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Armed with bricks, knives, and shotguns, angry bands of truck drivers roamed the nation’s highways in the summer of 1979, shattering windshields and slashing fellow truckers’ tires. Governors of nine states summoned National Guard troops as escalating violence caused one death and dozens of injuries. Though most remained peaceful, as many as 75,000 truckers blockaded interstates, encircled fuel pumps, parked their rigs at home, or otherwise tried to shut down the nation’s highway transportation system. Many refused to haul milk, meat, fruit, and vegetables, provoking panic buying sprees in suburban supermarkets. Midwestern meatpacking factories laid offworkers and produce rotted in California fields. The protest ostensibly erupted in response to rapidly rising fuel prices in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. But for Mike Parkhurst, self-proclaimed instigator of the shutdown and editor of Overdrive magazine (“Voice of the American Trucker”), much more than the cost of diesel fuel was at stake. The tens of thousands of truckers who joined his Independent Truckers Association, Parkhurst declared, were angered not by a global energy crisis but by a crisis of U.S. capitalism.1
“If the mood of America is for a rebirth of free enterprise,” Parkhurst had informed Congress three years before the shutdowns, “there is no nobler cause than that of the independent trucker.” Beholden neither to union leaders nor to corporate employers, the independent truck driver was celebrated in popular culture as the last American cowboy. But the truck driver was not in fact the king of the open road, according to Parkhurst. Government regulations in place since the early years of the New Deal discouraged competition in the freight trucking industry, ensnaring the truck-driving man in the grip of federal bureaucrats and the Teamsters Union. Consigned to hauling “unregulated” commodities—particularly farm and food products—that brought low returns for sweated labor, the independent trucker was locked out of the more lucrative regulated freight market. In the context of rising fuel prices, the fact that regulated trucking firms dominated general freight trucking put a squeeze on the hard-working trucker who refused to give part of his paycheck to the Teamsters. “Are the independent truckers to remain forever hostages [to] Teamster domination and apathetic lawmakers?” Parkhurst demanded of a congressional committee in late 1979. “Is this system [of trucking regulation] truly serving the cause of freedom so many soldiers have died for in so many wars?”
Setting unionized truckers free and allowing independents to join in the fray for all freight, not just farm products, would revive a culture of economic liberty, benefiting U.S. consumers who were not yet “aware of the giant rip-offof their pocketbooks and their dinner plates because . . . there is not enough free enterprise, not enough competition in the transportation industry.” The drivers who refused to haul food and freight in the summer of 1979, Parkhurst insisted, were the ground troops in a larger battle to overthrow New Deal economic liberalism. America’s independent truckers were fighting, in the name of personal freedom and low consumer prices, to dismantle government regulations, unleash free enterprise, and deliver a fatal blow to organized labor.2
Mike Parkhurst had reason to see independent truck drivers as a militant vanguard of the free-market revolution that characterized the Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan years. As I argue in the following chapters, such a revolution had long been quietly underway on America’s rural highways, where independent truckers, encouraged by agribusinesses and farm policymakers, challenged the regulatory structures and labor policies of New Deal political economy from the outset. A special breed of trucker was born in the 1920s and 1930s, as industrialized agriculture forced many farmers offthe land and onto the roads to seek a living. These rural truckers developed a culture of fierce independence, encouraged by farm-friendly policies that shielded them from federal regulations and discouraged unionization. By the 1960s, these “wildcat” rural truckers had upended the nation’s railroad-based farm economy. Agribusiness and factory farmers relied on nonunion rural truckers to deliver cheap food to suburban supermarket shoppers, enabling the affluence of postwar consumerism while fostering a broad transformation of U.S. economic culture and politics. Through the 1930s and 1940s, urban workers and consumers had called upon labor unions and the federal government to contest the power of industrial agriculture in the food marketplace. By the late 1960s, however, working- and middle-class consumers accepted agribusiness’s ability to decimate organized labor and defy government regulation in the countryside in exchange for low food prices. Long-haul trucking allowed agribusinesses to simultaneously provide the good life to U.S. consumers while resisting liberal efforts to administer private enterprise in the name of worker prosperity and consumer purchasing power. The “mood for free enterprise” that enraptured Mike Parkhurst and the nation in the 1970s had been coalescing for decades on the nation’s rural highways, bringing in its wake a low-price food economy unhindered by union or government interference.
