The Conservatism of Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, 20 Years After His Death

Author: Taylor Dorrell
Date: March 4, 2021

    Today is the 20th anniversary of the death of former Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes. The conservative governor was a part of the neoconservative crew that ushered in the era of neoliberalism in American politics. As a conservative figure (although a lesser known one), I want to ask how much of a Randian figure the former Ohio governor was (how similar he was to characters in the conservative writer Ayn Rand’s novels) and, more importantly, how can this comparison to Rand’s characters along with Rhodes’ legacy be co opted by the left to spark a new future in American and Ohioan politics?

    I’ve found myself a little too interested in learning about the conservative former Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes. It seems like a part of a larger interest I’ve developed in 20th century conservative ideology as a way to shed a light on something that so many leftists like myself have grown to detest. I feel a little like GK Chesterton who said that ‘I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was orthodoxy.’1 After rejecting the religiosity and conservatism of my South Carolinian youth, becoming its reverse image, where did that bring me? Back to orthodoxy. I even find myself resorting back to the aesthetics, wearing what I would consider to be church clothes, admiring religious paintings, etc.. Maybe this interest could also be seen as more of a search - a search for what? I don’t know. Perhaps a key to bringing back the appeal of the left to the anti-labor party of the GOP and Trump. What would my native South Carolina look like as a socialist state? Well, at the least, the schools wouldn't be ranked among the worst in the nation, but my pitch is that little would have to change culturally. This, I think, is what draws me to dip my toes in the historical cultural realm of conservatism: to disavow it politically by going through it culturally.

    But Jim Rhodes, for me, is a relic of a time I never got to experience. Although catching glimmers through Trump, it (the mid-20th century) was a time of what W. E. B. Du Bois referred to as having ‘no hypocrisy here, but a wickedness, frank, ungilded, and open.’2 (Although Du Bois was referring to East St. Louis in 1920.)  Rhodes, although a master of securing bipartisan support in the State Legislature, was nonetheless this very kind of frank figure. The Kent State massacre was only the Kent State massacre because Gov. Rhodes, against the wishes and advice from all parties involved, called in the National Guard (which had, in the days before, been brutalizing a Teamsters strike). His first move as governor was to fire thousands of government employees. Along with defunding welfare programs, he was notorious for leaving Columbus whenever a large civil rights protest was planned. Rhodes used his reputation after his second term to break into real estate, involving himself with shady projects and investments.

    Since today is the 20th anniversary of Rhodes’ death, I want to look at his complex legacy. Although somewhat of a corrupt and stern figure, he nonetheless held the last bit of optimism that could come from conservatism in Ohio. Rhodes funded highways, he dumped money into building universities (even if he didn’t fund the schools after they were built) and was tragically proud and optimistic of Ohio - one of my favorite moments of his terms is that he pitched building a bridge across Lake Erie between Cleveland and Canada (could you even imagine a Republican governor in Ohio doing something even remotely close to something like this today?).

    To further understand Rhodes’ complexity, let’s go deeper into the realm of conservatism. In true Zizekian fashion, let us turn to the conservative writer who could more accurately be labelled a ‘cheerleader for American capitalism’, Ayn Rand. In her book and subsequent film The Fountainhead, the main character, Howard Roark, is to represent the ideal man who never abandons his desires and visions. As an architect, Roark’s modernist designs are either denied or met with requested changes. Instead of negotiating a single change in his original plan, Roark chooses to deny jobs altogether.

The Fountainhead movie, 1949.

    Other characters represent man supposedly corrupted by team-work, reinforcing Rand’s radical individualist views, objecting to any degree of social or collective influence or intent. Failure is quickly defined as a betrayal of one's own desires - one character makes compromises to keep his job and the other architect just replicates his early work - or on those who aim to obstruct those desires - the “socialist” businessman or architecture firms.

    Roark is thrown against the supposedly anti-individualist forces and instead of giving an inch to these devils, he ends up having to work a minimum wage construction job. When he was offered to design a public housing project, his only request was that not a single thing be changed. When changes were made without him knowing, Roark dynamited the empty housing complex. He was subsequently put on trial, going on a rant on individualism. His (Rand’s) rant convinced the jury to let him off for the bombing.

    Could the uncompromisingly individualistic character of Roark be compared to the colossal four-term governor of Ohio, James (Jim) A. Rhodes? Although his father was a conservative mine owner, Jim was pro-union in his youth. But, like Trump’s grandfather, Rhodes’ father died during the 1918 pandemic and his mother raised him to follow the philosophy of ‘look out for yourself and your family’ and the conservatism of his father rubbed off on him. His family lived in poverty so when the state came to potentially take the children (although they didn’t), the event became an impactful stain on his ideas on government. He’d go on to drop out of school at Ohio State University after failing classes and pursued small entrepreneurial endeavors, eventually making his way into politics.

Ohio Governor Jim Rhodes at a press conference at Kent State University on May 3, 1970.

    But Rhodes never turned down work simply because it wasn’t ‘on-brand’ as Roark did so regularly. Rhodes really had very little in common with Roark’s character overall. Rand would’ve hated him. He would be considered a ‘second hander’ who searches for recognition outside of himself (while the ‘prime mover’ is supposedly only concerned with himself). Rhodes’ motto was quite literally, ‘Find out what the people want, and give it to them.’3 He represented someone whose first priority, after coming from a background of poverty and struggle, was to survive, only after that to then ‘be somebody’, and through that pursuit to give people what they want. And isn’t this what American capitalism teaches us? To struggle to survive and make compromises to maintain that survival (employment)? Here, I would like to controversially pitch, is where Rand unintentionally delivers us a Marxist character.

