Impacts of the Liberal Tradition in America
Intellectually, it is indeed correct that can be divided into two periods of conservatism: the period which emerged directly after the war (1945-1990) and the period from 1990 onwards. Traditionally as Ball explained, conservatism in America were opposed to rapid development and industrialization in the early 20th century: “From their point-of-view, this new mass society posed the same threat that democracy had always posed — the threat that the masses would throw society first into chaos and then in despotism. In arguments similar to those of Plato, Aristotle, and more recently Alexis de Tocqueville, traditional conservatives maintained that the common people were too weak and too ignorant to take charge of government” (Ball, 108). Essentially, this meant that conservatism in the twentieth century revolved around the notion of self-restraint and a core belief pervades that only a small majority are suitable to govern, while the rest of the masses are not (Ball, 109). Conservatism as a movement really only began to take forward momentum until the 1950s in America: at this time conservatives were a diverse group of intellectuals ranging from libertarians, anti-communists, and traditionalists (Regenery, 60). They began to use debates and discussion and their mutual hatred of libertarianism and FDR to form an actual organized movement (Regenery, 60). During these earlier days of the movement, conservative literature assisted in helping to organize and coalesce conservatives around fundamental issues that were close to their hearts, with communism being the biggest threat to their existence of all (Regenery, 76).
The second movement of conservatism in America could be deemed the emergence of neo-conservatism, something that was distinct from the more classic form of conservatism that Americans were more familiar with: neo-conservatism was still different enough to be on the receiving end of criticism from both liberals and traditional conservatives. “The underlying problem was that neoconservatives were claiming a mantle that had long been claimed by conservatives in general. Neoconservatives had accepted the premise of the welfare state. They fought over its extension, certainly, and argued about whether specific policies were worthy of continuing, but they did not doubt the efficacy in the manner conservatives had. ‘Government is not the solution of our problems,’ Reagan said in his first inaugural address, ‘government is the problem.’ Very few, if any, neoconservatives believed this” (Schneider, 168-169). These tendencies highlight some of the differences between the two conservative movements, as they are not identical.
Even so, Hartz thesis does indeed revolve around the notion that America is marked by a dogmatic lasting attachment to Lockean liberalism, which is part of the nation’s cultural phenomenon, he argues (19). Hartz asserts that the phenomenon of liberalism is manifested in things like the remarkable power of the Supreme Court and the “cult of constitution worship” as forms of evidence for his thesis (19). The fundamental ethical issue that Hartz sees with a liberalist society is “ not the danger of the majority which has been its conscious fear, but the danger of unanimity, which has slumbered unconsciously behind it: ‘the tyranny of opinion’ that Tocqueville saw unfolding as even the pathetic social distinctions of the Federalist era collapsed before his eyes Do we not find here, hidden away at the base of the American mind, one of the reasons why legalism has been so imperfect a barrier against the violent moods of its mass Lockianism? If the latter is nourished by the former, how can we expect it to be strong?” (20).
Thus, the crux of Hartz’s thesis revolves around the differences between America and Europe. America never had to abolish feudalism and try to eradicate a narrow social order: it’s easy to make the mistake that America’s political revolution was a social one as well, but in all reality, the American Revolution was strictly political. Hartz essentially argues that in America consensus rules and all parties are the same on foundational levels, with liberal mindsets guiding all parties to some extent. Thus, Hartz believes that to anticipate a social revolution in America is completely misguided. In this manner Hartz is regarded as a consensus theorist, because many could fundamentally agree on these principles at heart, since America has long been so dominated by liberalism. Thus, to argue that America is still fundamentally dominated by liberalism is something that has the ring of universality to it: Hartz is asserting that liberalism and liberalist thought is fundamentally the universal truth in American thought.
Crick does indeed echo the fundamental thesis of Hartz, apparent in his remark that “That exclusive unity of a liberal-democratic political experience and expression of the United States — which forms the central thread of De Tocqueville’s great work — is an historical experience that refutes any easy British, French, or German identification of traditional behavior with a conservative political philosophy. ‘America is conservative but the principles conserved are liberal, and some indeed are radical,’ this was the brilliant apercu of Gunnar Myrdal” (361). Crick’s writing is able to pinpoint the confusion which persists among traditionalism and conservatism: in England these terms might be identical as Crick illuminates, but in America they’re simply not. Essentially Crick’s argument is indeed evocative of Hartz’s, as Crick argues that American’s are on the edge of real conservatism, but never actually achieve it (361). This can’t help but seem evocative of Hartz’s notion that liberalism underscores all political movements and modes of thought in America. Crick believes that all conservatives are actually “doctrinaire liberals” (365). Crick believes that conservatism in America cannot transcend the American tradition and that this is why America remains a conservative nation.
