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Today, these passions over culture have cooled and been replaced by an equally intense struggle over economic policies like the bailout of the financial sector, the rescue of the auto industry, and reform of healthcare.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