In making this argument, I offer a firm rebuttal to social commentators who see modern conservatism as a devil’s bargain between culturally conservative working-class Americans and economic conservatives in the modern Republican Party. In What’s the Matter with Kansas?, for instance, Thomas Frank lambastes working-class rural Kansans for betraying their economic interests by voting against Democrats, perceived as “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvodriving” liberals, in favor of tax-slashing, deregulating “grandstanding Christers.” The idea of a middle-American, working-class “backlash” against liberal East Coast elites has dominated journalistic and historical analyses of modern conservatism since the 1960s. In this vein, it might seem that the thousands of truck drivers who revolted against government regulation of trucking in the 1970s were archetypal members of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” politically primed by their disgust with civil rights and anti-Vietnam protestors to accept not only Nixon’s attempts to dismantle the New Deal but also Ronald Reagan’s flag-waving message of budget-cutting, union-busting, and deregulation in the election of 1980. But the truckers who demanded the end of government intervention in the nation’s transport economy in 1979 were not reacting to a perceived breakdown of social mores and “law and order.” Nor did the protesting truckers see the main threat to the white working man’s liberty as affirmative action or mandatory busing or welfare. From their perspective, the problem was the entire set of government policies imposed by Republicans and Democrats alike—bureaucratic red tape, cozy relations with corrupt Teamsters officials, the fifty-five mile-per-hour speed limit—that seemed to infringe upon individual economic freedoms in an era of stagnating wages and inflated prices. Pocketbook politics, not cultural conservatism, framed truckers’ disdain for liberalism in the 1970s. Importantly many of the independent truckers who took part in the protests of 1979 earned their living hauling the nation’s farm and food products—which meant that they already worked in an economic environment that had been unregulated since the mid-1930s. The taste of freedom provided by the “open road,” contrasted with the apparent failure of the federal state and the Teamsters to protect job security and incomes in the 1970s, drove these truckers to demand an overthrow of economic liberalism within trucking. The anarchic libertarianism of Parkhurst and his followers was not a revolt against cultural liberalism, East Coast elitism, or even the Democratic Party. Instead it was a rejection of a central tenet of New Deal economic liberalism: the idea that the government could and should manage the economy to maintain business stability, worker prosperity, and consumer purchasing power.3
Conservatives may or may not have “won the heart of America,” as Thomas Frank’s subtitle declares, but if they did, it was not by hoodwinking rural Americans into rejecting their own economic interests. Instead rural Americans’ ideas regarding state intervention in the economy helped shape the broader conservative ideologies of the late twentieth century. Unlike the Populist movement that spurred the economic interventionism of the Progressive era and the New Deal, however, the neopopulism expressed by the country-bred truckers of the 1970s marked the triumph of a radically antistatist capitalist ideology embraced by farmers, workers, consumers, and politicians alike.4 Truckers were key to this broad transformation of U.S. political culture, not only because they expressed their new-found libertarian politics so dramatically in the summer of 1979, but because their work as truck drivers helped to construct a new economic order in the post–World War II U.S. countryside. Though often referred to in scholarly discourse as “postindustrial” or “post-Fordist” capitalism, the economic culture that emerged in America in the final quarter of the twentieth century involved much more than a turn away from industrial mass production.5 It involved a categorical embrace of free-market ideology by workers, consumers, and politicians who, since the height of the New Deal in the late 1930s, had called upon labor unions and a powerful central government to strike a balance between private economic gain and equality of economic opportunity.6 Those who accepted this post–New Deal “free enterprise” vision did so for material as much as ideological reasons. New forms of business enterprise emerged in the postwar period to use technologies of efficient mass distribution, rather than of mass production, to provide “luxuries for the masses” while slashing labor costs and defying government antitrust provisions.
