Ask Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan how he became a conservative and he’ll probably answer by citing a book. It might be Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Or perhaps he’ll come up with Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, or even Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. All of these books are staples of the modern conservative canon, works with the reputed power to radicalize even the most tepid Republican. Over the last half-century, they have been vital to the conservative movement’s success—and to liberalism’s demise.
A hundred years ago, the most famous banker in America testified before Congress in one of his last public appearances. His name (hint: you’ve seen it in recent headlines) was John Pierpont Morgan, the redoubtable founding father of today’s JPMorgan Chase. At the time, Morgan was without peer in American banking, simultaneously the old man and the great innovator of American finance. The list of corporations he organized was legendary: U.S. Steel, International Harvester, General Electric. So was his personal power. From the dawn of the Gilded Age, he reigned as “the boss of bosses,” in the words of muckraker Lincoln Steffens, a mystical figurehead and ruthless businessman wrapped up in a single top-hatted, pot-bellied package.
Last month, Rick Santorum announced that he likes inequality. “There is income inequality in America,” he told the Detroit Economic Club in a much-quoted speech. “There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.”
Many political observers have since ridiculed this stance, declaring Santorum “unhinged,” or at least unfit to conduct a serious presidential campaign. But the positive defense of inequality is not entirely new in American politics. From the moment that social reformers began to “discover” poverty in the 19th century, naysayers were on hand to explain why extremes of wealth and poverty made for a just society. By embracing inequality, Santorum is reviving the politics of our last Gilded Age.
A century ago, in one of his last acts of office, President William Howard Taft attempted to solve the problem of inequality in America. In August 1912, on the cusp of a brutal third-place finish in the presidential election, he created a Commission on Industrial Relations to investigate “the general condition of labor in the principal industries.” Despite its fusty charge, the commission turned out to be one of the most sensational sideshows of the Progressive Era, a cross-country journey through the wilds of American class conflict. For three years, government commissioners traipsed from city to city asking capitalists, union organizers, and reformers what it was like to work in America, and whether the spoils of industry seemed to be distributed fairly among the rich and poor.
On May 31, 2005, former FBI associate director W. Mark Felt revealed that he was “Deep Throat,” the shadowy high official whose leaks to the Washington Post helped to provoke the Watergate crisis and topple the Nixon presidency. Felt’s confession ended one of the capital’s longest-running guessing games; the hushed phone calls and parking-garage trysts of All the President’s Men ,
co-author Bob Woodward confirmed, were based on encounters with Felt. Media outlets framed the revelation as a drama of individual derring-do, assigning Felt the role of noble whistleblower or despicable traitor, liberal ally or conservative nemesis. As a result, they missed an opportunity to reconsider the larger story of Watergate, perhaps the most mythologized political scandal of the twentieth century. This article argues that Felt’s actions—and, by extension, Watergate itself—must be understood in the context of a long-standing institutional conflict between the Nixon administration and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. long claimed that American politics moved in cycles. Every few decades, he suggested, the nation witnessed a swing of the pendulum, with power and ideological influence shifting from liberals to conservatives, or from the public interest to the private, and back again. When Barack Obama took office in 2009, many pundits saw the pendulum swinging once again, ushering in a new era of Democratic dominance — the Age of Reagan giving way to the vaunted Age of Obama.
The last two years have upended this story; presidential politics seems more and more unpredictable. When it comes to the writing of presidential history, however, the trends are still easy to call.
Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar brings humanity to its subject, depicting a tortured love relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, his second-in-command at the FBI. When it comes to politics, though, the film reverts to stereotype. According to J. Edgar, Hoover remained in power for forty-eight years primarily because he “had the files” on his political enemies. In this well-worn view, Hoover was a lone operator, manipulating American politics from a shady perch in his artfully darkened back room.
In one of the climactic moments of the new film J. Edgar, a thirtysomething J. Edgar Hoover reveals his plans to take a wife. The scene unfolds in a New York hotel suite, where Hoover has reserved adjoining rooms with Clyde Tolson, his second-in-command at the FBI. Tolson responds with rage to his boss’s news, throwing a temper tantrum at odds with his typically polished demeanor. The argument soon escalates into a fistfight, then into the film’s single most sexual moment: a bloody kiss between the director and associate director of the FBI.
Last week, the Occupy Wall Street movement entered a new phase. For its first few months, Occupy was all about message, the 99 percent taking a tentative stand against the 1 percent. Now, the on-the-ground challenges of sustaining such a movement over the long term have begun to take center stage.