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AMERICAN POLITICAL IDEOLOGY: A BRIEFING (PART ONE)

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AMERICAN  POLITICAL  IDEOLOGY: A  BRIEFING  (PART ONE)

Histories of Futures

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DIMENSIONS OF POLITICS                          DIMENSIONS OF POSTS

Sectors: Identity                                            Importance: ****

Level: National                                              Scope: USA only

Period: Longrun                                            Process: Power politics

TOPIC:  IDEOLOGY                                      Treatment: Commentary

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OVERVIEW

INTRODUCTION: Current ideological cleavages

AMERICAN  POLITICAL  IDEOLOGIES   1

Disagreements between Kesler and Dionne   1.2

Classic European ideologies and their American versions   1.2

AMERICAN  DEVELOPMENT OF  EUROPEAN  LIBERALISM   2

1600s and 1700s: religious Settlers and republican Founders   2.1

Early 1800s: Bankers, Builders; Strivers, Seekers   2.2

FROM  EUROPEAN  LIBERALISM  TO  AMERICAN  “LIBERALISM”   3

Late 1800s - early 1900s: Industrialists, Jurists; Populists, Progressives   3.1

1930s and 1960s: Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society  3.2

RECENT  DIVERGENCE  IN  AMERICAN  IDEOLOGY   4

2000s:  Liberals re-embrace Collectivism   4.1 

2000s:  Conservatives reject Collectivism   4.2

CONCLUSION: Individualism and Collectivism

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SERIES

This is one in a series of Posts sketching HISTORIES OF FUTURES of American politics. The  series tries to identify processes that have run through most of American political history, continue today, and may well continue into the future.

This Post is the first of two on historical tensions within American political IDEOLOGY. This Post reports two COMMENTARIES on how American ideology got where it is today. The second Post will report recent political science RESEARCH on American ideology, past and present.

Earlier Posts outlined the succession of GENERATIONS in American politics (030316, 100323). Later posts will note REGIONS and LOCALITIES that still affect American politics, and trace the succession of REGIMES in American political development.  ____________________________________________________________________________

OVERVIEW

This Post uses two recent books on American ideology – one from the Right and one from the Left – to raise some large questions. What exactly do the Conservatism and Liberalism that allegedly inform current American politics consist in? How do the Right and Left differ in their answer to that question? Despite all the talk of “isms,” exactly what is the role of IDEAS in current American politics?

By way of Introduction, the Post begins with successive approximations to current cleavages in American political ideology. The first section than introduces the two recent books and provides necessary background on classic European ideologies and their American versions. The Body of the Post then notes the sequence of Episodes in the history of American ideology that the two books discuss – or don’t. The Conclusion comments briefly on the theme of Individualism versus Collectivism.

The book from the Right is Charles R. Kesler 2012 I am the change: Barack Obama and the crisis of liberalism, New York NY: Broadside Books, 2012, 276 pages. Kesler argues that the trouble with liberalism is that there is no end (either cessation or moral purpose) to the government spending and social change that Liberalism demands. Liberalism contains internal contradictions that Obama’s government activism is intensifying, perhaps soon causing Liberalism to collapse. Kesler assumes the availability of an alternative conservative ideology based on eighteenth century principles of natural rights and limited government. Whether you agree with him or not, Kesler’s close readings and detailed critiques of the political thought of the presidential founders of American liberalism are a real treat and a real challenge.  

The book from the Left is E.J. Dionne 2012Our divided political heart: The battle for the American idea in an age of discontent. New York: Bloomsbury, 325 pages. Dionne argues that, if Americans are divided philosophically, it is not BETWEEN political parties but WITHIN their own hearts, which harbor both Individualism and Collectivism. The Far Right is wrong to define “true” American ideology as exclusively Individualist. Americans have always embraced some combination of Individualism and Collectivism, except briefly during the Gilded Age (1870-1900), dominated by the Industrial Individualism of the then new national business elite. Dionne’s exposition of the history and philosophy behind current American ideological confrontations is a constructive contribution to current national dialogue. (For academic purposes, I would have organized the book differently and gone more deeply into relevant current literatures.)

As the Body of this Post outlines, Dionne touches on the following episodes in the history of American ideology. (Kesler treats some of the same later episodes, albeit from a very different point of view.) In the 1600s and 1700s religious Settlers and republican Founders brought pre-liberal, still largely Collectivist ideologies to America. In the early 1800s, Builders and Bankers used Collectivist government to assist their Individualist private entrepreneurship, while Strivers and Seekers pursued practical and philosophical variants of an emerging Individualism.  In the late 1800s, conservative Industrialists and Jurists temporarily established a draconian Industrial Individualism as the dominant national ideology. Populists and Progressives reacted by promoting Collectivist reforms. These paused in the 1920s.

