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The American Political Tradition

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A review of:

The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It

by Richard Hofstadter (New York: Random, 1989 [1948]);

and The Liberal Tradition in America

by Louis Hartz (London: Harcourt Brace, 1991 [1952]).

The social sciences generally present models of social engagement. Theoretical models develop explanations for transactions, inter-actions, power and the inequities observed in real life. Like the models presented by the physical sciences, our social science models need to be compelling, concise, consistent and durable over time. American political history, if it is to be rigorously analyzed with critical thinking, needs a theoretical model to explain its general trends, and there have been many models presented. These models have often been overwhelmed by a false sense of consensus.

English social philosopher John Locke (d. 1704) presented the most durable political model for the United States’ system of government and social interaction. His theory of a Social Contract existing between individuals under a moral system of Natural Law overturned the hierarchical and traditional view of political reality. Both the “divine right of Kings” and the concepts of class “estates” were rejected by John Locke. The developments in political theory since the 18th century have often given favored status to Locke. The inconsistencies between Locke’s approach and more recent theoretical approaches (concerning class status and structural conflict) were often ignored in reference to the United States (or seriously misunderstood) until the work of Louis Hartz. Hartz took a close look at the problem of U.S. “liberalism,” the capitalist Lockean norm.

Richard Hofstadter also engaged the American love affair with liberal, Lockean norms, and he showed that a malleable opportunism often drove political leaders to act. Hofstadter’s stress on contingent reaction and ad hoc compromise supports Hartz’s more sweeping assault on the nature of the traditional understanding of American politics.

Hofstadter is a durable classic on the American “pantheon” and a critical look at the United States’ political leadership. Hartz’s study is a more durable, challenging and compelling secondary source for post-graduate students of American political theory.

Jonathon Weiner’s “Radical Historians and the Crisis in American History, 1959-1980” (Journal of American History, Sept. 1989, p. 399) helps to explain the limitations and achievements in this period of political science. While Hofstadter takes a personal and human view of events, Weiner and Hartz show the larger forces at work. They critically engage the assumptions of bourgeois norms in America, and take the power of the liberal model and the historical failure of class solidarity in the U.S. as their themes.

After reading Hartz, Hofstadter looks almost quaint. His chapter “Andrew Jackson and the Rise of Liberal Capitalism” sheds light on the period, but Hartz goes farther with a more compelling approach, and shed light on even Hofstadter’s failings. Hofstadter is critical and debunks the “great man” approach to American history. (The “great man” theory as it is generally presented is a perversion of the theory originally submitted by Thomas Carlyle, who stressed “great ideas” as the dynamo behind all “great men.” Compelling concepts were the driving force behind the emergence of popular leaders, and an ad hominem approach risks ignoring the cultural matrix behind a Wellington, a Washington or a Lincoln—and the ideation which legitimized them.)

Hofstadter is probably guilty of the blind (or blinkered) reliance

on 18th century liberal theory that Hartz exposed. See Hofstadter on Lincoln:

“popular government is something deeper and more valuable than a mere system of political organization: it is a system of social life that gives the common man a chance (p.160).”

This is the Alger myth, a myth exploded by sociology since Comte and by the current understanding of class forces today. The reproduction of elite advantage is a more proper term for our form of government’s ‘system of social life.’

Louis Hartz sees the reality of 19th and early 20th century history stripped of the baggage of the Lockean myth, the myth of the self-made man rising up in a merit oriented world. Hartz engages more universal theories of class division, inequality and marginalization and he exposes the persistent failures of the liberal bourgeois model of government to “level” society, protect the disadvantaged, or relate to the outside world.

Hartz’ central contribution and consistent theme is the narrow and isolated nature of political theory in the United States. His approach is a comparative political analysis where the United States (for the first time?) is directly related to European models of civil conflict. The United States never experienced a true feudal or aristocratic age, and this is central to his comparison. The dynamics of class struggle, the identification between and among classes in Europe is contrasted to the persistent reluctance of Americans to wield power in true opposition to upper middle class “Whig” agenda.