The retail firm Wal-Mart provides the most familiar example of the new capitalist culture of the late twentieth century. Founded in 1962 in a small Arkansas town, Wal-Mart began spreading throughout the rural and then suburban United States. While selling cut-rate merchandise and promoting a “family atmosphere” for both shoppers and employees, the firm held worker wages to a minimum in a virulently antiunion workplace. By the mid-1990s the company employed more workers and sold more consumer goods and groceries than any other U.S. firm—and, revealingly, operated one of the world’s largest and most efficient trucking fleets. With its fearsome market power, technological sophistication, and low-wage, low-price business model, Wal-Mart set the pace for the fanatically deregulatory and antiunion capitalism that emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In an economy increasingly driven by distribution and retailing rather than manufacturing, union membership collapsed while corporations shipped jobs across state and national boundaries at will. Keynesian economic ideas lost traction as workers’ wages stagnated. Free-market ideology reigned, as consumers expected to pay “always low” prices for the necessities and comforts of suburban life, while aggressive wage-cutting corporations obliterated competitors in a lightly regulated economic environment.7
But decades before Wal-Mart began selling discount hosiery in rural Arkansas, it was agribusiness—industrial processors and marketers of farm and food products—that first forged the template for the low-price, low-wage economy of the late twentieth century. And like Sam Walton’s retail empire, the agribusiness assault on economic liberalism sprouted in rural soil. By relying on long-haul trucking to craft a low-price food economy on America’s rural highways, agribusinesses cultivated the antistatist, antiunion ideologies that made post–New Deal capitalism palatable not only to Mike Parkhurst’s anarchopopulist followers, but to the broad swath of the American populace who came to demand “always low prices” at the supermarket. Historians have not integrated the transformation of the rural economy into postwar U.S. political and social history. The supermarket, for instance, serves as a proxy for the postwar age of affluence, evoking images of the “modern housewife” meekly purchasing a plastic-wrapped prepriced T-bone, rather than resolutely demanding a bargain from the neighborhood butcher.8 But the supermarket, I argue, was a central cause, rather than symptom, of the economic conservatism of the postwar era. In the account that follows, I look back to the factory farm that raised the grain and the steer, to the rural factory where the steer became a T-bone, and to the superhighway on which refrigerated trucks sped packaged meat to the suburban supermarket. I show how agribusinesses crafted a business model that promoted low consumer prices, low wages, and minimal government regulation as inherent social benefits. As more Americans gained access to the low-cost foods lining supermarket shelves in the 1950s and 1960s, the importance of government regulators and labor unions as guarantors of working- and middle-class consumer purchasing power diminished. The most mundane of technologies—highways, refrigerated trailers, and diesel engines, none of which were particularly revolutionary in and of themselves—allowed agribusinesses to materially undermine the New Deal-era political integration of state power, organized labor, and mass consumption within the food economy. In building the infrastructure of this “post-industrial” economy on the highways of rural America, agribusinesses set the stage for the uncompromising free-market ideology that took root in the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Decades before the rise of the religious right, conservative business leaders won over America’s stomach, not its heart.
Although consumers at the end of the century treated the price of food as a product of private decisions in the marketplace—a choice, say, between organic and conventional or between Whole Foods and Wal-Mart—the price of food was among the most politically charged economic issues of the first half of the twentieth century. As chapter 1 shows, American farmers initiated one of the most significant New Deal interventions in the economy. Suffering from an economic crisis that began a decade before the stock market crash of 1929, farmers renounced laissez-faire ideology and turned to the federal government to intervene in the food marketplace on their behalf. One of the first pieces of New Deal legislation, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, drastically expanded the power of the federal government in an effort to boost farm prices. The relationship between rural Americans and the New Deal state quickly emerged in the 1930s as a central battleground over the goals of economic liberalism. Farm policies enacted at the outset of the New Deal put the federal government in the business of boosting farmers’ incomes, but did so by increasing the market power of factory farmers and food processors at the expense of small farmers, organized urban workers, and consumers who demanded reasonably priced food. At a time when food costs dominated the daily economic concerns of every American who purchased milk, meat, bread, and produce for their families, consumers had reason to believe that neither the free market nor federal farm policies operated in their best interest. In the milk and meat industries, for instance, a handful of agribusiness firms relied on railroad transportation to control the production, marketing, and pricing of food products that Americans considered essential to the nation’s health and industrial productivity. Since the turn of the century, urban consumers had attacked the firms that made up the so-called Beef Trust and Milk Trust for unfairly manipulating the marketplace. Their complaints took on new urgency under the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which explicitly courted working- and middle-class consumers, along with farmers and industrial workers, as members of an emerging Democratic electoral coalition. Consumers and labor representatives demanded strong government intervention in the food marketplace, recognizing that New Deal farm policies primarily benefited corporate agriculture despite rhetorical claims of saving the small family farm. Organized consumers and laborers, backed by liberal New Dealers, mounted a bold but unsuccessful attempt to construct new government agencies, revise agricultural policies, and revive antitrust laws to check the power of factory farmers and industrial food processors to profit at the expense of consumers.