Franklin Roosevelt changed the name of Progressivism to “Liberalism” and labelled his Classical Liberal opponents “Conservative” (implying “illiberal” or ungenerous). Thus Collectivist American Liberalism resumed its rise in Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. It rose still further under Johnson’s 1960s Great Society. For their part, in the 1950s Conservatives began “fusing” their traditionalist and libertarian wings. By the 1980s under Reagan, Conservatives succeeded in stopping Liberalism’s momentum. By the 2000s, Liberals had re-embraced Collectivism, which Conservatives increasingly rejected.

This Post fits into a series on Histories of Futures because, in arguing over the Future, these two authors revisit so much of the History of American ideology, in order to establish the legitimacy of their ideological claims. Not very familiar to most Americans, and certainly not to most Chinese! But necessary to understand in order to make such ideological sense as can be made out of current American politics.

INTRODUCTION:  APPROXIMATING  CURRENT  CLEAVAGES

Before returning to our two books, let’s zero in on the current landscape of American ideology from which they emerge.

As a FIRST APPROXIMATION, the ideological argument in current American politics is between Conservatism and Liberalism (defined below). In this version, both ideologies contain a spectrum of positions, some of them moderate. Constructive dialogue remains possible, at least between the moderates on the two sides. A prominent national example is the short friendly exchange on National Public Radio every Friday afternoon between moderate liberal E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and moderate conservative David Brooks of the New York Times.

However, a SECOND APPROXIMATION reveals that dialogue between moderates is not really the main ideological confrontation in current American politics. The main confrontation is between liberals of any kind and conservatives of the Far Right (radical Conservatives). That is the confrontation represented by the Dionne and Kesler books. Kesler might object to being called Far Right. Certainly he is more erudite, thoughtful, and articulate than most Tea Partiers or the politicians who represent them. Nevertheless, he provides a sophisticated ideological rationale for the current Far Right position, whose main preoccupation is limiting the power of the federal (in their view NOT “national”) government.

A THIRD APPROXIMATION would further distinguish between more varieties of both conservatism and liberalism. It is easy to do that in POLITICAL terms. For example, Democrats who come from electoral districts populated mostly with liberals can afford to be more liberal than Democrats who come from districts with significant numbers of conservatives. However, it is hard to make further distinctions in IDEOLOGICAL terms without more background on modern Western ideologies. So below I provide some. Readers already familiar with Western ideologies may wish to skip that section (1.2) and proceed directly to the sections below that on the development of American ideology.

AMERICAN  POLITICAL  IDEOLOGIES   1

We now return to the disagreements between Kesler and Dionne and to the European-American intellectual history from which they emerge.

Disagreements between Kesler and Dionne    1.1

Kesler’sI am the change tries to distill the essence of liberalism and argues that it is poisonous. Dionne’s Our divided political heart  tries to “rescue” the history of American ideology from the sort of account that Kesler presents, in order to re-establish some common ground for constructive discussion between liberalism and conservatism. The two books disagree profoundly. However, they do not argue directly with each other.

One of the main differences between the two books is which episodes in the historical development of American ideology they regard as canonical and which as pernicious. For the Far Right, what is canonical is the Founding 1787 Constitution. What is pernicious is the emergence of Progressivism in the late 1800s and its development into American “liberalism” during the 1900s. Kesler claims that his Conservatism derives from the Founding. He doesn’t mention the Industrial Individualism of the late 1880s Gilded Age that current Far Right policies resemble.

For the Center Left, what is canonical is the whole history of American ideology, but particularly the history of Progressivism-Liberalism. What is pernicious is the emergence of Industrial Individualism in the late 1800s and its re-embrace by Far Right conservatism in the early 2000s.  Center Left Liberalism claims that it represents a canonical balance in historical American ideology between Individualism and Collectivism, whereas Far Right Conservatism now represents only a revived Industrial Individualism.