American political tradition is seen as a triumph of one class, the upper middle class bourgeois. This ascendance has blinded the USA to very real and compelling political facts, and limited the ability of the nation to respond to crisis, engage with the outside world in an equitable manner or co-exist with different systems. Compare the quote above (Hofstadter on Lincoln) to Hartz’s analysis of Lincoln’s Republican Party of 1865:

“He democratizes an elite liberalism in the process of abolishing a ‘feudal reaction.’”

The lack of estates, the absence of Kings, lords, and loyal yeomen drove American political thinking into a cycle of elite co-options. Hartz’s theory explains the Republican Party’s control of US political forces from 1860 to the present. With no class estates to look back on, and no real sense of betrayal by the upper class, the American

worker was lulled into acquiescence, drawn by the ‘rags to riches’ myth of Horatio Alger into a combination with the hostile forces of big business. No true labor party, socialist program or class challenge contributed to the American political tradition. Louis Hartz thus explains the impotence of Progressive and Marxist ideas in the American political experience. While all this is probably a great comfort to our comfortable ‘burghers’ and a commonplace among entrepreneurs, Hartz sees a threat lurking. When he looks at the pervasive, all encompassing nature of Liberal Lockean thought in the States, he sees a great hole in the fabric of our political thought:

Now a sense of community based on a sense of uniformity is a deceptive thing. It looks individualistic, and in part it actually is. It cannot tolerate internal relationships of disparity … it is profoundly anti-individualistic, because the common standard [liberalism] is its very essence, and deviations from that standard inspire it with an irrational fright … Here we have the “tyranny of the majority” that Tocqueville later described in American life; here too we have the deeper paradox out of which it was destined to appear…at the bottom of the American Experience of freedom … there has always lain the inarticulate premise of conformity, which critics from the time of Cooper … have sensed and furiously attacked. ‘Even what is best in America is compulsory’ Santayana once wrote … the ironic flaw in American liberalism lies in the fact that we have never had a real conservative tradition (Hartz, pp. 56-57, italics added).

This is certainly a compelling, subtle and somewhat counter-intuitive (for an American) argument. Yet it explains—rather than bemoans—the failure of progressive thought to ever flower into a powerful and compelling U.S. social democratic movement.

Both Hartz and Hofstadter have weaknesses, and many are shared between them. The absolute absence of women is now apparent in both books. The unwillingness of either author to grapple with the political experience and potential of blacks, Native Americans and immigrants becomes more glaring as time passes. Hofstadter took a refreshingly human look at political leadership, and debunked a great amount of hagiography; the apologia of the U.S. pantheon was deflated and brought to ground. His blind spot was the same one that Hartz exposed, and his axiomatic acceptance of liberal Lockean norms becomes troubling when exposed to the contrasting ideas of his contemporary, Hartz. Hartz engages the structural and theoretical backdrop of political reality in a comparative world. Hofstadter gives agency to his individuals, but finds them circumscribed and steered by events. Neither author stresses the power of popular reaction and counter-moves which some would say is the systemic dynamic of the American debate.

Hartz presents a more concise and compelling political theory than Hofstadter, one that engages social classes and structural antecedents. Americans, with no aristocrats to resent and no estate (class) to defend, found themselves atomized and drawn into an individualist creed unknown to the European post-feudal reality. Hartz’s weaknesses are generally ones of style. He violates the first rule of scholarly writing on almost every page—the rule stating that the first and last name of every historical character must be stated in the first usage. His short-hand is reductive. His references to Burke, Lewis, Cooper, Holmes and Tucker are ambiguous and self-congratulatory. The political theories of say, Macaulay, cannot be accurately summed up in a one-word reference.

His subtlety often borders on the obtuse, and his genius is freighted with idiosyncrasy.