This conflict over the proper degree of state power in the farm economy is a consistent theme of subsequent chapters, which trace the political efforts of public figures and private enterprises to solve the “farm problem.” In chapters 2 through 7, I approach agricultural policy as a central conflict within U.S. political culture, with implications not only for the structure of the U.S. farm economy but for urban workers and consumers as well. Both during and after the New Deal, liberals struggled unsuccessfully to use state power to contest, rather than subsidize, the market power of industrial agriculture. Through the 1930s and 1940s, liberal farm policymakers such as Jerome Frank, Henry A. Wallace, and Charles Brannan devised plans intended to balance the interests of small farmers, urban workers, and consumers with those of corporate agriculture. All of these attempts to overturn the regressive features of New Deal farm policies failed. Even at the end of the century, the 1996“ Freedom to Farm Act,” although intended by fiscal conservatives to cancel the mailing of government checks to corporate farmers, led to an immediate redoubling of subsidies under the guise of “market transition payments.” The old New Deal-era joke still applied long after progressive New Dealism had died: the best way for a commercial farmer to boost his or her income was to get another mailbox. Political historians have tried to explain the continuation of regressive farm policies as a function of federalism, agrarian ideology, interest group politics, and institutional capacity. Certainly all of these factors shaped farm policy in its early years. The farm programs emerged from a Congress dominated in the 1930s by representatives of rural districts with political power disproportionate to their population. Emotionally tinged agrarian rhetoric, which upheld the family farm as the nation’s moral and political backbone, helped commercial farmers to cultivate ties to the congressional “farm bloc” and to bureaucrats in the essentially autonomous Department of Agriculture. But while all of these factors help explain why New Deal farm policies were not as progressive as they might have been, none explain why the policies lasted so long even when conservatives as well as liberals decried them as unfair exercises of state power.9 Only by tracing the technological transformation of the farm and food economy during the mid-twentieth century, I contend, can we solve this puzzle of political history.10 Trucks, as the next six chapters demonstrate, were inherently political technologies, used by agribusinesses to craft “free market” solutions to the farm problem while ironically allowing regressive New Deal farm policies to outlive the labor, consumer, and regulatory programs of the New Deal.11
The emergence of long-haul trucking in the 1930s, as chapter 2 discusses, provided factory farmers and their political allies with a tool that would ultimately undermine New Deal liberalism in the farm and food economy. As long-haul trucking became a viable alternative to railroads for the transportation of farm and food products, farm-friendly congressmen amended New Deal transportation policies in ways that ensured the vast majority of farm and food products would soon travel not on unionized railcars but in tractor-trailers driven by nonunionized, self-employed rural truckers. Shielded from government regulatory oversight, long-haul country trucking was a relatively easy business to get into, and appealed particularly to white rural men who sought a way to escape the tenuous life of a small farmer while maintaining a sense of economic independence. Though Teamsters president Daniel Tobin derided these over-the-road country truckers as “gypsies” and “trash,” social-conscience film director Raoul Walsh dramatized the “wildcat” trucker’s challenge to corporate power in the 1940 movie They Drive by Night. Minimal government regulation combined with a country culture of masculine independence, however, discouraged unionization and encouraged rampant rate-cutting in farm trucking. Chaotic country trucking drove down transportation costs in ways that at first threatened the economic power of corporate food processors, but would later provide “free market” solutions to the New Deal-era farm problem and consolidate the strength of agribusiness. Even so, technological change did not lead inevitably to the entrenchment of corporate power. In fact, liberal New Dealers, including Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace, correctly recognized that trucking posed a significant challenge to industries such as the Big Four meatpackers whose monopoly power rested largely in their control of railroad distribution.
As long-haul trucking matured in the 1940s, U.S. entry into World War II set the context for organized consumers, workers, and allied policymakers to mount the twentieth century’s strongest political challenge to agribusiness. As chapter 3 explains, Democratic political figures during and after the war redoubled their efforts to balance the economic interests of urban workers and consumers against those of factory farmers and corporate food processors. The Office of Price Administration provided consumers with unprecedented state power to prevent meatpackers from taking advantage of wartime inflationary pressures to reap windfall profits. After the war, Secretary of Agriculture Charles Brannan attempted to replace farm subsidies with food subsidies to unite the interests of small farmers and urban consumers under the umbrella of the Democratic Party. Despite widespread support from liberal groups such as the National Farmers Union, the Americans for Democratic Action, and organized labor, Brannan’s effort to reanimate New Dealism in the farm and food economy suffered an ignominious defeat. At the same time, an expanding trucking industry provided new opportunities for monopolistic food marketers and commercial farmers to consolidate their political and economic strength. Through subtle manipulations of state power, bureaucrats deep in the bowels of the Department of Agriculture fended offthe efforts of the Interstate Commerce Commission to regulate rural trucking, while simultaneously confronting the growing power of the Teamsters Union. Rural “asphalt cowboys,” unimpeded by union organizers or government regulators, began piloting ever larger tractor-trailers down federally funded highways. Railroads lost business as trucking firms became the primary movers of the nation’s farm products and foodstuffs, setting the stage for a “free market” revolution in the postwar countryside. Because transportation costs composed the greatest share of the consumer’s food dollar (second only to labor costs), the expansion of nonunionized rural trucking promised to achieve some of the goals of the Brannan Plan—namely higher farm prices without dramatic increases in consumer food costs—without the need for a progressive revision of agricultural policy.