Arguably the main ideological disagreement between Kesler and Dionne is between LIMITED government as prescribed in the 1787 Constitution and a LIVING constitution that can evolve to meet the changing needs of society. Arguing against the idea of a living constitution, Kesler insists on LIMITED government that protects American LIBERTY and  INDIVIDUALISM. He contends that is what the American Founders intended to establish. Current Americans should adhere to that Constitutions, as originally written. Dionne explicitly embraces the idea of a LIVING constitution, saying that the Founders themselves regarded their 1787 Constitution as just a draft – rushed, rough, and much compromised – that would have to be modified as it went into practice. 

Classic European ideologies and their American Versions   1.2

As many Chinese know, the modern West has given rise to three main classic ideologies: Conservatism, Liberalism, and Radicalism. All three were reactions to the industrial and political revolutions that began in the 1700s. Those revolutions alarmed Conservatism, which in reaction reaffirmed allegedly traditional European institutions and values. Liberalism welcomed those revolutions and provided the intellectual rationales for the development of markets and democracy. Radicalism favored the revolutions, but thought they had not gone far enough, in the meantime producing many bad effects on society that require correction, mostly through government.

Again as many Chinese know, this “classic” European terminology has become scrambled in America.

CLASSIC  CONSERVATISM in Europe celebrated long national traditions of church, monarchs, and aristocracies. Lacking those, America has lacked national conservatism. Nevertheless, all American settlers brought with them some LOCAL traditions from the Old World that they continued to value in the New World. So, in America, the main locus of classic conservatism has been local traditions. Some of these have been good (religious community, local self-government) some of them bad (patriarchalism against women, slavery against Blacks). Surviving parts of those local traditions form the first or TRADITIONALIST strand in current American Conservatism.

CLASSIC  LIBERALISM in Europe challenged classic conservatism by espousing private property and competitive-markets, citizen liberties and competitive elections. In America classic liberalism emerged in the early 1800s and was installed as the dominant ideology of Industrial Individualism in the late 1800s, which Collectivist Populism and Progressivism quickly challenged in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1950s and1970s some American academics argued that some form of Individualist Liberalism had always been the ONLY ideology in America. Individualist Classic Liberalism now constitutes much of the second or LIBERTARIAN strand in current American conservatism.

CLASSIC  RADICALISM in Europe challenged both classic conservatism (as “aristocratic-feudal”) and classic liberalism (as “capitalist-bourgeois). It sponsored labor movements to try to reform capitalism into Social Democracy, or even overthrow capitalism in favor of communism. In America, in the late 1800s and early 2000s, capitalist elites succeeded in suppressing labor and preventing all-out Social Democracy. (Historians and social scientists dispute the exact reasons why there has been“no socialism in America.”) Nevertheless, the Great Depression allowed the adoption of some elements of Social Democracy under the rubric of American “Liberalism.” (Some earlier European forms of political radicalism entered America as republicanism, discussed below.) 

AMERICAN  DEVELOPMENT  OF  EUROPEAN  LIBERALISM   2

The earliest Settlers of America departed from England in the early 1600s, after the development of English religious Protestantism but before the late 1600s development of classic English political liberalism (Locke). By the mid-to-late 1700s, the American Founders had enthusiastically embraced Lockean political liberalism.  

1600s and 1700s: religious Settlers and republican Founders   2.1

The two centuries from 1600 to 1800 add still more classic “isms” to our roster and contribute still more strands to current American ideology.

RELIGIOUS  SETTLERS 

To make his case that America has always had Collectivist strands in its ideology, Dionne notes the utopian communitarianism of the Puritans, the first major wave of English settlers to arrive in Northeast America, in the 1630s (77).

(Dionne relies for this on one of the inspirations for his book, Robert N. Bellah and others 1985Habits of the heart : Individualism and commitment in American life.  Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 355 pages. In so doing Dionne neglects some acute recent scholarship illuminating the TENSION between Individualism and Collectivism in the Puritan settlements. Here a further twist is that earlier religious traditions provided ideas for later republican constitutionalism. (See Eric Nelson 2010 The Hebrew republic : Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought. Cambridge MA : Harvard University Press, 229  pages.)

CONSTITUTIONAL FOUNDERS

Dionne’s chapter (six) on the FOUNDERS argues against radical-conservative “originalism,” which reads late nineteenth century Industrial Individualism into the USA’s late eighteenth century constitution. Radical-conservative politicians regularly proclaim that just about any Individualist value they endorse was originally set forth in the Constitution, and therefore should be binding on Americans today. Refuting that, Dionne reports recent historical scholarship arguing that the Founders were profoundly republican (in the ancient-classical sense of Collective citizenship). Moreover, the Founders did NOT regard the Constitution as a timeless document containing eternal truth, but simply as a rough sketch of general ideas that would need to be elaborated in practice.

