- Interview by
- Sasha Lilley
It’s often argued that modern US conservatism originated in the failed presidential bid of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964. Historian Kathryn Olmsted suggests, however, that it should be located much earlier, in the intense labor unrest in the California fields of the 1930s.
In her book, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, Olmsted argues that large growers and other members of the business class saw farmworker organizing and the New Deal’s pro-labor policies as fundamental threats to their power. While they had benefited enormously from government policies like infrastructure building and tariffs, California agribusiness bristled at the government doing anything to improve workers’ position. In their ferocious anti-labor campaign, they pioneered methods that have become hallmarks of the Right: the use of populist language to defend elite interests, the corporate funding of ostensibly grassroots organizations, and attacks on the Left as a threat to religion and the family.
Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California Davis and the author of multiple books. She was interviewed by radical journalist Sasha Lilley on the California-based progressive radio show Against the Grain. Their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
To what degree was the New Deal a blow to big business, particularly in California and the West?
Big business had parts of the New Deal that it liked very much and others that it found very distressing, even revolutionary.
On the one hand, a lot of business leaders liked the parts of the New Deal that encouraged big businesses to get together and create cartels to raise prices. They also often liked the infrastructure projects, because the federal government was using tax money to improve roads, airports, and, in the case of California, build dams and canals that expanded their markets.
But what they, for the most part, really despised about the New Deal was its labor laws: because they threatened businesses’ control over wages and profits.
The biggest industry in California was agribusiness. In California, and throughout the West, there tended to be much bigger farms, more highly capitalized, and the land was more expensive. This dated back to the Spanish period, when they had the big haciendas and land grants, but it also had to do with the fact that in California, in particular, they needed irrigation to farm. If you need irrigation, then you need dams and canals, and that takes a lot of capital. Railroads and insurance companies and oil companies and banks owned these large corporate farms, especially in the Central Valley.
Up until the New Deal, corporate agriculture in California had been very statist because the government built the dams and the canals that made it possible for them to farm. It’s only when they decided that the New Deal meant their workers would try to organize unions and raise their pay that corporate agribusiness began to turn against the New Deal.
Now, agricultural workers were excluded from the New Deal laws. They did not get the protections that industrial workers did. But what they heard was that President Roosevelt wants you to form a union. They heard about all these industrial workers throughout the United States demanding the right to form a union and going out on strike when their employers refused to let them. The agricultural workers in California were among the most desperately poor people in America. When they heard that there were these labor laws, they decided to start forming unions.
What did the Left in California look like in the 1930s?
California was a land of political extremes. On the Right, there was a small fascist movement and a Ku Klux Klan in the Central Valley. There was also a strong Republican Party that was split between an extremely conservative wing and a more progressive wing. On the center-left, there was a relatively small Democratic Party in the early ’30s that gained strength as the New Deal continued. On the far left, there was a vibrant socialist movement and a Communist Party, the second-largest outside of New York.
The Communist Party organized farmworkers in the early 1930s, largely because the more conventional unions like the American Federation of Labor [AFL] were not interested in organizing farmworkers. It was a very difficult, dangerous business. The farmworkers were often immigrants from different countries, they didn’t speak the same language, and even if you were able finally to get a group to organize a union, once the harvest was over, they would all move on and go to different harvests, and you’d have to start all over again with the next crop.
The Communist organizers tried to help the workers overcome or transcend their racial prejudices by encouraging them to mingle at dinner. In the cotton strike of 1933, there was an enormous camp near Bakersfield where five thousand strikers lived (because the growers would evict workers from their property during strikes). There were Okies and Arkies and African Americans and Filipinos, but mainly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans.
The Communist organizers would pick what they called “the lieutenant” to represent each of these different groups, and then each of the lieutenants would eat with the main organizers at a central table in the strike camp at dinner time. Then they would encourage the rank-and-file workers to eat among a different ethnic group every night as a way of teaching the workers, “You don’t have to fear these other groups. These are your comrades, and if we can all get together we can all help each other.”
Tell us about the strike that you just mentioned, the 1933 strike in the San Joaquin Valley, which still is the largest agricultural strike in US history.