Chapter 4 scrutinizes the intersection of country culture and industrial agribusiness on the postwar superhighway. As the industrialization of U.S. agriculture intensified in the 1950s and 1960s, small farmers vacated the land in record numbers. Would-be farmers increasingly turned to trucking in order to sustain a masculine culture of economic independence. The rural work culture of the independent trucker inspired an onslaught of popular paeans to the “knights of the road,” from the 1954 honky-tonk nugget “Truck Driving Man” to the 1963 country music chart-topper “Six Days on the Road.” Actual owner-operators may or may not have appreciated the popular interest in their work—or references to “little white pills”—but they were certainly aware that the nature of their work placed them somewhere between the “king of the open road” and the modern-day “sharecropper” upon whose back the industrial machinery of modern agribusiness rode. Even so, owner-operators took enough pride in their “independent” status to stoutly refuse the efforts of the increasingly powerful Teamsters Union to organize them. As modern interstate highways penetrated deep into the countryside, rural unregulated truckers—rather than unionized truckers or railroaders—increasingly hauled the products of factory farms and food processors to the new supermarkets of booming suburbia. Within this changing economic context, the virulently anti–New Deal Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson launched a full-scale assault on economic liberalism in the farm and food economy. Decrying New Dealism as counterproductive, Benson sought to use state power to craft a new rural economy driven by marketing of processed foods like frozen concentrated orange juice rather than by subsidized commodity crop production. While touting the benefits of “free enterprise” and the “freedom to farm,” Benson generously provided government funds and technological research to help corporate food processors and supermarket chains modernize their distribution systems to provide such “luxuries for the masses” as frozen peas and TV dinners. Benson’s assistant secretary of agriculture, John H. Davis, coined the word “agribusiness” to describe the new technological and political reality of this marketing-driven farm economy. Transportation and distribution grew in importance in this agribusiness economy devoted to expanding consumer abundance throughmass marketing, especially as Benson’s Department of Agriculture worked assiduously to undermine the power of unionized transportation firms within the farm and food economy.
Agribusiness, relying on both the technology and the country culture of trucking, triumphantly beat back all New Deal-era challenges to its corporate power in the 1950s and 1960s, as I argue in two case studies in chapters 5 and 6. By delivering the good life via superhighway to cost-conscious supermarket shoppers, agribusinesses convinced U.S. consumers that “free enterprise” could serve their interests more effectively than could labor unions or government regulators. Anticipating a strategy used by Wal-Mart in later decades, the meatpackers I describe in chapter 5 relied on long-haul trucking to fundamentally restructure the beef industry by driving down both worker wages and consumer prices. The Big Four meatpackers, despite nagging antitrust concerns, had paid strong wages to large, unionized workforces in the urban Midwest since the union drives of the mid-1930s. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, a new breed of upstart meatpackers relied on highways and “asphalt cowboys” to replace factories built in nineteenth-century railroad cities like Chicago and St. Louis. In the “Old West” cowboy country of Kansas, Colorado, and Texarhoma, the meatpackers built a new West—replete with industrially fed steers and hyperefficient slaughterhouses staffed by underpaid rural and immigrant workers. By the early 1970s, a few of these upstart packers relied on long-haul refrigerated trucking to construct a beef empire that would have surprised even Upton Sinclair. Despite the reconstruction of a meatpacking “Jungle,” the new beef industry satisfied consumer demands for cheap beef while flouting government antitrust laws. Rural truckers, hostile to labor unions, provided the labor needed to make this new marketing-driven beef empire run, but their antipathy to economic liberalism was born of economic necessity, not an ideological betrayal of the Populist and Progressive politics of their midwestern forbears.
