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America the Liberal?

Guest Blogger

It's become a truism that the United States is a mostly conservative country. But people didn't always think so. Louis Hartz, a notable political scientist, argued pretty strenuously in the 1950s that our political traditions are primarily liberal. How wrong was he, wonders Mark Hulliung, editor of “The American Liberal Tradition Reconsidered,” a collection of essays on Hartz's most influential work.

By Mark Hulliung

Is America an inherently liberal country? Louis Hartz thought so, arguing in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955) that all American political debates have taken place within what, from a European perspective, is liberal ideology. Only in America has the case for environmentalism been made by proclaiming the natural rights of trees rather than the obligation of the present generation to attend to the needs of succeeding generations. England’s conservative figure Edmund Burke talked about the need to preserve the link between present, past, and future generations; America’s Thomas Jefferson, inspired by liberal philosopher John Locke, asserted the autonomy of the living generation: “the earth belongs to the living.”

In Europe, Hartz noted, conservatism was the ideology of the aristocracy, and as such it enshrined the values of hierarchy, deference, tradition; it abjured revolution while calling upon the ruling class to provide the unwashed many with the governance they so sorely need. European liberalism, on the other hand, was identified with the middle class; in content it was an ideology that tested political institutions according to whether they were based on the consent of the governed, going so far as to sanction the right of the people to overthrow the government.

Against this European background, the America experience takes on a distinctive meaning. As Tocqueville asserted, America is all middle class, whence it follows, suggested Hartz, that liberalism — in all but name — undergirds all American political positions. When women at Seneca Falls in 1848 stepped forth to claim their rights, they rewrote the natural rights passages of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to read “all men and women are created equal.” When Southerners seceded from the Union, they, too, justified their actions by citing the Declaration of Independence.

Where did Hartz go wrong? In what sense might he still be right? He missed all that was illiberal in the America tradition: the long story of nativism; the record of racism, Jim Crow and segregation; the treatment of women and Native Americans as lesser creatures than white men. These gaps in his scholarship have been filled in recent decades. A liberal tradition may be what many of us desire but it is something we must build; it is not, as Hartz would have it, something that is a given.

Where might Hartz still be right? In his view America has never had a genuine conservative tradition, for what goes by that name is anything but conservative. Today the right wing is on the march but isn’t its ideology radical rather than conservative? The Tea Party, espousing contempt for the rulers, claims to restore government to the governed. Some right wingers have revived the idea of secession. No doubt Hartz would also remind us that when the Republicans in 1994 gained control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, Newt Gingrich released a book, To Renew America, in which he applauded the second amendment on the grounds that it sanctioned the right to revolution.

Long live Louis Hartz?

By Rachel Hartigan Shea  |  July 21, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger  
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"It's become a truism that the United States is a mostly conservative country." Shouldn't that be "truthyism"?

Posted by: gVOR08 | July 21, 2010 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I think there is a line connecting European conservativism to the US strand: keep power in the hands of the powerful.

Posted by: j3hess | July 21, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

There are a few issues here: For one thing, the meanings of "liberalism" and "conservatism" are slippery. Are you, for example, talking about classical liberals or the center-left of today?

Also, political movements are complex. The American "founders" were both liberal and conservative. They emphasized individual rights, but they duplicated the British structure, laws, and customs to a tremendous extent. (And, contrary to popular belief, the Declaration of Independence did not even reject monarchy!)

Re Hartz, his thesis has been pretty well debunked. In the first place, he is wrong to assume that "conservatism" is associated only with aristocracy etc. (Edmund Burke, for example, was middle-class, was a Whig, and was sympathetic to the Americans. Hardly fits Hartz's mold.)

In the second place, Hartz acts like America just appeared out of thin air in 1776. Of course, in reality, the settlers came from Europe and brought Europe's history and culture with them.

In truth, there were at least four very strong traditions in America from the beginning: (1) (classical) liberal, (2) republican, (3) conservative, and (4) religious.

Interestingly, the Tea Partiers tend to demonstrate all of these, in varying mixes. (I don't think many in that movement could be classified as "radical," since to be radical you generally have to want to remake society wholesale.)

All these in fact remain significant in the US, plus the more progressive/socialist tradition which emerged in the late 1800's-early 1900's, partly from European influences.

Posted by: S8thRd | July 23, 2010 12:18 AM | Report abuse

You begin your column with a falsehood, writing: "It's become a truism that the United States is a mostly conservative country." That is a right wing lie.

Posted by: jamg53 | July 23, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I was born in the Southwest about a month before FDR took office. So, I was born under Hoover a few years before the dust bowl. The first political talk I remember is how bad it was under Hoover. Roosevelt was a hero to most people I knew who survived the dust bowl. Although there were those who hated him with a passion and we often had grade school political fights (verbal) as we walked home after school.

