Liberalism in America: A Note for Europeans

by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.


from: The Politics of Hope (Boston: Riverside Press, 1962)
More on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.;
Schlesinger's "The New Mood in Politics", also from The Politics of Hope.
In a sense all of America is liberalism. "The great advantage of the American," Tocqueville wrote over a century ago, "is that he has arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution and that he is born free without having to become so." With freedom thus a matter of birthright and not of conquest, the American assumes liberalism as one of the presuppositions of life. With no social revolution in his past, the American has no sense of the role of catastrophe in social change. Consequently, he is, by nature, a gradualist; he sees few problems which cannot be solved by reason and debate; and he is confident that nearly all problems can be solved. It is characteristically American that every war in American history has been followed by an outburst of historical "revisionism" seeking to prove that the war was unnecessary.

It is this birthright liberalism of American society which justified the European political thinkers two centuries ago who saw in America the archetype of primal political innocence. Here, at last, men were free to inscribe their own aspirations in society without the clog or corruption of the accumulated evils of history. "In the beginning," as Locke put it, "all the world was America." This was, of course, an overstatement, since no American could escape the history he brought with him from Europe, any more than he could escape the peculiar stamp of the American experience, especially the ever-receding frontier. But, though extreme, the view was not entirely misleading. The American tabula rasa may not have been totally blank; but it lacked one determining phenomenon in particular of the European scene -- that is, feudalism. As a young American political scientist, Professor Louis Hartz of Harvard, has brilliantly argued in his recent book The Liberal Tradition in America, the absence of feudalism is a basic factor in accounting for the pervasive liberalism of the American political climate.

The absence of feudalism meant the absence of a static and confining social order, and it meant equally the absence of a profound social passion to uproot and destroy that order. It deprived America simultaneously of traditions of reaction and of revolution. The American Revolution was thus a revolution of limited liability, aiming at national independence more than at social change. And since independence, American political conflict has taken place in an atmosphere -- sometimes felt rather than understood -- of consensus. The tensions of the French Revolution still vibrate in the Fourth Republic; but Thomas Jefferson could dispel most of the apprehensions of "the Glorious Revolution of 1800" by proclaiming in his inaugural, "We are all Republicans, all Federalists." There have been few periods of more embittered political feeling in America than the age of Andrew Jackson; but Tocqueville, seeing America in the perspective of France, could not but feel the differences between the Jacksonians and the Whigs to be superficial and trivial.

American historians have not always drawn so mellow a picture of American political history; but these historians, Mr. Hartz argues with some justice, have too often ignored the framework of consensus in their zest for conflict. American campaign oratory, Hartz warns, should never be taken for a sober description of issues; American partisan enthusiasm gives an air of violence to sham battles which the observer would nonetheless be sadly mistaken if he takes for war a l'outrance. And this combination of verbal violence and underlying accord further helps explain the semantic obscurity of American politics. Every one, in one mood or another, has claimed to be a liberal or a conservative -- even Franklin D. Roosevelt to be a conservative, even Herbert Hoover to be a liberal. Such words in the American consensus tend to be counters in a game rather than symbols of impassable divisions of principle.

Up to this point, Mr. Hartz is surely right. The American political tradition is essentially based on a liberal consensus. Even those Americans who privately reject the liberal tradition -- like the Communists of the '30's and '40's or the McCarthyites of the '50's -- can succeed only as they profess a relationship to liberalism. They wither and die in a liberal society when their antiliberal purposes are fully exposed and understood.

But this invocation of consensus does not perhaps tell the whole story. As historians of the '30's saw the American past too much in terms of conflict, so there is a danger that historians and political scientists today may see the past too much in terms of agreement.

For, however much Americans have united on fundamentals, there still remain sharp and significant differences -- the differences which divided a Jefferson from a Hamilton, a Jackson from a Daniel Webster, a William Jennings Bryan from a McKinley, a Franklin Roosevelt from a Hoover. Nor have those been local and fleeting differences. Rather they have been differences to which time has given a sense of continuity, so that two identifiable traditions have emerged in American politics, and the liberal tradition, at least, has been animated by a vigorous sense in each period that it is the bearer of a cause which stretches back to Jefferson and the beginning of the Republic. The conflict within the liberal consensus between "liberalism" and "conservatism" has been one of the sources of creativity and advance in American history. Any account of American politics which leaves it out impoverishes and distorts the American past.

The use of words like "liberalism" and "conservatism" immediately raises questions of definition. The absence of a feudal tradition, of course, has gravely affected the character of American "conservatism." It has deprived American conservatism of the instinct to be responsible as well as the instinct to kill, of both decorum and of terror, reducing it, on the whole, to expressions -- or, rather, ejaculations -- of individual or class self-interest. In recent years a school of New Conservatives has sought to rehabilitate the tradition of American conservatism. But, since many of the New Conservatives take positions on immediate issues which are closer to the views of American liberals than of American conservatives, the semantic confusion has only been compounded.

