My dissertation examines the Amway Corporation, which was founded in 1959 by Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel in Ada, Michigan, located just outside of Grand Rapids. Amway is a multi-level marketing company, selling a wide arrange of goods (originally household cleaning products, but now also nutritional supplements and cosmetics, among many others) through individual distributors, who are designated “independent business owners” and who market the products to those in their own social circles (e.g., family members, colleagues, etc.). Amway has become a multi-billion dollar company that, although remaining headquartered in the United States, now derives most of its revenue from overseas.
Amway and its cofounders, I argue, occupy a significant place in the history of twentieth-century American capitalism and movement conservatism. Amway has positioned itself against both the welfare state and post-World War II corporate capitalism. The concept of “independent business owners” has its roots in the 1930s, when direct sales companies sought to avoid becoming subject to New Deal legislation. At the same time, Amway has benefitted from grievances that some distributors have with traditional employment, which, they say, compels them to work on someone else's timetable and keeps them away from their families. The case of Amway complicates narratives that have rooted the post-war decline of economic liberalism in a campaign undertaken by conservative businessmen against the New Deal state. Although this was unquestionably a contributing factor, Amway illustrates that the post-war period also witnessed the emergence of forms of capitalism that were capable of circumventing social welfare programs. Amway also demonstrates that free enterprise ideas had significant popular support; despite some distributors disliking the limitations of the capitalist workplace, they nonetheless sought to remedy their problems by becoming capitalists themselves.
In addition to their business activities, DeVos and Van Andel were very politically active in the decades that witnessed the rise of the New Right. DeVos and Van Andel have founded, served on, and/or given money to many of the largest and most influential conservative advocacy groups and think tanks. Additionally, they have worked with the Republican Party in various capacities. DeVos and Van Andel illustrate the important role that northerners played in the conservative takeover of the Republican Party and the Party's electoral successes, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s but also in the mid-1990s. Narratives about post-war conservatism have generally given greater attention to conservatives in the South and West over those in the North, but the examples of DeVos and Van Andel suggest that the contributions of northerners were invaluable as well.