Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) -- The origins of the Tea Party are usually traced to Rick Santelli’s televised rant, which took place on Feb. 19, 2009 -- by coincidence exactly 83 years to the day after Ayn Rand first set foot on American soil. A few anti-tax, anti-government rallies preceded the Santelli tirade, but he and his immediate predecessors usually get the nod for originating the movement.
I beg to differ. Ayn Rand was the very first person on the national political stage to enunciate views that mesh precisely with the ones being bandied about by the Tea Party. Rand was channeling the Tea Party decades before there even was a Tea Party.
In 1964, she gave a radio interview that could have been broadcast today, in which she perfectly captured the angst of 21st-century right-leaning populists. It’s doubtful that Rand would have supported the Tea Party movement if she were living today. That wasn’t her style. But it’s important to distinguish between Rand’s ideology and her knee-jerk opposition to any movement whose views might have competed with her own.
In a 1971 newsletter article, she expressed disdain for groups -- similar to today’s Tea Party, though far smaller -- that opposed the United Nations, foreign aid, international treaties, relations with communist countries, federal aid to education, and the income tax. She disparaged them as “primitive patriotic groups,” even while agreeing with most of their ideas. “Personally,” she said, “I have little sympathy with such groups because they do not know how to uphold their ideas intellectually, because they rush unarmed and unprepared into a deadly battle and do more harm than good to the rightist cause.”
She was right. Such groups faded into the mists of history without having much impact. The Tea Party is different. It has latched on to the disdain for government that is common in the heartland, and seems to have an almost psychic connection to the grand old lady of radical capitalism.
The most dramatic evidence of that can be found in an interview that she gave to a small chain of radio stations, probably in October 1964. Tapes of this interview, and another one from 1962, were in the possession of a friend and colleague of mine: the investigative reporter Richard Behar. Behar got them in the 1980s from iconic broadcaster Gordon McLendon -- a pioneer of the Top 40 hits format -- and they have resided in a succession of closets ever since.
Throughout the 1962 broadcast, Rand expressed contempt for the Kennedy administration. She called it “fascist” for exerting pressure on the steel industry to roll back prices. Five decades later, a U.S. president wouldn’t even think about injecting himself into the affairs of a major industry, except to step in with billions of dollars to keep it afloat, if it’s considered too big to fail. Nothing startling there.
The 1964 interview resonates even more with today’s struggle over the soul of the nation. The interview, conducted by a Los Angeles lawyer and investor named Roy B. Loftin, was broadcast at the height of the 1964 presidential race, which pitted the ultraconservative Republican Barry Goldwater against the unreconstructed New Dealer Lyndon Johnson.
Compared with today, these were innocent years. Vietnam hadn’t quite reached the boiling point, and the nation was relatively prosperous. Congress actually did stuff in those pre-gridlock days -- passing civil-rights legislation and coming to grips with health care for the elderly, as the Medicare bill moved toward enactment.
Rand saw not prosperity, but a dark tide of government oppression. Her bleak vision was of a U.S. that had been “moving in the direction of statism for over 60 years.” It was a nation very much like the one seen by the Tea Party today -- a country in which freedom was fast eroding. Never mind that the very act of her speaking out against the government, unmolested, refuted her denunciation of “fascism.” Reality wasn’t Rand’s strong point.
Loftin began the 1964 interview by asking Rand about labor unions. Her response was ambivalent. She had no problem with them in principle, but didn’t want them to get too uppity. In a remark that foreshadowed the 2011 battle over collective bargaining in Wisconsin, she expressed wariness concerning the power of unions. During the era of heavy industry, unions could shut ports, cripple transportation and freeze production of vital raw materials.
Rand was asked by Loftin if she saw a “danger in heavy union contributions to candidates, congressmen and senators.” Her response was hedged and contradictory, but generally lined up with the kind of rhetoric that would be heard five decades later from Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, as he stared down unions in 2011. “Danger?” she said. “No, so long as the membership does not have to vote the way the union wants them to vote.” But then, backtracking a bit, she said she saw “an element of enormous injustice and impropriety because the unions have no right to determine the political viewpoint or voting preferences of its members, and therefore have no right to contribute money to one candidate over another without the individual consent of the members.”