Accepting the theory of America as essentially a liberal society, how can one distinguish the liberal and conservative tendencies within that society? Some of the New Conservatives tell us that the liberal believes in the perfectibility of men, while the conservative has a conviction of human fallibility and of original sin. Yet no one has preached more effectively to this generation of the reality of human imperfection than the liberal (in politics, at least) Reinhold Niebuhr, while it was Andrew Carnegie, a conservative, who used to say of man that there was no "conceivable end to his march to perfection." And it would be hard to argue, for example, that the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the conservative, show a greater sense of the frailty of human striving or the tragedy of the human condition than those of the liberal Adlai Stevenson.

Similarly, it is difficult to believe that the crucial distinction lies in the attitude toward the role of the state. Thus the conservatives Alexander Hamilton and John Quincy Adams and the liberal Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed in advocating government direction of the economy, while the liberal Thomas Jefferson and the conservative Herbert Hoover agreed in wishing to limit the power of the state.

Nor does the distinction lie in the question of civil freedom. Some liberals have been majoritarians with a limited concern for the rights of minorities; some conservatives have been valiant defenders of the liberties of conscience and expression. Nor does it even really lie in the question of private property. While conservatives have been the more vigilant champions of private property, liberals have perhaps stood more consistently for the rights of property in Locke's original sense of a product of nature with which man mixes his labor.

All this ambiguity and even interchangeability of position testify once again to the absence of deep differences of principle in American society. "Each is a great half," wrote Emerson of the liberal and the conservative, "but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine." In elaborating on the character of each "great half," Emerson went on to define the diverging tendencies which liberalism and conservatism have embodied within the American consensus. His distinction, I think, is still useful today.

For Emerson the basic difference was between the party of the past and the party of the future, between the party of memory and the party of hope. It is still true that the American liberal believes that society can and should be improved, and that the way to improve it is to apply human intelligence to social and economic problems. The conservative, on the other hand, opposes efforts at purposeful change -- especially when they threaten the existing distribution of power and wealth -- because he believes that things are about as good as they can be reasonably expected to be, and that any change is more likely than not to be for the worse.

The liberal belief in working for change does not mean that he regards human reason as an infallible or incorruptible instrument, or that he thinks utopia is just around the corner. But it does mean that he feels that history never stands still, that social change can better the quality of people's lives and happiness, and that the margin of human gain, however limited, is worth the effort.

Nor will the conservative in all cases and occasions resist change. But he inclines to accept it only when the intellectual case for it is overwhelming and the political pressure for it irresistible. Up to that point, he clings stubbornly to that which he knows and to which he is habituated. "The castle which conservatism is set to defend," said Emerson, "is the actual state of things, good and bad."

Enough should have been said by now to indicate that liberalism in the American usage has little in common with the word as used in the politics of any European country, save possibly Britain. Liberalism in America has been a party of social progress rather than of intellectual doctrine, committed to ends rather than to methods. When a laissez-faire policy seemed best calculated to achieve the liberal objective of equality of opportunity for all -- as it did in the time of Jefferson -- liberals believed, in the Jeffersonian phrase, that that government is best which governs least. But, when the growing complexity of industrial conditions required increasing government intervention in order to assure more equal opportunities, the liberal tradition, faithful to the goal rather than to the dogma, altered its view of the state.

The process of redefining liberalism in terms of the social needs of the 20th century was conducted by Theodore Roosevelt and his New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson and his New Freedom, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Out of these three great reform periods there emerged the conception of a social welfare state, in which the national government had the express obligation to maintain high levels of employment in the economy, to supervise standards of life and labor, to regulate the methods of business competition, and to establish comprehensive patterns of social security. This liberal conception won, in a sense, its greatest triumph in the election o[ 1952 when the Republican party, as the party of conservatism, accepted as permanent the changes wrought in the American scene by a generation of liberal reform.

The ideological content of modern American liberalism has been less coherent than its political and administrative evolution. The two Roosevelts and Wilson were ideologists only in the broadest and loosest sense. Their oratory dealt in mood and in program rather than in philosophy; and, with inspired eclecticism, they drew on all types and sources for their ideas and policies. In the 1920's, however, a liberal ideology did begin to crystallize, deriving its main tenets from the philosophy of John Dewey and from the economics of Thorstein Veblen. Dewey, with his faith in human rationality and in the power of the creative intelligence, gave this ideological liberalism a strong belief in the efficacy of overhead social planning; and this bent was reinforced by Veblen, who detested the price system and the free market and thought that the economy could be far more efficiently and sensibly operated by a junta or soviet of engineers.

