Jennifer Burns: Ayn Rand's Long Journey to the Heart of American Politics

Jennifer Burns is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University and the author of Goddess of Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right.

In the heyday of her celebrity, it often seemed that the only appropriate public response to Ayn Rand was dismissal. In 1961, Newsweek magazine sent a reporter to investigate the growing circle of devotees clustered around the right wing novelist. Visiting the New York City headquarters of Rand’s Objectivist movement, the reporter declared the Russian-born Rand an "apparition" with a "glare that would wilt a cactus." After a similar pilgrimage, a writer for Life magazine forthrightly concluded that Rand was the leader of a cult. A review of Rand’s essay collection Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal in The New Republic simply referred to Rand as "Top Bee in the communal bonnet, buzzing the loudest and zaniest throughout this all but incredible book."

And yet, some fifty years later, Rand is the avowed intellectual inspiration of presumptive GOP Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan. Ryan offers no apologies for interest in Rand’s philosophy and makes little effort to hide his allegiances. Just how did Rand travel from the fringes of a 1960s subculture to the heart of American politics?

It clearly wasn’t via the traditional institutions of mainstream conservatism. The original mandarins of the conservative movement, from William F. Buckley, Jr. to Whittaker Chambers, all roundly rejected her atheistic philosophy of selfishness and her assertion that capitalism was a moral system.

Rather, Rand made her fortunes among the young foot soldiers of the right in the 1960s, who thrilled to her iconoclastic rejection of mainstream values. Rand’s Objectivism, as she called her comprehensive philosophical system, attacked all American pieties but one: The national creed of getting rich. This put her in perfect step with the anti-authoritarian mood of the times—while offering the additional benefit, unlike your average hippy guru, of not threatening her followers’ material fortunes.

But Rand’s philosophy would have gone nowhere if it were confined to its original adherents...

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