So dominant did Liberalism become in the USA in the late 1800s that it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that some American academics rediscovered that the Founders in the 1770s and 1780s had been strongly influenced by ANCIENT classical republicanism: the Greek and Roman ideal of an elite of leisured citizens deliberating about public matters (res publica). This sense of Collective responsibility for Collective matters is the main thing that Dionne is trying to “rescue” for current Liberals (and moderate Conservatives) from abandonment by Radical Conservatives.

Probably it is useless to ask whether classical republicanism was, in itself, Conservative, Liberal, or Radical, because classical republicanism, even in its early modern European revival, predates those modern western ideologies. Nevertheless, one can ask how Americans have USED classical republicanism. For the 1770s American REVOLUTIONARIES, republicanism was Radical, an ideological weapon against Monarchy (as for the English Revolutionaries in the early 1600s before them). This strand of radical anti-governmentalism has been picked up by the current populist Far Right in America. Indeed, insistence on LIMITED government is ostensibly the Far Right’s main concern and principal tenet.

For the 1780s American FOUNDERS, republicanism was partially Radical and partially Conservative. It was Radical to the extent that it provided institutions within which to contain and constrain the increased power of the central government that the regime change from Confederation to Federation entailed. This use of classical republicanism has been embraced by the current elitist Far Right in America, the lawyers of the Federalist Society who want to return the Constitution to its “original” federal condition. Again, insistence on LIMITED government is their main concern and principal tenet.

To the FOUNDERS, republicanism  was Conservative to the extent that it provided institutions within which to organize and contain the democratic energies unleashed by the American Revolution. Classical republicanism (rule by elites) had always feared pure democracy (rule by the people). That fear has become increasingly awkward for American republicanism as America has become more and more democratic. That may help explain the ambivalence about populism (any mass movement) and Populism (agrarian movements in the USA in the 1880s and 1890s), an ambivalence that Dionne discusses in his chapters on those movements (eight and nine).    

Early 1800s: Bankers, Builders; Strivers, Seekers   2.2

Dionne has a chapter (seven) arguing that vigorous use of the national government to promote private economic development, far from being a 1930s New Deal invention, occurred from the very beginning of the American Republic. Dionne cites Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Abraham Lincoln as leading examples. Dionne does not much mention vigorous opposition to such national initiatives by Thomas Jefferson’s and Andrew Jackson, among others. However, they too illustrate his point. Actually, Jefferson himself took great national initiatives, such as drastically increasing the size of the USA by buying the middle of North America from France. Jackson too countenanced government economic initiative, so long as it was conducted by states at the subnational level. (In noting the often overlooked activism of the nineteenth century American federal government, Dionne draws on Brian Balogh 2009 A government out of sight: The mystery of national authority in nineteenth century America. New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 414 pages.)

Dionne raises an important question: Is the relationship between different levels of social organization “zero sum” as evidently Radical Conservatives think, or “positive sum” as Progressives (and classic conservatives) maintain? Dionne’s subtitle to his Chapter Seven states his own position: “How strong government, strong individuals, and strong communities have supported each other.” Let’s call it “synergy of scale.”  As Dionne implies, the proposition works in reverse: Strong Communities cannot be built from Individuals with no commitments beyond themselves, making it imperative that ALL public policies foster good citizenship.

(Comparative political scientists long ago made the same point about relations between states and societies: Joel Migdal 1988,Strong societies and weak states: State-society relations and state capabilities in the Third World. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 296 pages. Joel S. Migdal,  Atul Kohli, and Vivienne Shue eds. 1994State power and social forces: Domination and transformation in the Third World. New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 333 pages. Joel Migdal 2001State in society: Studying how states and societies transform and constitute one another. New York NY: Cambridge University Press, 291 pages.)

Dionne notes two variants of individualism in the early nineteen century. In the 1820s and 1830s, in the context of rising industry and commerce, middle-class STRIVERs first explicitly embrace the idea of Individualism and the concomitant American Dream of upward mobility for individuals. In the 1830s and 1840s, in the context of the Transcendental philosophical movement (which Dionne does not mention), SEEKERS propound the ideal of Individuals retreating to commune with Nature (before rejoining a Community of other “purified” individuals, as Dionne also does not mention).