Whereas Hofstadter has written a great book, Hartz has constructed a powerful theory.

Edited by Shanet Clark
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Review of Robert H. Wiebe’s Self Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy

and Mary P. Ryan’s Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City

During the Nineteenth Century.

Perhaps these two books should exchange subtitles. Mary Ryan has given us a cultural history and Robert Wiebe addresses democracy and public life. Both

books are scholarly and well-supported and employ primary documents, and both

show a mastery of the secondary sources. Both works address a well established

theme in American history, how democratic traditions rapidly evolved and came to prominence in the nineteenth century—a subject familiar to readers of Alexis deTocqueville, George Bancroft and almost every U.S. political historian since.

A related journal article “Limits of Political Engagement in Antebellum America: A new look at the Golden Age of participatory democracy (JAH 12/97)” by Glenn Altschuler and Stuart Blumin adds to the debate on early democracy. Neither Wiebe nor Ryan attempt to revise the accepted tradition of a democratic golden age in the sweeping way Altschuler and Blumin do, but by bringing in cultural and theoretical constructs, the two books broaden and in some ways revise our views of nineteenth-century political participation. The article adds further to our insight. The principle contribution of Altsculer is to de-bunk the myth of an energized universal polity. By studying smaller political units, they found that participation was not as great as the tradition assumes, and that elites mobilized local voters, who acted grudgingly, and perfunctory institutional engagement was more common than once thought, in democracy’s “golden age.”

Many links can be found between the three works. The development of professional organizations drew upper-middle-class activists up and out of broader party activities after the Civil War, according to Altschuler, something also seen in Ryan. In a related way, municipal public service replaced volunteer civic efforts as the century wore on—as fire, road maintenance and police functions became professionalized, local political participation saw a corollary decline (Altschuler, 876). As Parties became more professionalized and only ‘represented’ the former volunteer public citizens, the public withdrew from more direct involvement, and the golden age of democracy waned.

Altshuler questions the depth and engagement of the “golden age” of public democracy, and encourages us to judge participation by more critical standards. The pressure to vote, the public spectacles, and the high voter turnout are not seen as absolute markers of broad and deep political engagement. Altschuler broadens our perception through solid methodology, although their conclusions are probably overstated.

Political and cultural theories of participation are used by both Ryan and Wiebe to explain the rise and fall of mass democracy in the U.S. between the 1820s and the 1880s.

Mary Ryan is correct in pointing to the revolution in print (cheaply available for the first time in the Victorian mid-century) as one factor in unprecedented participation. Wiebe is on very strong grounds when he shows us the legal demolition of both indenture and apprenticeship in the 1820-1840 era as a watershed for popular political participation.

Wiebe has immersed himself in theories of class and labor. His citation of J. Habermas in the evolution of public space is nicely complemented by his linking of democracy to a sense of one’s ownership of one’s own body—this gets to the roots of the change in authority and self-directed advocacy as seen in the Jacksonian period. Mary Ryan also engages cultural theories, especially control of public spaces and a new sense of self-directed advocacy, in her study of participation in three major U.S. cities of the period.

Wiebe follows in the wake of Tocqueville as he shows us the leveling of American society in the post-colonial period. European travel reports showed a total breakdown in the cultural traditions of obeisance, and in ways often repellant and absurd to old world chroniclers. The rough and tumble eye-gouging, the tobacco spit, the common housing and board norms of the urban and frontier spaces certainly point to a democratic, or non-hierarchical, age. Writers who don’t fit the pattern are slyly derogated, one source, Harriet Martineau, found relatively clean and wholesome travel in the frontier areas. Her witness is graded skeptically by Wiebe, who stresses the more common “Barbarian” theme (58) presented by European visitors.