It was a truly massive undertaking. The cotton-growing areas in the Central Valley are a hundred miles long and forty miles wide. The workers were already interested in going on strike, and Communist Party organizers arrived and helped them organize. About eighteen to twenty thousand workers refused to pick the cotton at the height of the harvest — and cotton goes bad, just like fruits and vegetables, if it’s not picked in time.
It was a desperate moment for the growers, but they were taking a very hard line and refusing to raise the wages of the pickers. The workers went out on strike and stayed out for about two weeks. The growers tried to bring in strikebreakers to pick the cotton, and the strikers would travel around in caravans, park on the street in front of the great cotton fields, and then yell at the workers who were picking and encourage them to join the strike.
It got more and more intense. The growers used local law enforcement to arrest the strikers for vagrancy, an all-purpose charge back in those days. The California highway patrol was clearing the highways, not allowing picketing. Finally one night the growers got a big meeting together, essentially a vigilante meeting, and the crowd got into a frenzy and the next morning a group of vigilantes attacked two separate groups of strikers and killed three of them.
To what degree were these strikers successful and what other kinds of responses did these growers then turn to?
At first, workers were able to get some intervention from the federal administration. Even though the New Deal did not protect their right to join a union, there were New Deal administrators in California who were appalled by the vigilante violence against the strikers.
In the cotton strike of 1933, after the three strikers were killed, the head of the New Deal Recovery Administration in California went to Visalia to broker a settlement. He got the state government involved, the state government appointed a commission, and eventually they hammered out a compromise. Workers didn’t get nearly as much money as they wanted and they didn’t get their union recognized, but they did get more for that particular harvest.
This was the highpoint of government intervention, and it was also the beginning of the growers’ determination to make sure nothing like that ever happened again. The growers formed an organization called the Associated Farmers, which despite its name was mostly funded by packers and shippers and corporate growers. On the one hand, it went after the Communist organizers and tried to get local governments to indict them for violating the state’s criminal syndicalism act, and on the other it started to whip up public opposition to farmworker unions in general and also to the New Deal.
You argue that a lot of the characteristics we associate with the American right in the late twentieth century can be traced back to this time.
I see 1933 as the big turning point in the conservative movement in America. Before 1933, conservatives and business leaders were not anti-government. They liked many of the ways that the government intervened in the economy because it benefited big business. Government levied tariffs to protect their markets, it built infrastructure that enabled them to expand their markets, and it helped them control labor by sometimes sending in troops, or at least turning a blind eye when employers used violence against workers.
In the early New Deal, big business saw that the government was still doing many of these things, like the dams and the canals in California, the infrastructure projects, and agricultural subsidies. What changed in 1933 is that the government decided, “We’re going to create a more level playing field between business and labor. We’re not going to allow business to get away with many of the anti-union activities they have engaged in up to this point.”
With the Wagner Act in 1935, the government started to make sure employers bargained in good faith with unions. The act made it much easier for workers to join unions, and millions more did. This was anathema to a lot of corporations and corporate leaders. It was at that point that a lot of corporate leaders began to develop an anti-government philosophy that we associate with the modern Republican Party.
One problem they had right away was that they realized there were not a lot of people who sympathized with their economic arguments. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, won an overwhelming reelection in 1936 — the biggest reelection victory since James Monroe ran unopposed in 1820. So how could conservatives get a majority of voters on their side? They decided to portray the Left as a threat to religion, a threat to the family, and a threat to gender and racial hierarchy.
In California, the arguments about race were usually about Latinos: “aliens” were coming to the United States with different values, a different religion, and different political values. And New Deal policies were empowering these “aliens” and threatening the rest of us.
What about gender? What sorts of anxieties did the Right play on around gender roles?
This is still early, but you can see at this time a lot of anxiety about women supposedly leaving their proper place in the home. With the Depression, a lot of women were forced to work to help their families survive. Also, in the California fields, the Communist Party used a lot of women as leaders.
This was partly ideological because the Communist Party, at least in theory, although not always in practice, was committed to gender equality. It was also pragmatic since they realized there was a lot of violence directed against Communists, and if the party used women, there was still enough chivalry and traditional gender values, even among the vigilantes, that there would be many fewer attacks against women organizers than men organizers.