FROM  EUROPEAN  LIBERALISM  TO AMERICAN  “LIBERALISM”   3

Kesler spends most of his book tracing the origins of modern American “liberalism” in the Progressive thought and practice of Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Kesler argues that Progressive-Liberal ideology contains both ideological and practical CONTRADICTIONS that Democratic president Barack Obama has now inherited, embraced, and intensified. That is, the policies that Obama is pursuing are now intensifying those contradictions, perhaps leading to liberalism’s imminent collapse.

Late 1800s - early 1900s: Industrialists, Judges; Populists, Progressives   3.1

Dionne has a chapter (two) on the politics of history which makes the general point that politics and history always interact. His main example is how, from the 1960s, the rise of the Black civil rights movement in the 1960s produced a reinterpretation of the role of Blacks in post-Civil War Reconstruction in the 1860s. In turn, the reinterpretation of Blacks’ role in Reconstruction encouraged the Black civil rights movement. Around 1900, Southern historians had managed to persuade most Americans that Reconstruction had failed because 1860s Blacks had not been up to the tasks of self-government. The 1960s reinterpretation of Reconstruction showed that Blacks were then quite competent and active: It had taken a Southern campaign of terror to suppress them. (Here it is disappointing that Dionne does not cite the excellent recent political science by Richard Valelly in his 2004The two reconstructions: The struggle for Black enfranchisement. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 330 pages.)

In the late 1880s, industrial and judicial elites succeeded in installing an extreme Industrial Individualism as the dominant official national American ideology. Although it prevailed only temporarily at that time, Industrial Individualism now forms the main strand of current Far Right conservatism, which claims that it is America’s ONLY ideological tradition. Dionne wants to rescue the history of American ideology from that claim, insisting that American ideology has ALWAYS contained both Individualism and Collectivism. He claims that that has been true, not only for American liberalism, but also – until very recently – for American conservatism as well.

Dionne has a chapter (eight) on POPULISTS, recalling those 1880s-1890s mid-Western agrarian movements, which protested what they saw as their victimization by Eastern urban financiers and industrialists. Those movements contributed to American Collectivism – not so much philosophically as by putting political force behind Collectivist aspirations. But not enough force: They never succeeded in electing their three-time national presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Nevertheless, Populists did win many elections at the state and local level. Dionne argues that they failed nationally because they did not link up with the urban MIDDLE class that was then embracing Progressivism which,  like Populism, was Reformist and Collectivist.

(Here Dionne does not note recent scholarship showing that the agrarian Populist Greens DID link up with urban Reds: labor movements among the urban LOWER class. Bryan’s anti-urban rhetoric was not, as Dionne implies, the whole story. Their alliance with the urban lowwer class  may explain why agrarian Populists COULD NOT have allied with the urban middle class, many of whom were afraid of the urban lower class. Dionne stipulates that, for any American political cause, the middle class is an indispensable ally. That MAY be true, but remains to be explained. At around the same time, Scandinavian countries were moving toward social democracy precisely through alliances of rural Greens and urban Reds. (On the urban alliance of American rural Populists, see Elizabeth Sanders 1999Roots of reform: Farmers, workers, and the American state, 1877-1917. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 532 pages.)  

Dionne has a chapter (nine) on PROGRESSIVES which argues that urban middle class Collectivists succeeded in allying with rural agrarian causes by reframing the Populists concerns in terms more acceptable to the urban middle class. Republican president William McKinley even succeeded in allying with urban workers, by endorsing their desire for prosperity (in his slogan promising “a full dinner pail”). That’s how McKinley got elected twice. When he was assassinated early in his second term, his vice president Theodore Roosevelt took over as president. In the course of the 1900s and 1910s, TR evolved from “a  reformist conservative into a full-fledged progressive and then, during his 1912 third-party presidential campaign, into something of a radical” (215).

Both Republican Roosevelt and his 1912 Democratic rival for president Democrat Woodrow Wilson were Progressives. However, their progressivisms differed, in ways that remain relevant today. Roosevelt’s New Nationalism considered the concentration of the economy under large corporations inevitable, and proposed to use strong government to regulate the corporations. Wilson’s New Freedom called for breaking up economic conglomerates to encourage competition between smaller businesses. Even though Roosevelt and Wilson proposed different solutions, both thought some strengthening of Collectivism was necessary to balance Industrial Individualism.

KESLER’s approach to the Populist-Progressive period is a very long chapter critiquing the political thought in the writings and speeches of Woodrow Wilson. The chapter occupies almost a third of Kesler’s book and is almost twice as long as Kesler’s chapters on Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. The reason for the length is that Kesler believes it was Wilson who laid the ideological basis for Progressivism (and later Liberalism) through his drastic critique of the 1787 Constitution’s design of checks-and-balances within a basically congressional government. Wilson argued instead for a more purposeful and powerful national government led by the president. Kesler strongly opposes any such critique and revision.