    Rhodes’ politics matched that of Nixon, who catered to the desires and fears of the white majority. He knew that he could weaponize capitalist individualism politically, but this was a very different kind of individualism from Roark. While voters’ desires and fears revolved around the political economy (fearing minorities or the loss of jobs/place in society), shaped by capitalism, Roark wasn’t concerned at all with making money or a name for himself. Roark’s desires existed outside bare necessity and capitalist drives. It’s here where Roark can act as a model for postcapitalist desire in his lack of concern for giving into the profit drive. I think this exposes that it is only through Marx that a true individualism can blossom.

    This quote will maybe scare some readers, but like Rand and so many other conservatives, Marx actually spoke directly about this central notion of the individual:

    The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organization of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature… All historical writing must set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.4

    This part of Marx is of course overshadowed by the next step in this dialectic of the individual (particular) and the collective (universal). But in this part of Marx, we find the same kind of optimism in the individual as with so many conservative online self-help gurus like Jordan Peterson. Tell me which radical individualist said that ‘these definite individuals, living under definite relations, can produce their material life and what is connected with it, are thus the conditions of their self-activity and are produced by this self-activity. The definite condition under which they produce thus corresponds … to the reality of their conditioned nature, their one-sided existence …’5 This was no other than Karl Marx speaking to the ‘one-sided existence’ of humanity, but unlike Rand and Peterson, Marx goes the extra step. It is not enough to stop at the one-sided individual in a social world with so many other individuals. Marx goes on to add that ‘Man, much as he may therefore be a particular individual (and it is precisely his particularity which makes him an individual, and a real individual social being), is just as much the totality.’6 

    We have to ask, what does it mean to be this kind of Randian ‘prime mover’ character if one gets stuck working construction the rest of your life? Who is a prime mover stripped of power and money? It’s only a public housing project that offers Roark a way out, but what of all these uncompromising prime movers who are today Amazon Prime delivery drivers, Uber drivers, or Walmart employees? Or stuck in third world countries producing cheap commodities? Are ‘potential’ prime movers, not prime movers? As young Rhodes experienced growing up in poverty, Marx points out that ‘… it is possible to achieve real liberation only in the real world and by real means… in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity.’7 Maybe the next Randian prime mover figure in the U.S. is currently on pandemic unemployment, using the government income and time to finally pursue their uncompromising unprofitable passions.

The Fountainhead movie, 1949.

    But of course this is not Rand’s political program. Her’s is much closer to Gov. Rhodes who believed that all of society’s issues would be resolved with minimizing or omitting the government altogether; the kind of world in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where all of the factory owners and CEOs go on strike and retreat to the mountains until their anti-labor and anti-government bureaucracy demands are met. This is the vision of Rhodes and other conservatives (although it tends to come into reality a little differently (the government is completely fine for bailing out failed companies or subsidizing for a low minimum wage for example)).

    It’s no coincidence that I used Roark to compare to Gov. Rhodes, specifically because Roark was an architect. There are many architectural parallels with Rhodes’ politics and that of so many free market advocates like Rand and Milton Freedman. Most interestingly is the ideological edge of so much of the modernist architecture of the 1970s. Maybe this is what draws me to be so entranced by the brutalist Ohio History Center building that opened months after the Kent State massacre in 1970. It embodies, through the brutalist architecture (and so much of the modernist architecture of the era), the modernist antagonism of a repressively honest state (as opposed to today's attempt to hide within postmodern facades of wild shapes, bright colors, and lengthy justifications for bombing Syria). The nature of the neoliberal state (which hands over all power to private capital and is minimized to a repressive function) is revealed, or hidden, through the architecture.

Ohio History Center, 1970.

    Governor Rhodes might have a complicated legacy, but the politics of today are still very much the stubborn child of Rhodes, Nixon, and Reagan: the nagging shadow of neoliberalism. Rhodes was actually in the mix to run on the Republican ticket instead of Reagan. As Ohio copes with the pandemic and its economic consequences, the supermajority of Republicans in the state’s House is unlikely to shift politics towards helping the state’s working class and Biden’s Democrat controlled Congress will likely just water down any progressive plans. There is a depressing pessimism for any large scale tragedy when neoliberals are making the decisions for a ‘recovery’. As Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine, disasters are today much more likely to be used to further privatization, deregulation, and the stripping of labor power.

    But I’ll sustain from expanding on that pessimism and more optimistically say that today, everyone is a Marxist. Even Trump supporters today question the profit incentive of pharmaceutical and healthcare companies. Isn’t so much of right-wing populism’s opposition to globalization not a misdirected Marxist critique of the profit incentive of corporations? They recognize, as Marx put it, ‘an indignation to which it is necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature and its condition of life.’8 The question is whether there is a route forward that can speak to the Marxist that exists inside every American conservative. And so I will continue my journey through conservative culture and history to seek the framework to bring about such an awakening!

1. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (1908), 4.
2. W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, (1920), 49.
3. Tom Diemer et al., James A. Rhodes Ohio Colossus, (2014), 11. 
4. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 31. 
5. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 82. 
6. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 3, 299. 
7. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 5, 38. 
8. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 4, 36.