This essay is from a presentation at the Tom Carroll Torch Club, March 19, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb. Part one in our April issue discussed the popularity and ideas of Rand’s novels, which the author argued lacked verisimilitude and have contributed injuriously to the tone of our civic and political culture.
There are other examples of literary characters whose adolescent narcissism enables young readers to connect with them in a peculiarly powerful way—Holden Caulfield, say, or Scarlett O’Hara. But J. D. Salinger and Margaret Mitchell did not become political icons, and my second proposition is that Rand has become one, even though our political culture is just not that susceptible to literary influence. The famous exceptions—“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “The Grapes of Wrath”—are, after all, exceptions. Our political culture responds powerfully to sounds and images but only rarely to the written word. Still, even though the academic literary establishment never took her seriously, her influence elsewhere has been wide, deep and enduring. Among her acknowledged admirers in Congress are Ron Paul of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Paul Ryan and David Schweikert of Wisconsin, Ron Johnson of Arizona, Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Rick Crawford of Arkansas (Frank 141). John Hospers, the Libertarian Party’s first candidate for president in 1972, was a Randian (Burns). Other admirers include entrepreneurs Ted Turner, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Craig Newmark of Craigslist (Burns); from Hollywood, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and the late Farrah Fawcett (Robin); sociologist Charles Murray, author of “Losing Ground” and “The Bell Curve” (Burns) and Alan Greenspan, longtime Federal Reserve chairman, who in the 1950s was part of Rand’s inner circle, the young disciples who met every Saturday evening at her New York apartment. In the words of historian Jennifer Burns, Ayn Rand is “the ultimate gateway drug to life on the right” (4).
Burns considers Rand a figure of the “right” rather than a classic conservative. To be conservative, strictly speaking, means wanting to keep things the same, to put the brakes on innovation. Once upon a time, political conservatives were mainly about conserving things: religion, morality, the family, existing social arrangements and so on. They valued stability. We still have a lot of this kind of conservative around, but these are not the people Rand inspires. She disliked bourgeois morality and scorned religion, which is the main reason why, so long as William F. Buckley was alive, the “National Review” remained suspicious of her books and her followers. Conservatives normally honor the past, but Rand thought most thinkers who preceded her, except Aristotle, were just plain wrong. She was not about conserving anything; her take on existing institutions was radical. Her influence helps account for what writer Sam Tanenhaus has called “the paradox of the modern Right”: “Its drive for power has steered it onto a path that has become profoundly and defiantly un-conservative—in its arguments and ideas, in its tactics and strategies, above all in its vision” (16).
Rand has contributed most crucially to that radical right vision, I would argue, in two closely related but still distinguishable ways: first, her idea of free enterprise, and second, her idea of individualism. Let’s start with free enterprise.
Businessmen have not come off well in American novels and films. They tend to be either sinister and grasping like Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” or Gordon Gekko in “Wall Street,” or bumptious and ridiculous like Sinclair Lewis’s George Babbitt. In “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” businessmen finally got to see themselves as they hoped to be seen: handsome, heroic, visionary, the men who made progress happen, the Atlases who held up the sky. (One of the many neat touches in the television series “Mad Men,” about an early 1960s advertising agency, is that Bertram Cooper, head of the firm, is a devotee of Rand’s novels.) Rand’s characters Howard Roark, Hank Rearden and John Galt provided a cultural counterweight to Mr. Potter and Babbitt at a time when the business community was especially keen to refurbish its image.
In their recent book “Winner-Take-All Politics,” Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson quote a 1971 memo by Lewis Powell, later a Supreme Court justice but at the time the chair of the education committee of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Business must learn the lesson […] that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without the reluctance that has been so characteristic of American business” (Hacker and Pierson 117). This is a mild version of the message of “Atlas Shrugged” to American businessmen: stop apologizing, and take what is rightfully yours!
Hacker and Pierson see this memo as inaugurating a corporate siege of Washington and, more broadly, a campaign to move the culture. The National Association of Manufacturers moved its headquarters from New York City to Washington in 1972; between 1971 and 1982 the number of corporations with registered lobbyists rose from 175 to almost 2,500. Policy recommendations for reducing taxes, rolling back regulation and privatizing government services began to issue forth from the Heritage Foundation, founded 1973, and the Cato Institute, founded 1974. These developments drew on many thinkers besides Rand, certainly, but consider the title of Jerome Tuccille’s informal history of the modern conservative movement: “It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand.” Stephen Moore, of the Wall Street Journal and the Club for Growth, notes that in the early days of the Cato Institute those who had not yet read “Atlas Shrugged” were referred to as “virgins.” The Cato Institute, incidentally, was founded by Charles and David Koch, now famous as the financial backers of a wide array of right-wing causes, such as the effort to break up public employee unions, and also providers of grants to universities willing to offer courses on Ayn Rand.
The amplification of corporate America’s voice in our politics has, if anything, increased since the 1970s. Who would have imagined, after the dramatic increase in the disparity of incomes between the very wealthiest and everyone else that occurred during the second Bush administration, and after our economy was nearly totaled by the high-stakes gambling of financiers in 2008, that the big political story of 2009 would be the anti-government Tea Party movement or that the 2010 elections would bring in a new Congress dedicated to lowering taxes on the wealthy and the further dismantling of business regulation? This surprising development is the subject of Thomas Frank’s new book, “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.” Part of this comeback has been a resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand, especially “Atlas Shrugged.” Frank writes, “To its present-day fans, it is a work of amazing prescience, the story of the over-regulating, liberty-smothering Obama administration told more than fifty years before it happened” (140). The recession is not lifting, this argument runs, because America’s job-creating entrepreneurs are so dismayed by punitive taxes and oppressive regulation that they have withdrawn their economic might and are in effect on strike. A full-length documentary on this theme—“Ayn Rand and the Prophecy of ‘Atlas Shrugged’”—was released in January 2012, and the first installment of a projected trilogy of films based on the novel was released in 2011. At Tea Party rallies there is usually a sprinkling of Rand-referencing signs.
