as “conservatism.” This is an interesting line of argument, and up to a point it’s difficult to refute: without question, the same forces that built the state’s Republican Party around Richard Nixon in the late 1940s and 50s had been active in the actions of the 1930s. Where the argument grows thin is in later years. As President, Nixon proved unreliable at best on domestic issues as he sought a place in history through his opening to China. Younger people, coming of age with the Goldwater, Wallace, and Reagan campaigns, became dominant in the Republican Party. Their links to the pitched battles of the 1930s were indirect, at best. Surely, the establishment of think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing institutions founded in the 1960s and 70s played a far larger role in the development of what passes for conservatism today than the efforts of former president Herbert Hoover and the Hoover Institution at Stanford that Olmsted mentions so prominently.

About the author

Kathy Olmsted heads the department of history at the University of California, Davis, where she has taught since 1993. A specialist in the study of anti-Communism, she has written four books. Right Out of California is the most recent.

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