She distinguished between the unions’ moral and legal right to use member dues for political contributions: “They have no moral right. It is unfortunate that today they do have the legal right, which is totally improper. Therefore, it is an injustice but it is not particularly a danger as such. The danger will come when and if the union leaders are able to deliver the vote, so to speak. When they are able to really control the vote of their membership, which so far they have not been able to do.” It was tepid by Randian standards, but still cut right to the heart of an issue that remained unresolved 50 years later.
Loftin shifted to the New York senate race. Robert F. Kennedy was running against Kenneth Keating, a liberal Republican (back when there was such a thing), who had represented New York for years. Again, Rand’s reply could have been spoken by a Tea Party activist.
Framing her remarks less to chastise Kennedy than to take a swipe at Keating, who refused to support her man Barry Goldwater, she said the New York senate race “is one of the most unfortunate ones that I can remember in a long time, if not the most unfortunate.” In addition to Kennedy’s move to New York being an “obvious grab for power” -- which wouldn’t have gotten much of an argument in New York at the time -- she viewed it as unfair that right-thinking voters in New York couldn’t vote against the dastardly Kennedy. Doing so, she pointed out, would benefit a liberal Republican, a species of politician that she viewed with as much contempt as Tea Partyers despise moderate and less-than-fanatically conservative Republicans.
“The Democrats at least are openly what they are,” she said. “Liberal Republicans don’t disagree with Democrats in any significant way,” but “have kidnapped the Republican Party into welfare statism.”
Rand had no reason to worry. By the time of her death, liberal Republicans were almost as obsolete as a 1959 Edsel. Thirty years after she passed on, the ascendancy was in her direction, with candidates seeking to outflank one another on the right like ambitious World War I generals. The Tea Party movement was calling the shots in the Republican Party.
Loftin moved to a subject that is a national obsession today. He asked if Rand believed “our national debt of somewhat over $300 billion represents a serious national problem for us.” That was a lot of money in those days. Yet today, at an inflation-adjusted $2.1 trillion, it would be a significant reduction in the U.S. debt burden.
“The idea,” she responded, “that this debt is no problem merely because we owe it to ourselves, so to speak, or because we will never have to pay up on it, that we can keep passing it on from generation to generation, is a fallacy which can be exposed by a simple, primitive look at economics. Any sensible knowledge of economics would tell you that one cannot spend more than one produces, and that sooner or later that kind of spending will have to catch up with us.”
Then came the following prophecy: “The form in which we will pay for it would be a financial crash that will make the one in 1929 seem like a little trouble. The national debt is going to cause an economic crash. What no economist can predict, of course, is the time when this will happen. No one can tell. But that it will happen is obvious.”
It’s nonsense to suggest that the national debt caused the financial crisis of 2008. But the debt-ceiling gridlock of 2011 caused a downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating and a major market correction. Rand’s prediction might have seemed absurd in 1964, or even in 2010. In 2011 it was eerily, frustratingly credible because of an ideological polarization for which Rand had been a catalyst.
If Rand’s 1964 radio interview had become general knowledge, it still wouldn’t have eased the primary obstacle impeding the Rand-Tea Party dynamic: faith. That was a deal breaker for Rand throughout her life. She hated religion, especially Christianity.
But faith in God is the essence of life to a great many in the Tea Party. Their literature sometimes reads like a hymnal, with copious references to the Almighty and Jesus. In his vest-pocket-sized “The Tea Party Manifesto,” author and conservative commentator Joseph Farah invokes the Deity on almost every one of its tiny pages. “I know the heart and soul of the Tea Party movement,” he says. “It is populated by people who think just like I do on these big issues. It is a movement of prayerful people, people who love God, people who go to church and synagogue.”
That would leave Rand out in the cold. If the Tea Party ever wholeheartedly embraced Rand, it would be the greatest boon for her since the publication of “Atlas Shrugged” -- and a major challenge for anyone who doesn’t care for the right’s agenda.
(Gary Weiss is the author of “Wall Street Versus America” and “Born to Steal.” This is an excerpt from his latest book, “Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul,” to be published Feb. 28 by St. Martin’s Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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