America the Liberal?
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?
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