While Wiebe is on solid ground for most of his exposition, his trust in new cultural theories may come at the expense of a fully-grounded traditional political understanding of things. Certainly there are weak spots in his understanding of partisan divides and party agendas. Like so many other political historians of this period (John William Ward, Richard Hofstadter, James Rourke) he tends to miss the authoritarian impetus of the Jacksonians and underplay the legitimate democratic efforts of the Whig opposition. His conflation of the campaign of 1840 with the 1841-1845 administration confuses Harrison with Tyler—and real party conflict with an assumed hegemony that was not there at all.

In a similar way, he misunderstands the relations of the Whig Party to its constituent wing, the Anti-Masons, misplacing the hostility toward Masonic secrecy (it came from the ‘aristocratic’ Whigs, not the ‘democratic’ Democrats). His references to the ‘Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men’ agenda shows a limited understanding of the economic theories of self-determination as they captured the popular mind. The Whigs absorbed large numbers of northern Democrats when this economic theory of labor emerged, and the Democrats simultaneously became the party of entrenched authority, foreign expansion, slavery and intolerance. By 1852, the post-Whig Republican Party was a stronger advocate of universal participation than the over-celebrated party of Jackson, Van Buren, Pierce and Buchanan.

Wiebe is at his best when dealing with race and gender factors. His subtle and articulate theory of “Ins and Outs” shows a mastery of that aspect of nineteenth-century history. While overwhelmingly racist and sexist, the universal rhetoric of native democracy gave footholds to women and blacks, which, when rejected, point to core problems of hypocrisy and intolerance in the “Golden Age.” Wiebe brings great erudition to his analyses of the women’s demands, the free blacks’ situation and the nature of slavery in a democracy. Wiebe never forgets to caveat the essential white male aspects of the broad democracy, and he doesn’t make the time-worn mistake of seeing this era as a universally empowered polity, but rather a fractured and divided one.

These three works all lead us to question the meaning of democracy and its relationship to cultural public communication. Mary Ryan shows us broadly supported civic organizations claiming public spaces (and a public voice) in New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. Her cultural approach strongly favors urban events, and is of little value in estimating the engagement of rural voters in the period. She tends to see Hofstadter-type pragmatism at work in policy making, and reveals a growing authoritarianism in the civic groups as the century wears on. Her expose of nativist vigilantism is a welcome addition to partisan theory, and her willingness to add counter-intuitive interpretations to the meaning of public parades and demonstrations shows a firm grasp of the complexities behind public political participation.

All three works seem to undervalue a pertinent factor—economic standards of living. The golden age of democracy in the early mid-century is inextricably linked to rising economic conditions. The steamboat, which revolutionized rural farm markets on a riparian transport matrix, is never mentioned. The railroad, which competed with and largely replaced the steamboat by the 1850s, is equally absent. Cheap land, the great leveling factor, is mentioned but not fully stressed. The pervasiveness of self-determined work is mentioned in an abstract way that fails to fully contrast the antebellum steamboat and rail markets to the industrial ‘core-periphery’ system of the post-war era which followed. Given that real frontier families saw the period of the steamboat as a golden age (before the Civil War and its post-war depressions) the economic moment must be more firmly linked to the political moment. Literacy, enthusiasm over the new voter suffrage policies—in its first generation—and the development of canals and roadways are all ignored. While Wiebe has an interesting concept of three classes emerging, (a national class, a local middle class and a working class), I am not convinced this rises to level of class distinction as understood by sociologists. In developing class theory, demographic induction must precede conceptual deduction.

By the 1850’s a golden age of universal white male political engagement, the period of rampant democracy, was waning. Although not a political historian, Mary Ryan shows the fissures best. The racism and intolerance of the nativists and vigilantes show an appalling moral vacuum in the center of the democratic fabric. Louis Hartz would point to blind and blinkered allegiance to bourgeous “liberal” norms being another flaw that would continue to undermine responsible and responsive government. Wiebe sees a vague shift toward a new national class of elites. Altschuler shows us a “a grammar of corruption” and a Barnum “humbug” emerging to tarnish American democratic traditions. Mary Ryan sees self appointed nativists and vigilantes playing a large role in the end of the ‘golden age.’ All are correct, and all have limits. Until cultural history, political partisan history and economic/geographic models are all brought to bear on the question, the mystery of how engaged the American Victorians were and what happened to slow this engagement will remain an open and unsolved question.