Thus, the aforementioned literature is attempting to make a truly bold and lasting statement about the America of the 1950s. Namely, that it has always been liberal and that in the 1950s, in the time post world war two, it was remarkably liberal. As Ball and Dagger have demonstrated, World War Two may have brought the end of the Depression, but a lasting welfare state still remained, with welfare liberalism becoming the dominant ideology of the world at large (76).
Essentially, as we’ve discussed in class, one could argue that Boland is calling Hartz a conservative but just in terms of Hartz’s unique perspective on the Cold War. According to Boland, Hartz transforms the traditional beliefs of the American ethos in lieu of the ideological requirements of the Cold War. “Hartz himself, in a later chapter of The Liberal Tradition, cites with approval the claim that ‘America is . . . conservative . . . But the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical’ (50)” (Boland). Thus, in Hartz’s viewpoint, liberalism is renovated as an overarching ideology in a way which is necessary for the Cold War (Boland).
It is notable to acknowledge that Carey contrasts Hartz with the “republican” school and as Carey demonstrates one can view America as more strongly influenced by being shaped and influenced by more communal forces. Carey demonstrates an important aspect of the founding of America that many political theorists do leave out. Americans of the founding period were in fact shaped by certain indelible social institutions: family, neighborhood, religious congregation, schools and government (20). These organizations are all guided by fundamental moral ideas of what a good human life is: thus, this creates a strong communal context, regarding the rights of individuals and minorities, but also in committing to a strong and specific moral vision that strongly resemble adjusted Protestant norms (Carey, 21). Thus, Carey concludes that the Republican school, in ignoring this type of commitment to a communal moral vision, thus offers a more incomplete and mistaken comprehension of the origins of and dynamics of the public good that shaped and characterized early Americans (Carey, 21). In this sense there really is a strong basis for a more communal understanding of America at large. Carey had a deeper appreciation and acknowledgement of the permanent things which have long shaped America today — the institutions of society which are like sinews fastening the various parts of the human body together, and these things were strongly communal like the church and government.
The Federalist Papers in that case can indeed be read and interpreted as conservative documents. As Ball reminds us, one can’t simply define conservatism as all those who resist change, but that there is a common strain of a desire to preserve something. The Federalist Papers begin from the forefront with Hamilton discussing the perils of a new national government and of people who wish to bolster themselves as a means of confusing their nation. Many of Hamilton’s warnings do have a strongly conservative ring to them “ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives not more laudable than these can affect both good and bad men.” In a more conservative perspective, Hamilton demonstrates that he understand liberty on an individual and a communal level with great wisdom when he acknowledges “those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” Though Carey does maintain that something has indeed changed in our nation that may in fact preclude the bulwarks of limited government and de-centralization that is alluded to in several of the Federalist Papers. As Carey reminds us, while we may be able to pinpoint the ways by which the founding generation saw the limited government to be secured, we still have a limited understand of limited government. Understanding the line between society and government is far more nuanced and difficult than one might be able theorize. This is because of society’s understanding of the role of government is manifested through consensual values which are seen as given and which can sometimes vary (Carey).
As already stated, American society has had two separate conservative movements: one which started directly after World War Two and ended in 1990, and a later one which started in 1990. These separate conservative movements were guided by different ideologies and perspectives. As one could say, the earlier conservative period was guided by the theory of human nature; as Ball reminds us one conservative asserted that “Every new generation constitutes a wave of savages who must be civilized by their families, schools and churches.’ This view of human nature leads directly to the conservative warning against bold attempts to improve society” (95). All attempts to reform or transform human behavior are doomed to end in complete failure (Ball, 1995). In modern times, post-1990, Ball explains there are four other varieties of conservatism which subsist: religious-right conservatives who want prayer in public schools and promote “family values”; individualist conservatives who want to lessen government spending and minimize the size of the government; neoconservatives want an aggressive foreign policy which makes use of America’s economic, political and military power overseas (118-119).