I remember Wilke, Dewey the most and served under Truman during the Korean War.

My father always voted Democratic although some of his brothers voted Republican.

We all thought we had the right to have a rifle, and shotgun, but never considered that it might be used in a revolution as some people seem to think nowadays.

I was always taught to respect the law, obey teachers and to love America. Now, it seems that too many people are unhappy. They even want to carry a gun to restaurants and some even carry them to church. I think those folks should read several civil war books. When I retired, I read a bunch of them. We certainly don't want to repeat that fiasco. By the way, you can download General Grants two volumes in text format. It is free. General Thomas was in the Union army and was from Virginia. Grant liked Thomas, as he didn't know the word retreat. Of course, Lincoln liked Grant too because as he said, "He fights." Both Lee, Grant were in the Mexican war. Recommend that book by John Eisenhower also. Sheds a little light on the problems in Arizona.

Posted by: LL314 | July 23, 2010 4:15 PM | Report abuse

It's rather difficult to have this disccssion when the terms "liberal" and "conservative" are not defined.

I read Hartz a couple times in graduate school. He defined liberalism awfully broadly; and he defined conservatism pretty narrowly; hence Hartz's surprising conclusion.

One thing worth keeping in mind when discussing this topic is that these terms (liberal and conservative) are relative---relative to the political disputes of the day, and relative to their era. Thus, a liberal from 1900 arguing for each person's liberty to sell his labor at whatever price he pleases would strike us today as conservative.


Kevin R. Kosar

Posted by: kevinrkosar | July 25, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

The U.S. used to be exceptional politically in that it was born Liberal, in the sense that the Founders of the 1760-80s had discarded Conservatism: the preference for a society organized along military-monarchical-clerical lines. Britain had pretty much made its transition to Liberalism by the mid-1700s, and the American leaders were in the vanguard of the British evolution. As a result, there was no real political contest in the U.S. between Liberal and Conservative parties of the kind that Europe went through in the long period from the 1600s through 1918. That's what was "exceptional" about the U.S.

Americans are as attracted by Conservatism as anyone else, but the development of a Conservative political party was postponed by historical specifics. The most important of these was the Civil War, which left the military dominant in the Republican Party while the South was dominant in the Democratic Party. This artificial separation of the military from its natural, pre-1861 territorial base weakened Conservatism to the extent that it couldn't emerge in either major political party.

This changed between the 1930s and the 1970s. FDR got control of the Democratic Party away from the South, and the South gradually moved to the Republican Party. The highlights of the transition were Humphrey's 1948 speech and Thurmond's resulting third-party candidacy, the Goldwater candidacy in 1964, and the American-Independent third party campaign in 1968. With the skids thus greased, the Nixon disaster and Ford's close loss liquidated the traditional dominance of Liberals in the Republican Party, Militant fundamentalists took over the GOP to create the first capital-C Conservative major party in U.S. history and with Ronald Reagan fronting for the party it easily won the Presidency in 1980 on the Wallace-LeMay platform.

The military-monarchical-clerical values embodied in the neoconservatives' global war on terror, unitary Presidency, and faith-based policies are deeply traditional, harking back to the 1600s and earlier. But they're not the values that the anti-monarchical, deist Founders bequeathed to the U.S. in the 1780s.

Posted by: jsryanjr | July 25, 2010 1:31 PM | Report abuse

jsryanjr: Where on Earth are you getting the idea the "conservatism" is defined as organizing society along military lines???!!!???

The idea of conservatism was to have a culturally/traditionally grounded society which, unlike more revolutionary societies, did not need to rest upon military force. It DID, in the 18th century, emphasize a role for monarchy and clerisy, but generally a "soft" one.

Posted by: S8thRd | July 25, 2010 5:49 PM | Report abuse

In everyday language, "conservative" with a lower-case 'c' means "skeptical about claims; requiring substantiation such as a track record of success before adopting a new view; cautious, careful." This is the essence of the scientific method and is characteristic of political Liberalism with an upper-case 'L' as it evolved since the 1700s through the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.

Political "Conservatism" as practiced in Europe and in the U.S. since the mid-1970s by the Republic Party (for the first time in U.S. history by a major party) is authoritarian and rejects the common-sense, everyday "conservatism" of the scientific method.

John Dean's book, "Conservatives Without Conscience," contains a case study of the contrast between the two opposing mindsets that, regrettably, are both referred to as "conservative" when people aren't careful about how they use the word.

Posted by: jsryanjr | July 26, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

A conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.
Franklin D. Roosevelt

Posted by: Americacares | July 26, 2010 11:02 PM | Report abuse

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