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Review of Lawrence Goodwyn's THE POPULIST MOMENT and


Populism is a political concept directly applicable to the period of 1880-1900 and is the subject also of much debate in the discussion of the twentieth-century American political tradition. With its core on the recently settled plains, populism spread to the south, the Midwest and with unease, into the laboring populations of the US cities. As the rural agrarian political counterpoint offered to early concentrated industry, populism is still a compelling theme for the historian. With its provocative and prophetic insistence on “inflationary” non-metallic U.S. currency, and its precedent-setting

co-operative system of sub treasuries, it linked Jeffersonian agrarian focus with a 20th century approach to commodity support and labor regulation.

Populism quickly grew and spread from its Texas Plains core, peripherally encompassing a greater stretch of the terrain and consciousness of the polity until the late 1890’s. Its uncompromising critique of the status quo is vituperative and inflammatory, and its intent was revolutionary. Its identity, where one is made manifest, is a non-elite. The Victorian traditions of frontier free land claims, penny press and vocal persistence of the Jefferson Jackson myth allowed for America’s most radical and sustained political movement, one centered on market reforms, credit reforms and financial reforms. In many ways the program foreshadowed the New Deal, in positing the federal enforcement powers behind redistributive and broadly wrung economic wealth enhancing policies.

With the credit system and distribution lines blocked by regional merchants and national railroad interests, the policy of the People’s Party was motivated by liberal self-interest and community development. Sub treasuries were envisioned to carry grain and cash balances throughout a year’s cycle and end the withering failure of foreclosure due to mercenary usury and marketing costs. Where the regulation sought Populism saw railroad ownership by the government, the British system, the new Deal did in fact place limits on rail commodity rates and regularize credit. Currency was reformed in the 1930s and the Gold Standard was finally severed in the USA by President Nixon in 1971.

The historiological debate becomes whether to champion and promote the spirit of populism in your writings, or to attempt unbiased analysis. Proponents of populism, such as Lawrence Goodwyn (The Populist Moment: Oxford,1978) serve one purpose.

Following the thread of language and rhetoric throughout all its varied and articulated machinations, Michael Kazin (The Populist Persuasion: Cornell, 1995) serves another purpose.

What are the approaches of each?

Mr. Goodwyn and Mr. Kazin complement each other through stereoptic synthesis. We can see where the Populists were originally oriented, their habitus and mentalitie as Pierre Bourdieu would say, in Goodwyn. Goodwyn explains their political program in detail, furnishing short biographies and correspondence, from the point of view of an empathetic, sympathetic and motivated populist adherent. We then see the pathways of linguistic rhetoric these core threads and beliefs (centered in their own time) took on in the reaction and progress cycle of twentieth century politics. Kazin takes us into the verbal joisting, patriotism, isolation, union disintegration and immigration issues, and how Populist Peoples Party tradition was invoked on the continuing industrialization system by actors in the twentieth century. With both books, one can trace a progress from 19th century American farm class opposition into the “Redneck goes National” section on George Wallace, in 1968. Kazin has a journalistic view of Ross Perot and Bill Clinton, as well, but these are epilog; Kazin ends his central political discussion of Populism with George Wallace and white racism.

Kazin also gives a great overview of the conservative and populist struggles for the mind of the American Catholic. The relationship of the bourgeois Cold War American Catholic and the other institutions of the time make for interesting reading. Kaazin is very strong on the character of McCarthy, his subconsciously compelling traits driving him to popularity in the wake of the arming of the Soviet Union and the fall of China to international Communism. What effects did this have on the political rhetoric of the National Review, the American Legion and the international corporate elites?