Wilson knew that his new design would require that the president exercise great oratorical skills of mass persuasion. Wilson himself achieved the extraordinary feat not only of great academic success with his political analyses (he became president of Princeton University) but also of great political success in actually implementing his new design (he became a president of the United States for two terms). No other president since the Founders has come to office with a thoroughly thought-out constitutional design that he has then proceeded to implement.

Kesler admires Wilson’s accomplishment, but completely disapproves of it. First, in Kesler’s view, Wilson had no business in effect amending the American Constitution without going through the procedures the Constitution specifies for such amendments. Second, Wilson’s new design upset the Constitution’s checks-and-balances, raising the possibility of untrammeled executive power (even though Wilson himself remained a dutiful democrat). Third, Wilson’s “good government” Progressivism tended to replace rule by democratically elected politicians with rule by technocratic experts, most of them from academia. 

And those are only Kesler’s DOMESTIC objections to Wilson! Kesler also portrays Progressivism (and therefore later Liberalism) as from the beginning a foreign import (mostly from Germany) with totalitarian-determinist overtones (from Hegel). Kesler says that the whole idea of Progress in Progressivism derived from a cross between Hegel’s theory of the Rational progress of History and a social interpretations of Darwin’s theory of evolution. (One might add the idea of Progress in English Whig political history.) The carriers of those foreign theories were the American academics who studied at German universities and imitated those universities when they established the first American research universities.

Ultimately, argues Kesler, a scheme that posits a definite direction for History and that places the realization of that direction under the administration of academically trained experts, preempts the Liberty of ordinary citizens to choose their government and its policies. All of this provides sophisticated grounding for the crude sneering by conservative politicians at foreign “socialist” influences on American politics carried by East Coast university intellectuals.

1930s and 1960s: Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society  3.2

Dionne (chapter nine) briefly traces what he claims was a Long Consensus on a need for balance between Individualism and Collectivism, lasting from 1890s Progressivism through the 1930s New Deal to the Republican presidents after 1980. About Franklin Roosevelt, Dionne stresses his moderation and the rapid shift from the direct bureaucratic activism of the early New Deal to the more indirect Keynesian approach of the later New Deal. The upshot, Dionne stresses, was not to expropriate anyone’s property but to lay the foundation for the broadly propertied society of the post-war period.

About later Republicans, Dionne stresses that they remained mostly within the Long Consensus. The archetype Reagan, for example, was in principle committed to “rolling back” New Deal government and did in fact “deregulate” as much as possible. Nevertheless,, in practice, Reagan left most New Deal social programs in place. Later Republican presidents even added to them. As a result, current radical-conservatives need strong ideological rationales for their renewed attempt to shrink Big Government.

So let us turn to Kesler’s trenchant critique of the New Deal and Great Society. Above we have just seen Kesler’s objections to Wilson’s POLITICAL achievement of some regime shift from congressional toward presidential government. Kesler is equally critical of Roosevelt’s CONSTITUTIONAL innovations. Kesler argues that what – through sheer force of personality –  Roosevelt succeeded in doing was to substitute the Bill of Rights for the rest of the Constitution. That is a striking insight and helps explain why the second half of the 1900s became increasingly a politics of “rights.” Moreover, the reasons for Kesler’s objections to that politics of rights and entitlements help explain why the 2012 Republican presidential candidate distinguished between Makes and Takers in the American population.

Kesler’s posits a fundamental difference between the body of the 1787 Constitution and the addendum of the later 1791 Bill of Rights. The Constitution itself is based on eighteenth century Natural Law that endows individuals with NATURAL RIGHTS that are inalienable but also rather limited – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. Such rights are not “granted” by government or society, they are inherent in all individuals. One has a Natural Right not to be killed (Life) and a Natural Right not to be enslaved (Liberty). And, according to Locke, one has a Natural Right to any Property that one has earned through some human contribution that transforms natural resources into usable goods – to anything that one has Made. But no rights beyond those! So a central pillar of Constitution based on Natural Rights is that no-one can take your property away from you without constitutional procedures. Very convenient for the late nineteenth century plutocrats who used that principle to prevent government “taking”!

