Red-baiting and the Birth of Modern Conservatism

By Loren Michael Mortimer - Did Herbert Hoover's hostile response to the unionization efforts of farmers in New Deal-era California sow the seeds of today's ultra-conservative politics? That's the question Kathryn Olmsted, Chair of the Department of History at UC Davis, seeks to answer in her new book.

Right Out of California (The New Press) began with a trip to the archives, inspired by an invitation Olmsted received from the Center for Sacramento History. "The archivists there were mounting an exhibition of photographs of the mass sedition trial in Sacramento in 1935," she says, "and they asked me to to give a public lecture." What she discovered was a forgotten episode in California’s history that had profound consequences for the national political landscape. "Once I started looking at their documents—in particular the reports filed by the spies who infiltrated the union—I was inspired to write a journal article." As her research progressed, Olmsted was surprised to discover that "the anti-New Deal activists invented many of the political techniques we see used today." The result is a book that at once recovers the hidden history of New Deal era political transformation in California and also explains current divides within today’s conservative movement.   

Hoover and modern conservatism

While notable California conservatives like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are household names, Olmsted's book reveals the untold story of Herbert Hoover’s role as one of the architects of modern conservatism. After losing to Franklin Roosevelt in the landslide presidential election of 1932, an embittered Hoover returned to his Palo Alto mansion. "If you look at his letters," Olmsted explains, "you can see that he was obsessed with the idea of breaking apart the New Deal coalition, discrediting Roosevelt’s policies, and building a modern conservative movement." Hoover’s New Deal-era coalition of conservative activists and business leaders would go on to transform national right wing politics in the second half of the twentieth century. "Hoover 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 the conservative triumph in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan."

With Hoover’s backing, California’s business elites openly opposed Franklin Roosevelt and his progressive economic programs in response to the Great Depression. While these business leaders were happy to profit from New Deal agricultural subsidies and to expand their enterprises thanks to massive federal investments in hydraulic infrastructure projects, they rejected the New Deal policies aimed at strengthening organized labor as a countervailing force to big business.

Power of red-baiting

The New Deal saw the largest expansion of federal protections for organized labor in American history, with one exception—agricultural workers. Agribusiness leaders resented any attempt by New Dealers to interfere with their largely Mexican and Asian labor force. The business barons lobbied state and local governments to outlaw picketing and jail union organizers. Additionally, these business leaders recruited and funded political candidates who shared their ideological beliefs.  Business bankrolled campaigns and commissioned Hollywood media consultants to produce the first attack ads in the history of electoral politics.

book cover for Right out of CaliforniaConservatives argued that labor organizers were part of an extensive Communist conspiracy to overthrow capitalism and used their economic clout to stoke public paranoia.

 “The conservatives understood the power of red-baiting,” says Olmsted.  “The majority of Californians benefited from New Deal policies, and they enthusiastically supported Roosevelt.  But if the New Deal could be redefined as ‘creeping socialism,’ or even communism, then a lot of middle class and working class cultural conservatives could be pried away from the New Deal coalition.”  By the end of the 1930s, these efforts had enabled the ideology, tactics, and leaders of modern conservatism to emerge because “these appeals to cultural fears worked on a visceral level: the liberals, they said, were endangering the home and family.”

Hierarchies upended

Olmsted also foregrounds the story of the workers who resisted the agricultural barons and the steep price they paid for their efforts to organize impoverished farmworkers. Olmsted explains, "the farm worker unions were threatening to conservative growers precisely because they were multiracial and often led by women." John Steinbeck made folk heroes out of white union organizers through his novels In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, but this came at the expense of women and minorities. "By leaving out the Mexicans and the women of all races in his fiction, Steinbeck failed to communicate the revolutionary potential of those unions." Olmsted’s inclusion of women and ethnic minorities in her study helps explain why business leaders embraced the red-baiting tactics to repress labor activists. "They weren’t just trying to get more money: they were threatening to upend gender and racial hierarchies."

Olmsted pays careful attention to the frequently contradictory role of gender politics in the farmworker unionization movement and its conservative backlash. Women like Caroline Decker—a successful labor organizer affiliated with the Communist party whom the press dubbed the "blonde firebrand"—illustrates the predicaments women faced in the New Deal era labor movement. "Female communists tried very hard not to violate the gender norms of their time," says Olmsted.  "They worried that they might threaten the people they were trying to organize, and so you have a labor organizer like Decker sleeping in ditches and hopping trains, yet always presenting herself as a decorous young lady in polka-dot frocks and high heels." For her efforts, Decker served three years in Tehachapi State Prison following a "Red Scare" show trial in Sacramento in 1935.

For anyone trying to understand the complex landscape of American conservative politics, Right Out of California is required reading.  Today’s super-PACs and sleek media firms, not to mention ultra-conservative blocs like the House Freedom Caucus, represent the logical culmination of the trend whose roots Olmsted traces to the 1930s. As she notes, “these are conservatives who want government when it helps them, but don’t want it when it helps other people.  They’d rather destroy the system than see it succeed for everyone.”

Kathryn Olmsted will discuss Right Out of California at the latest ISS Noon Lecture on Tuesday, October 20. This free event, which begins at 12:10 p.m., will be held in the Student Community Center, in Meeting Room D.