This liberal ideology, with its commitment to central governmental planning, was shattered, however, by the experience of the New Deal. Men in the Dewey-Veblen tradition tended to regard the New Dealers as hopeless improvisers and opportunists, engaged in the futile patching of an old system when they should have been consecrated to the triumphant creation of a new one. But in time it began to appear that the somewhat helter-skelter, catch-as- catch-can improvisations of the New Deal were more true to the helter-skelter, catch-as-catch-can conditions of American society than any rational central Gosplan could have been. What at first seemed the vices of pragmatism and expediency in the New Deal came later to be regarded as among its greatest virtues. (Pertinent references to John Dewey may be found in William Whyte's Organization Man.)

In this process, Dewey and Veblen lost their hold on American liberalism. They have been more or less replaced in recent years as guiding influences by Reinhold Niebuhr and John Maynard Keynes. Niebuhr, the neo-orthodox theologian, has provided a more realistic and searching picture of man than Dewey's image of a rational and cooperative planner. The Niebuhr restatement of the Christian conception of human nature has made it easier for the present generation to understand the suprarational extremities of cruelty and of sacrifice in this tragic century. And Keynes has made available a far more useful, flexible, and intelligent set of economic ideas than those of Veblen. The Keynesian emphasis on indirect controls -- on fiscal and monetary policy -- rather than on direct, physical, quantitative controls of the Veblen type has persuaded American liberalism that central economic management may be reconciled with the decentralization of decision and the technical advantages of a price system and a free market.

The broad liberal objective is a balanced and flexible "mixed economy," thus seeking to occupy that middle ground between capitalism and socialism whose viability has so long been denied by both capitalists and socialists. American liberalism, it should be emphasized, is antisocialist, where socialism retains its classical connotation of state ownership of the basic means of production and distribution. This is partly because American liberals doubt whether bases for political opposition and freedom can survive when all power is vested in the state; liberty, if it is to be guaranteed by anything but the self-restraint of the rulers, must have resources of its own inaccessible to the state. And the antisocialism of American liberals derives also from an estimate of the administrative difficulties of a socialist system. If substantial abundance and equality of opportunity can be achieved through a system of mixed enterprise, why throw up a rigid and oppressive structure of state bureaucracy? The humane, as distinct from the institutional, goals of socialism can be better achieved, American liberals feel, through diversifying ownership rather than concentrating it.

American liberalism believes that in this respect it has made a major contribution to the grand strategy of freedom. Where both capitalists and socialists in the 1930's were trying to narrow the choice to either/or -- either laissez-faire capitalism or bureaucratic socialism -- the New Deal persisted in its vigorous faith that human intelligence and social experiment could work out a stable foundation for freedom in a context of security and for security in a context of freedom. That faith remains the best hope of free society today.

Contemporary American liberalism thus has no overpowering mystique. It lacks a rhapsodic sense. It has jettisoned many illusions. Its temper is realistic, even skeptical. Its objectives are limited. It is mistrustful of utopianism, perfectionism, and maximalism. It abhors the maudlin sloganism of the popular front of the '30's. It refuses to believe that lofty aspiration excuses cruel oppression. In particular, it lacks patience for those who can pronounce societies "progressive" which develop huge and terrible systems of forced labor and deny freedom of expression and movement to the bulk of their populations.

Some Europeans feel that this realistic mood is an expression of weariness and defeat, if not a confession of cowardice. Yet American liberalism feels that realism is the source of strength, and that illusion, while productive of momentary enthusiasm, will be in the end a source of catastrophe. And American liberalism can point to concrete national gains even in the period of the cold war -- to the great strides toward achieving better opportunities for Negroes, to the maintenance of high levels of employment, to the extension of the system of social security, to the eventual defeat of Senator McCarthy; not to speak of such extraordinary world initiatives as the Marshall Plan and Point Four.

Even under a conservative administration, these liberal impulses will continue to have effect. Even the Republican party, on the whole, is "conservative" only in the special American sense. For all its tendencies toward ignorance and self-righteousness, that party is far from blind reactions and will, in the end, accept the arbitrament of reason and debate.

One can understand how the excesses of certain American politicians in recent years may have shaken world faith in the essential liberality of the American political tradition. Yet that tradition and its liberality rest on something deeper and solider than official rhetoric or pious hope. American liberalism, in the broad sense, is an expression of the total national experience -- a fact which will doubtless become evident to the world again when American liberalism, in the more restricted sense, returns to political power.

Back to American 1950s/English 285 home page.
Schlesinger's book The Vital Center expresses similar centrist views about liberalism.

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Go to Al Filreis's home page.

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Last modified: Monday, 02-Aug-2004 09:28:53 EDT