In Kesler’s view, the rights in the Bill of Rights are fundamentally different from the rights assumed within the Constitution itself. (Others might argue that the Bill of rights protects the same Natural Rights assumed by the body of the Constitution, just more explicitly.) A major historical precedent for the 1791 American Bill of Rights was the 1689 English Bill of Rights, an act of parliament that spelled out the rights that Parliament and Protestants would enjoy under the rule of their newly-arrived Dutch Protestant monarchs. In both the 1689 and 1791 cases, Kesler implies, the rights involved were largely based not on universal Natural Law but on English Common law. That law is not based on universal Natural principles, but instead is simply a codification of what English courts have done over the centuries – legal precedents that the American settlers were happy to follow. (One might add that both Bills of Rights were based also on political bargaining: They were reassurances given to parties who had agreed to a political settlement that they might otherwise have been reluctant to accept.)

In any case, the point about such SOCIAL RIGHTS is that they ARE granted by society, usually through government. Therefore they depend on the ideals, resources, state of development, and even whims of the society or government granting them. If they can be given, they can be taken away. And they can be EXPANDED indefinitely! Making them, in Kesler’s view, unsustainable.

Kesler strenuously objects, not only to the substance of Roosevelt’s constitutional revisions, but also to how Roosevelt went about making them. By good leadership, yes, but also by guile. Roosevelt always pushed Wilson’s presidential “leadership” as far as he could. Obviously Roosevelt advocated Activist Government, but for that very reason he went out of his way to avoid being associated with America’s first such advocate, Alexander Hamilton. Instead, Roosevelt sought association with America’s first main advocate of Small Government, Thomas Jefferson. That Roosevelt succeeded in establishing siuch a connection makes Kesler apoplectic because, in his view, Roosevelt’s constitutional revisions were not at all Jeffersononian but rather the opposite, Wilsonian.

“no natural individuals, no natural rights, no original social contract, no right of revolution, but a gradual evolutionary process from autocracy to democracy, from no individual rights to a full panoply of them, mirroring the historical unfolding of society itself. The repudiation of Jefferson could hardly have been more complete.” (128)

To add injury to insult, the one right that Roosevelt downplayed was the right to Property, the right most pivotal to the Lockean principles on which late 1800s Industrial Individualism rested.

Kesler regards Wilson, Roosevelt, and Johnson as having launched three successive waves in the construction of Liberalism. The first wave was distinctively political, the second distinctively economic, and the third distinctively cultural. Obviously Kesler does NOT mean that the second and third waves did not involve more political tinkering, since he devotes so many pages to denouncing Roosevelt’s political revisions. Evidently what Kesler DOES mean is that the second and third waves added new dimensions of dysfunction to the Liberal Project – seeming to further it, but in fact making it increasingly unsustainable.

Kesler regards the unsustainability of the ECONOMIC largesse of the New Deal as straightforward: from the beginning, and all along, Liberals did not know how they were going to pay for all the new economic benefits they were promising. More interestingly, Kesler directs attention to a new CULTURAL dimension in Johnson’s Great Society. Having put an economic floor under everyone, Johnson went on to try to raise everyone’s cultural ceiling – to have the government help people achieve lives that were not just comfortable but also meaningful.

Kesler regards such a shift by government from “materialist” to “post-materialist” values as unsustainable because, once you start promising to help people achieve spiritual fulfillment, there can be no limit to the demands on government. Besides, it’s not likely to work: People are likely to become disillusioned with “soulless bureaucracy.” At least that is how Kesler tells the story of the disillusion of Vietnam Era youth with Lyndon Johnson, and he with them. Many people think that the Great Society failed because of the Vietnam War. Kesler argues that the Great Society failed because of the Great Society itself.        

RECENT  DIVERGENCE IN AMERICAN  IDEOLOGY   4

Dionne has a chapter (four) showing how a faltering Individualist Liberalism re-embraced various versions of Community. In contrast, Dionne has a chapter (five) showing how an increasingly militant Individualist Conservatism increasingly rejected any form of Collectivism.

2000s: Liberals re-embrace Collectivism   4.1

Dionne (chapter four) argues that, after Republicans had somewhat discredited Liberalism in the late 1900s,  by the early 2000s Liberals had re-embraced some Collectivism. They reacted both to internal doubts about Individualistic Liberalism and to external challenges from a revitalized Individualist Conservatism. One reaction was to rediscover the Collectivist republicanism of the Founders. (This is another example of an interaction between reinterpretations of the past and initiatives in the present that reinforce each other.) Another way was to further elaborate Collectivism. Contributors included both liberal politicians (Clinton) and liberal academics (Selznick, Etzioni, Walzer, Sandel, Putnam).

