Opinion

Ayn Rand and America’s new culture war

From Rush Limbaugh to President Obama, Ayn Rand and her book 'Atlas Shrugged' are recalibrating America.

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From Fox News to the passenger sitting next to you reading “Atlas Shrugged” on your commute to work, Ayn Rand seems to be everywhere.

Since the economic collapse of 2008, the controversial novelist and philosopher has emerged as a leading intellectual on the right – and she’s been dead for nearly 30 years.

Rush Limbaugh touts Rand as a prophet of sorts. “Ayn Rand, she wrote ‘Atlas Shrugged,’ ” he told his listeners. “The sequel, ‘Atlas Puked,’ we’re in the middle of it.” At the tea parties that swept the nation last spring, protesters waved signs claiming “Ayn Rand was right” and warning “Read ‘Atlas Shrugged’ before it happens.”

The fresh appeal of 'Atlas Shrugged'

Consider this: “Atlas Shrugged,” Rand’s most famous novel, is set in a dystopian future America, where a socialist government has brought the country to the brink of ruin. Fleeing punitive regulations and crushing taxation, the country’s top industrialists and executives have gone on strike, virtually shutting down the economy.

For American conservatives, the significance of Rand’s message is clear. “Atlas Shrugged” is prophetic, they say, and it warns us all of the coming collapse.

It wasn’t always so. In her day, leading conservatives denounced Rand for her atheism and immorality, and her economic ideas were scarcely mentioned.

Conservative author Whittaker Chambers attacked Rand as a godless authoritarian in his famously brutal review of “Atlas Shrugged,” printed in an early issue of William F. Buckley’s seminal conservative magazine, National Review. The book’s message, according to Chambers, was “to a gas chamber – go!” Anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly stopped reading Rand’s other novel, “The Fountainhead,” as soon as she reached the infamous rape scene, horrified at the immorality and violence of what Rand once described as “rape by engraved invitation” and condoned.

But Rand did not have much patience for conservatives, calling herself instead a “radical for capitalism.” She intended her individualistic philosophy, objectivism, to be a guide to the future, not the past.

Rand identified four basic components to her philosophy: objective reality, the supremacy of reason, the virtue of selfishness, and the importance of laissez faire capitalism. She celebrated the virtue of selfishness and attacked religion for being irrational.

These aspects of Rand made her alien to an earlier generation of religious conservatives who gleefully launched a “culture war” against secular America. In the 1980s and ’90s, the culture war was waged over issues of gender and sexuality, and religious values were central.

Those religious conservatives cited biblical authority to attack controversial artists like Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe who challenged traditional gender roles. Such a conservative movement had no room for Rand, with her condemnation of all forms of “mysticism,” including religious belief, and her open support of abortion rights.

Today, these passions over culture have cooled and been replaced by an equally intense struggle over economic policies like the bailout of the financial sector, the rescue of the auto industry, and reform of healthcare.

In this current political world, even the hot-button issue of gay marriage has been sidelined for the new bogeyman of socialism.

Though she’s not religious, Rand brings a strong sense of good and evil to the debates over economic policy. Rand’s books bring the battles over government spending away from wonkdom and back to the familiar, easy terrain of culture, where there is a virtuous “us” and a conniving, evil “them.”

Two types of people

In her world, there are two types of people: producers and looters, or those who work for themselves and those who take government handouts.

Richard Nixon made a similar division when he talked about the “silent majority,” as does Sarah Palin when she praises “real Americans.” It’s a distinction that makes sense to many conservatives, particularly those who feel they are being punished for their success.

That many of Rand’s fictional heroes were far from paragons of Christian virtue is beside the point in the current struggle. What matters is the ammunition she provides and the outrage she stokes against the dreaded looters.

Does Rand’s popularity mean religion is no longer paramount to the conservative worldview? Of course not. But her ubiquity should tell us that tectonic plates are shifting under the surface of American politics. Even President Obama seems to understand Rand’s newfound influence, criticizing the “virtue of selfishness” in a recent speech. Rand’s prominence is a change from the Bush years when paleocons and libertarians like Ron Paul who stressed the evils of government spending were ignored.

Today is their moment in the sun, and it is the religious right that is being swept to the side by the rush of events. The balance of power between religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism is being recalibrated, a development that could have far-reaching consequences for how we understand the very categories of the political left, right, and center.

Jennifer Burns, a professor of history at the University of Virginia is the author of “Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.” She offers history podcasts and blogs at jenniferburns.org.

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