So there was a general anxiety that the economic collapse was threatening traditional gender roles and also the very real example of the Communist Party putting women front and center in their organizing activities. This made Americans who supported the traditional family very anxious, uncertain, and a little angry, and thus receptive to appeals by conservatives that Roosevelt was bringing too much change and threatening the family.
One striking thing in your book is that this right-wing backlash used various approaches that we might recognize today as key organizational forms of the New Right, including industry groups, political consultants, and publicists. Can you tell us about some of those innovations and what they looked like at that time?
A real moment of terror for conservatives in California was in the fall of 1934 when Democratic primary voters nominated as their candidate for governor Upton Sinclair, the socialist author. He had genuinely radical goals and policies. He wanted to have a very steep progressive income tax and property tax. He wanted to exempt most people from the property tax and have a very high property tax on wealthy corporations and individuals, and then use this money to have the state take over unused factories and farms and turn them into co-ops.
It was a real socialist program and it was going to result, if he was elected and got his policies through, in an actual redistribution of wealth. The people in the state who had the most wealth and power were terrified, and they spent an unprecedented amount of money — we don’t know exactly how much, but people rumored that it was up to ten million dollars, which was just unheard of in those days. They used all that money on advertisements, but also faked news reels and, for the very first time, hiring political consultants.
There were two political consultants in Sacramento named Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter who had just gone into business the year before and were the first political consultants in the nation. They weren’t just speechwriters or advertising consultants — candidates or industry groups could hire them, and they would create a campaign from scratch, and write the speeches, write the advertisements, plan the schedule, come up with the platform, the policies, all themselves and based on what they thought would win.
They discovered that Sinclair’s economic ideas, as radical as they were, were quite popular. So what they had to do was separate a lot of people who supported his economic ideas from his coalition by emphasizing his supposed threat to the family and the church. They cast these arguments in the language of populism, but instead of talking about a moneyed elite that the people had to fight against, they talked about a cultural elite — and that Upton Sinclair and Franklin Roosevelt were part of this group of intellectual, secular, anti-religious eggheads who didn’t understand the people.
Whitaker and Baxter discovered that they could mobilize a lot of conservative women who otherwise had been apolitical to go knock on doors and make speeches about how Upton Sinclair, the Democratic Party, and Franklin Roosevelt threatened your home. The interesting thing is that Franklin Roosevelt didn’t endorse Sinclair and at the end of the day completely cut him off, and the Democratic Party of California did a secret deal with the Republican nominee because they were terrified of Sinclair as well.
In hearing your description of this anti-intellectual, anti-egghead argument the Right started making, it’s hard not to think of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, two key figures of the Right who came out of California. To what degree can we see that connection?
I think there’s a direct connection. An important figure in my book is Herbert Hoover, who was the first president from California. (He was born in Iowa but came to California to go to Stanford and continued to have a residence throughout the 1930s.) Hoover helped organize this national conservative backlash to the New Deal and helped discover Richard Nixon in 1946 and encouraged him to run for Congress for the first time. Hoover helped organize donors for Nixon and connected him with the political consultants who would help frame Nixon’s message, which was very similar to the one in 1934 against Upton Sinclair.
Nixon, in turn, developed this group of donors and consultants and advisors who would go on to advise Reagan in the 1960s, or to train the people who would advise Reagan in the 1960s. Reagan was elected governor in 1966, and he had a lot of the same backers as Nixon did in the 1940s and ’50s, and who had been organized by Hoover back in the 1930s. You have these three Californian presidents — Hoover, Nixon, and Reagan — developing and refining these California political techniques and then taking them to the national stage.
You’re arguing in Right Out of California that the pivotal moment that would launch the modern conservative movement was in California in the 1930s in the agricultural fields. Beyond just getting the history right, what do you think is at stake at locating it there, rather than later?
I would argue that it helps us understand what’s really motivating the conservative movement. It’s not that other arguments about the New Right being located in the suburbs and being about sex education and cultural issues are wrong, but I think those arguments are incomplete.
We have to put labor and government labor policies at the center of our understanding of the modern conservative movement because it was the government’s decision to start protecting workers’ right to form unions that drove a lot of these corporate leaders and national conservative leaders to decide, “Okay, this is it now. This is the moment when we have to mobilize a national movement and figure out strategies to get a majority of voters to join our coalition, because this is the real threat to our wealth and power.”