Long-haul trucking, as I show in chapter 6, offered a different sort of political power to milk dealers. Milk bottlers, like the big meatpackers, had long come under attack for abusing their monopoly power to drive up the price of “nature’s perfect food.” Unlike the “Beef Trust,” however, milk dealers and large dairy farmers had cultivated tight relationships with sympathetic government administrators since the onset of the New Deal. But in the 1950s and 1960s, milk bottlers sought to break their dependence on the heavy hand of government regulation. Ironically this turn to “free enterprise” occurred even as milk dealers increasingly relied on government-funded research into trucking technology—research explicitly encouraged by Ezra Taft Benson as part of his effort to repeal the New Deal in agriculture. Milk dealers began relying on nonunionized truckers to gather milk in enormous refrigerated tanks from industrialized dairy “super co-ops,” forcing thousands of small farmers out of business. Long-haul truckers also began transporting cartons of milk directly to supermarkets, bypassing the doorstep bottle delivery system that for decades had paid good wages to urban Teamster milkmen. Teamsters and small farmers—whose insistence on a “fair price” for milk had long allowed them to confront the economic power of organized commercial dairymen and milk dealers—publicly protested the highly monopolistic “free market” milk economy that emerged in the 1960s. Their efforts to blockade supermarket aisles and dump milk on the side of highways, however, gained little sympathy from consumers who demanded low priced jugs of milk in an era of rising food prices. Meanwhile the rural Wisconsin truck drivers whose work made the new milk infrastructure possible mounted protests of their own in the 1960s, calling for better working conditions and higher pay—not as organized workers, but as small business owners. Although rural milk haulers drew on Progressive-era midwestern antimonopoly language, they firmly repudiated the Teamsters Union, setting a precedent for the neopopulist trucker revolts of the 1970s.
The final chapter explains how these triumphs of corporate power in the farm and food economy spearheaded a broader transformation of U.S. political culture in the 1970s. For the first time in a generation, antistatist economic ideologies became politically palatable to many working- and middle-class Americans who had previously looked to the government to protect their economic interests. Once consumers had accepted cheap beef, milk, and frozen orange juice—basic items of the postwar U.S. standard of living—little stood in the way of the widespread acceptance of a new political economy dedicated to “always low” prices at any social cost. This broad acceptance of laissez-faire ideology was exemplified by the deregulation movement of the 1970s. Figures across the political spectrum successfully pressed President Carter to end government economic regulation of basic industries, including the airlines, railroads, natural gas, and trucking—all in the name of lower consumer prices. Although trucking deregulation advocates drew upon the neoliberal economic theories of Milton Friedman and like-minded economists at the University of Chicago, they also saw material evidence for their free-market theories in the historical record: agribusiness had triumphantly relied on “deregulated” trucking to boost profits, slash wages, and drive down consumer prices since the mid-1930s. Independent truckers bore the brunt of the economic risks entailed by this deregulatory structure, but according to country music producers and Hollywood filmmakers in the 1970s, it seemed as if the life of a trucker was nothing but a hedonistic joyride populated by truckstop waitresses and the freedom of “the open road.” More sober analysts of the trucking economy, including consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader and neoliberal economists, agreed that government and labor intervention in the trucking industry was little more than a “giant rip-offof [consumers’] pocketbooks and their dinner plates,” as Overdrive editor Mike Parkhurst put it. The anarchic neopopulism expressed by Mike Parkhurst’s followers in the massive trucker shutdowns of 1979 may have infuriated automobile drivers who could not pass interstate roadblocks, but the truckers’ demands for an injection of “free enterprise” into the nation’s economy had a broad appeal to consumers as well as post–New Deal Democrats such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who agreed with the truckers that deregulation and union-busting would provide effective solutions to the era’s economic woes. The antiauthoritarian, antistatist, and antiunion rural trucking culture that spawned the Hollywood hits Smokey and the Bandit and Convoy had serious implications for the nation’s political economy.
Every truck stop in the nation sells belt buckles that proudly declare: “Independent Truckers Move America.” In the following pages I reveal the motto’s deeper meaning, showing how agribusiness relied upon independent truckers to shift U.S. capitalism into overdrive, introducing lean and mean business strategies and cultivating a culture of economic conservatism welcomed by both rural producers and suburban consumers. On country stretches of asphalt, in rural food factories, and in supermarket warehouses and shopping aisles, agribusinesses sowed the seeds of the antistatist market populism that defined late twentieth-century capitalism. Though it may seem surprising to link the country culture of trucking to the collapse of economic liberalism in America’s post–World War II consumer economy, we might do well to pay heed to the words of country musician Del Reeves. As he twanged in his 1968 jukebox hit, “looking at the world through a windshield” helps put “everything in a little bit different light.”
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