What strikes me as toxic in Rand’s influence, though, is not her free-market ideology, which after all is shared by many distinguished economists, but her tone. In “Atlas Shrugged,” governments that impose taxes are “looters,” people who collect public benefits are “moochers” and those who benefit from the innovations of genius are “parasites.” She and those she has influenced speak with the brazen assurance, the corrosive contempt and the sheer indifference to other points of view that typify adolescent narcissism. Let me note again that there are at least half a dozen such folks now in the House of Representatives.
Rand’s celebration of the free market braids naturally with her celebration of individualism, so let’s turn to that topic.
The outpouring of genuine grief at the death last fall of Steve Jobs goes to show that we, like Rand, cherish the idea of the lonely, visionary entrepreneur. That Apple went, over 30 years, from being a start-up housed in Jobs’s parents’ garage to being the most valuable company on the planet does inspire awe. Steve Jobs changed our world. He could be seen as a real-life Howard Roark or John Galt, someone whose talents entitled him to his astonishing wealth, someone who ought not to be hamstrung by minimum-wage laws or worker-safety regulations or the anti-trust code or unions. But we need to recall, too, that Jobs did not actually invent the personal computer, or the tablet computer, or computer animation, or the smart phone, or the MP3 player (Halpern). He grasped the commercial possibilities of these things with an uncanny acuity, yes. But had he gone on strike, like John Galt, these inventions would still exist, and other people would no doubt have figured out ways to market them.
We Americans love stories about individuals, and we like seeing ourselves as individuals. An astute Frenchman noticed this about us way back in 1831. The first time the word “individualism” appears in print in English, as it happens, is in the English translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” In a traditional aristocratic society, according to Tocqueville, a web of obligations and needs bound class to class; the nobles, the middle classes and the peasants perhaps did not like each other or even see each other as belonging to the same species, but they did see themselves as mutually dependent on each other in a variety of ways. In a democratic society like ours, according to Tocqueville, the idea that we depend on each other tended to evaporate. He put it this way:
As conditions equalize, one finds more and more individuals […] who have […] acquired or retained enough enlightenment and wealth to take care of themselves. These people owe nothing to anyone, and in a sense they expect nothing from anyone. They become accustomed to thinking of themselves always in isolation and are pleased to think that their fate lies entirely in their own hands.
Thus, not only does democracy cause each man to forget his forebears, but it makes it difficult for him to see his offspring and cuts him off from his contemporaries. Again and again it leads him back to himself and threatens ultimately to imprison him altogether in the loneliness of his own heart. (586-87)
Tocqueville’s description of American individualism resonates deeply with what Randians call “John Galt’s Oath,” which has become a kind of password among them: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine” (“Atlas Shrugged,” 1069). Tocqueville helps us see that readers respond passionately to Rand because this individualism is a wide strand in our cultural DNA as Americans. Something about it just sounds right—or almost right.
Tocqueville also saw that there was another strand twining around this one: our penchant for association, what we call civil society or community organizations, the Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, Torch Club, and on and on. The number and variety of these associations astonished him—there was nothing like them in France—and he saw in them the counterbalance to our individualism. He wrote:
The free institutions that Americans possess, and the political rights of which they make such extensive use, are, in a thousand ways, constant reminders to each and every citizen that he lives in society. They keep his mind steadily focused on the idea that it is man’s duty as well as his interest to make himself useful to his fellow man. (593)
This recognition, I would say, is missing in Rand’s vision, utterly absent, and its absence makes the United States of her novels one I cannot recognize as my own, and one I hope never comes into being. Humans are social animals, after all, and we do need each other, and the great and moving moments of our national history are the times when we responded to that need. To quote Tocqueville one more time:
It is through political associations that Americans of all walks of life, all casts of mind, and all ages daily acquire a general taste for association and familiarize themselves with its use. Large numbers of people thus see and speak to one another, come to a common understanding, and inspire one another […]. (608)
My hope is that one day sales of “Democracy in America” surpass those of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” combined. But that’s just my opinion, and as a best-selling novelist once wrote, “The worst of all crimes is the acceptance of the opinions of others” (quoted in Burns 285). Can you guess which best-selling novelist wrote that?
Works Cited or Consulted
Burns, Jennifer. “Goddess of the Market: Any Rand and the American Right.” New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Frank, Thomas. “Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.
Hacker, Jacob and Paul Pierson. “Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class.” New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.
Halpern, Sue. “Who Was Steve Jobs?” Review of “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. “New York Review of Books,” Jan. 12, 2012.
Heller, Anne. “Ayn Rand and the World She Made.” New York: Anchor Books, 2010.
Moore, Stephen. “‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years.” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 9, 2009.
Rand, Ayn. “Atlas Shrugged.” New York: Random House, 1957.
———. “The Fountainhead. “New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1943.
Robin, Corey. “Garbage and Gravitas.” “The Nation,” June 7, 2010.
Tanenhaus, Sam. “The Death of Conservatism.” New York: Random House, 2009.
Tocqueville, Alexis de. “Democracy in America.” 1835 (vol. 1), 1840 (vol. 2), trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Library of America, 2004.