2000s” Conservatives reject Collectivism   4.2

On the conservative side (Dionne chapter five), from the 1950s William Buckley had used his conservativeNational Review to “fuse” traditional conservatism (which emphasized Collectivism) with libertarian conservatism (which emphasized Individualism). In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, while promoting Individualism, was always careful to embrace Collective values as well (neighborhood, family, religion, and tradition). Some conservative intellectuals continued to articulate the Collective side of conservatism (Nisbet, Will, Kirk, Berger & Neuhaus, Schambra, Gerson).

Even among religions groups, conservative Collectivism dwindled and conservative Individualism throve. Old Social Gospel evangelicals devoted to social causes gave way to Fundamentalist evangelicals preoccupied with personal salvation. Among politicians, a “last gasp” of Collectivist conservatism was George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiative” (having church groups perform government functions) and “compassionate conservatism” (using government to encourage people to reform themselves, not society).

By the 2000s, the field was open to the radical-conservatism financed by petroleum millionaires and advocated by the Tea Party movement. Philosophically, “conservatism became a creed devoted to low taxes and less business regulation – and little else.” (120)

CONCLUSION:  INDIVIDUALISM  VERSUS  COLLECTIVISM

Anyone interested in the theme of Individualism versus Collectivism – particularly in American ideology, but elsewhere as well – might find Dionne’s book a useful place to start. Americans who may have been misled by recent polemical ideological simplifications might be reminded of the complexity of their own ideological history. Republicans who object to government action might be reminded that the name of their own party (“res publica” or “public matters”) refers to Collective civic concerns. Democrats who reject Republican opposition to government action might be reminded that such Individualism is a central American tradition – particularly in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian origins of their own party.

Chinese who like to think of themselves as Collectivist and of Americans as Individualist might learn from Dionne that Americans are more Collectivist than Chinese may think. My own take is that, in practice, Americans and Chinese are about equally Individualistic and Collectivist. The difference is that Chinese consider it appropriate in ALL public utterances to stress the Collectivism, either of themselves or of others. Conversely, Americans too somewhat stress their Individualistic side – at least in one person’s characterization of ANOTHER. But anyone who has heard the post-victory utterances of American sports stars (“It wasn’t I who won for the team, it was the whole team struggling together”) knows that Americans too require much Collectivism in public utterances about ONESELF.

AUTHORS

E.J. Dionne is a (very famous) liberal Washington journalist and frequent media commentator (for example, in brief exchanges late Friday afternoon on National Public Radio with conservative commentator David Brooks). He has an engaging personality, a lively mind, and a sterling education, having gone from Harvard to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. Dionne has written many books on American politics. The most famous was his 1991 Why Americans hate politics, which argued that political polarization was alienating a centrist majority that therefore remained silent. Dionne loves the best current scholarship on American history, reads the best current philosophers of American ideology, and brings both to bear in his 2012 book. 

Charles Kesler is a (not very famous) conservative California professor of government (Claremont McKenna College). He once collaborated with William F. Buckley. Jr., the founder of postwar American conservatism. Kesler dedicates his book to Buckley and concludes the book with the title of Buckley’s 1961 book, Up from liberalism. (By that title Buckley meant that the USA mustn’t sink any lower into then-dominant liberalism and instead must begin a long climb upward toward conservatism.) Kessler’s 2012 book is a critique of liberalism, not an exposition of conservatism.

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THE SCHEME OF THIS BLOG

DIMENSIONS OF POSTS

Importance of Post: ***** Big development. **** Small development. *** Continuing trend.

Scope of  Post:  USA only. USA-PRC. USA-other.

Type of Process:  Elite power struggle. Elite policy politics. Mass participation.

Type of Treatment:  Current commentary. Comprehensive background. Academic analysis.

DIMENSIONS OF POLITICS

Policy  Sectors:  Security. Economy. Identity

Spatial  Levels:  Supranational. National. Subnational

Temporal  Periods:  Shortrun. Midrun. Longrun

STANDARD  TOPIC  TAGS (BIAOQIAN)

SECURITY

Defense

Diplomacy

Intelligence

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Homeland security

State coercion: Police & Prisons

Citizen violence: Collective riots & Individual harm

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MIDRUN (Foreseeable future)

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Parameters

LONGRUN (History, evolution)

American political development

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