Mr. Goodwyn is not so contemporary, but neither is he so burdened. His program for subtreasuries, cash greenbacks, railroad state ownership, county based farm credit and curbs on merchants and railroads -- these really are Goodwyn’s programs, as his history sells the strong points of the long-gone situation. While this builds a sense of mastery and understanding in the reader, the gulf between the situation in the 1880’s Midwest and our own times, our store of knowledge, our experiences of progressive and reactive thought, our own readings and memories, remain great – is this ultimately a powerful form of history? Goodwyn is the true believer, in the meaning given it by Eric Hoffer, he is like Vance Packard or any number of popular social scientists, who wear their allegiance, their alliance, their orientation to the political universe on their sleeve.

Mr. Kazin is also a partisan veteran, but he elides the stigma of bias by claiming a broader disinterest. Whether this shows a drift toward the right (or center) of the political galaxy is never stated directly, but the sensitivity he shows to powerful conservative forces in the USA, and his understanding of the populism rhetoric, suggest that he has mellowed. His orientation is no longer that of a critical radical, seeking root and branch change, rather; he has learned to live with certain overwhelming forces in American society, and he explains their evolution. These are the traditional bastions of order, and their embrace of populism values are hopelessly skewed by the self interest and needs of the organizations.

Kazin and Goodwin address these institutions indirectly. They are the school system, the banking and treasury credit currency system, the military and its veterans of

military service, the Church, broadly construed, and the transportation system of interstate marketing. Along with family and corporate interests, any political individual or entity has to take into consideration these specific entities in their evaluation of the political terrain. Any orientation that ignores or derogates these to an imagined inconsequentiality does so at its own risk. The power of these bodies manifest themselves in certain social language representations, including the use of political rhetoric and emotive persuasion. Its overall impact on a given individual can be effectively called an indoctrinated state of mind. Socialization is a milder term for the same. Courses and pathways of independent and unconstrained discourse are diminished in a systematic and chronic method, via multiple corporate and institutional media exposures, commercial advertisement and the overwhelming presence of the contemporary built environment.

Populist threads of thought, rooted in opposition to Cromwell, Walpole and George III, continued though the final Victorian generation, and were radically changed by the unprecedented modernization of the twentieth century. The crisis of modernity and the fully modern century were upon the US political universe. Isolation, racism, class juncture and national interest would bring new valences to themes propounded by the populists of the older generation; those in intimate contact with the Civil War, died away and those with intimate knowledge of WWI and WWII were born. William Jennings Bryan is correctly seen as the last of the pure moment in American populism stricto, and Ross Perot and Jesse Ventura have claims to a populism lato.

It is not concealed, Goodwyn’s program of political proponence of Populism.

Goodwyn talks about the birth of a vocal opposition, its unifying milestones, how cohesiveness is held and other strictly tactical elements within the historic record.

Kazin is really addressing a different period, he begins the body of his work with Samuel Gompers. Kazin, in his more culturally derived text, gives the reader a greater sense of the Victorian moralist, the power of the prohibitionist, the sanitation and temperance force in American tradition. The Anti Saloon League (the ASL) and the Womens Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) certainly allow Kazin to invesatigate the way thematic (or linguistic) themes helped build certain political alliances and cross-loyalties – a lesson seen in the 2004 general election messages.

Ultimately our rhetorical interest is either hermeneutically or unconsciously derived. We are either subject to our unconscious and selfish “needs” or we make critical decisions at one remove from our bourgeois indoctrination. We can look at history as a chance to model and delineate the program of reform, or we can trace language through its claims, reactions and synthetic claims. The record of a populist mood, a populist need at the center of the institutional politics of the US worth investigating, because it, like Liberal, Conservative, Democracy and Republicanism – these are the sources and seeds of the most contested areas in the contemporary and historical political arenas.

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