Despite the media frenzy surrounding Sarah Palin's autobiographical Going Rogue, the real rogue warrior making a political conservative comeback today is not Palin, but the Russian immigrant turned champion of American conservative principles, Ayn Rand. If you really want to understand the conservative right read Ayn Rand, not Sarah Palin. If there is anyone who legitimately deserves to wear the adjectival crown of "mavericky" it is Rand. More than a quarter century after her 1982 death, she is enjoying a level of fame and influence (and book sales) that she arguably never received in her lifetime.
Although Palin's book is #1 on the bestseller list, how many copies do you suppose it will be selling 50 years from now? According to the nonpartisan marketing service Bookscan, which measures actual cash register sales of books, Rand's novels are flying off the shelves as never before. During one week in late August of 2009, Atlas Shrugged saw a 67% bump in sales over the same week in 2008, and a 114% increase over the same week in 2007. According to her publisher New American Library, Atlas sold 25% more in the first half of 2009 than it did for the entire year of 2008. Through the end of September, 2009, in fact, sales of Atlas had already exceeded 300,000 copies, putting it on par with the top 20 new novels of the year. This isn't bad for a 52-year old, 1,168-page novel full of lengthy speeches about philosophy, metaphysics, economics, politics, sex and money.
Rand has been posterized at Tea Party protests with placards proclaiming "Atlas is Shrugging", "Where is John Galt?", and the über-cool "The Name is Galt. John Galt." Talk of a feature film or television mini-series is back in serious consideration, with Randian Angelina Jolie interested in playing the Atlas heroine Dagny Taggert, and Charlize Theron with her sites on the same role for television. Two new biographies have just been issued: Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made and Jennifer Burns' Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Both have received critical acclaim in numerous reviews in major publications as balanced accounts of Rand's life and influence. Heller's biography traces Rand's intellectual development to important influences in her Russian heritage, and Burns' book documents the unmistakable impact Rand has had on the development and current principles held by the conservative right.
You can no more understand the right without Rand than you can understand it without Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan. The dismissal of Rand by both the left and the right as mind candy for college kids is fatuous. It may be true that many of us (myself included) were first introduced to Rand in college, but that's when most of us are introduced to most of the philosophical and literary figures in history. So what?
And yes, of course, both biographies deal with--as they must--Rand's sordid and salacious personal life, which must also carry this disclaimer: Criticism of the founder of a theory does not, by itself, constitute a negation of any part of the theory. By most accounts, Sir Isaac Newton was a narcissistic, misogynistic, egocentric, curmudgeon, and yet his theories about light, gravity, and the structure of the cosmos stand on their own and would be no more or less true had he been a saintly gentleman. Rand's critique of Communism may have been energized and animated by the horrific experiences she and her family endured under the brutal Communist regime in Russia (including the confiscation of her father's business), but those criticisms of Communism would be just as true or false had she been raised a farm girl in Iowa.
What are Rand's principles and which of her books should you read to understand the modern conservative movement? Start with Atlas Shrugged. According to a survey conducted by the Library of Congress and the Book-of-the-Month club, readers ranked it #2 behind the Bible as the most influential book they had ever read. It is a murder mystery, not about the murder of a human body, but of the murder of the human spirit. It is a story about a man who said he would stop the ideological motor of the world by removing the most productive people from society. When he did, there was a panoramic collapse of civilization. Atlas is an apocalyptic story of destruction and redemption.
What Rand stands for that conservatives like is her philosophy of rugged individualism, personal responsibility, and the importance of having morals and values, well captured in a speech by the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt: "In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours."
Read that again, out loud and with passion, and you will understand the appeal of Ayn Rand. In a postmodern age of moral relativism and anti-heroes, Rand gives us heroes who stand for principles unequivocally, unreservedly, and with passion. As her biographer Jennifer Burns observes: "Rand intended her books to be a sort of scripture, and for all her emphasis on reason it is the emotional and psychological sides of her novels that make them timeless. Reports of Ayn Rand's death are greatly exaggerated. For many years to come she is likely to remain what she has always been, a fertile touchstone of the American imagination."
Even though Palin is no intellectual match for Rand, it may be that the simplicity of her black-and-white worldview and the fervor of her moral convictions appeal in the same way to the same people as Rand's passions.