It is true that Regnery and most commentators on post-War American conservatism acknowledge that anti-communism held the conservative movement together throughout most of the Cold War period. Regenery is indeed correct when he asserts that the anti-communist movement was one of the linchpins of the conservative movement (266). It gave conservatives something to unite strongly about. Being anti-communism helped give their movement a sense of morality and moral inspiration, making them feel like they were being guided by the necessity of freedom for all men (268).
In this sense, evaluating the emergence of a self-conscious conservative movement since World War II in America is apparent in the work on Russell Kirk. Kirk did indeed provoke the emergence of a self-consciously conservative intellectual movement within the beginning of the Cold War. Kirk was fundamentally not even writing about politics but reminded readers at the end of the day all political problems were really moral or religious problems. In this manner Kirk grounded his ideas on conservatism in religion. Hayek, on the other hand made stern warning that economic planning would lead eventually to dictatorship, concluding that men do not and cannot know everything. Weaver instead saw things from a more rationalist and enlightened viewpoint, but still one which was full of contradictions, believing that men would prevails over the dark forces of time, yet would still continue down a slippery slope.
On the other hand, it’s hard to determine if the American tradition is more consistent with Burke or Locke when it comes to the liberal vs. The conservative values which have deftly shaped the country. As Ball illuminates, the fact that the ideas of rugged individualism and capitalism were able to survive catastrophes like the Great Depression, demonstrate without a doubt that America is a liberal society, which at times may appear to be heavily shaped by conservative values but that these are just illusions. While government is now called in to regulate big business and to help promote free competition and an exchange of goods and services while protecting the little guy, that doesn’t mean society of today isn’t firmly liberal — this liberal quality is still true even though the government might wrongly infringe on the rights of individuals using all excuses they wish, such as the “war on terror” or a state of emergency (88). A violation of the liberal principles which have long shaped this nation, doesn’t mean that the nation is no longer founded or influenced by liberal values, but that they just need to be better secured and revisited.
Moreover, with the implosion of the former Soviet Union around 1990, the conservative movement was once more splintered with ideological arguments developing between paleo- and neo-conservatives. Gottfried and Fleming pioneered some of the fundamental ideas of the paleoconservative movement; these were ideas which, “sought to look past the Cold War and to embrace instead the humanistic heritage of Western civilization rather than to continue to fight for democracy in the world” (Schneider, 168). In this regard one could conclude that this was a basic difference between the two separate schools of conservative thought. Paleoconservatives moved away from the ideas and preoccupations of the Cold War and related issues, whereas neoconservatives would remain forever entrenched among them (Schneider, 168). As some argue, the pillars shaped and accepted by neoconservatives were largely derivative, as they has accepted the presence of the welfare state (Schneider, 168). On the other hand, neoconservatives accused paleoconservatives as being overly founded and focused on roman catholic beliefs and thus inhospitable to Jews and other non-Christians (Schneider, 168). While the two camps might be happy to argue about the terms and pillars which differentiate their different versions of conservatism, fundamentally, one could say that neoconservatives have in a sense accepted Hartz’s thesis, believing that America is conservative founded on radical, liberal principles.
Finally, as Abott has argued, I agree that “we still come back to Louis Hartz after all these years.” So much of America political and social policy is very much a delicate dance of push and pull between seemingly liberal and seemingly conservative ideas. For Hartz to essentially assert that America is a mesh of liberal and conservative ideas is correct. Furthermore, the fact that America was founded without a structure of class is something that continues to shape our social and political values and is something that we continually appear to rediscover, yet another continual return to Hartz’s thesis.
This paper has thus attempted to look at the various ways in which conservative values have shaped and influence the manifestation of American society, in social and political ways. While different conservative movements have transformed to different camps, one could argue at the end of the day, the different conservative groups still have a tremendous amount of overlap and are shaped by an overwhelming desire to conserve some of the more classic ideals of rule, governance and the individual within society — many of which are strikingly liberal.
Ball, Terry and Richard Dagger. Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal. London: Pearson, 2014. Print. .
Boland, Joseph. U.S. Political Thought: Lecture 2. 28 September 1995. website. 2013.
Carey, George, W. “The American Founding and Limited Government.” Retrieved from: The Imaginative Conservative. Web.
Crick, Bernard. “The Strange Quest for An American Conservatism.” The Review of Politics (1955): 359-376. print. .
Hartz, Louis. The Liberal Tradition in America. Orlando: Harvest Books, 1991. Print. .
Regenery, Alfred S. Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008. Print. .
Schneider, Gregory L. The Conservative Century: From Reaction to Revolution. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009. Print. .
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