October 14, 2008

Louis Hartz and McCain-Palin Rallies


In 1955 Louis Hartz argued in his very influential The Liberal Tradition in America that since Americans have never experienced a feudal past to tie them down to hardened class conflicts, they have been able to successfully adhere to Lockean liberalism, i.e., "the liberal faith," and, in effect, neutralize more ideologically extreme movements from both the left and the right, including the possibility for a genuinely revolutionary politics. Even Southern slaveholders were guided by the Liberty, Reason, and Truth of the Enlightenment. For the governing principle in the United States, or, as Hartz put it, "the triumph of the liberal idea," has been that "interests" and individual enterprise would not be possible without a settled order based in the principles of fairness and equality. It was an argument played especially well by bow-tied liberals who sat to the left of William F. Buckley during the cold-war.
Consider this passage as well,
“This then is the mood of America's absolutism: the somber faith that its norms are self-evident. It is one of the most powerful absolutisms in the world....It was so sure of itself that it hardly needed to become articulate, so secure that it could actually support a pragmatism which seemed on the face to belie it. American pragmatism has always been deceptive because, glacier like, it has rested on miles of submerged conviction, and the conformitarian ethos which that conviction generates has always been infuriating because it has refused to pay its critics the compliment of an argument."
Hartz's "glacier" metaphor is an apt portrayal of the somnambulism of Americans the last few decades. "Look where 'business-as-usual' is getting us!," Hartz's neo-Tocquevillian voice seems to declaim, as the American Dream drifts further away. Indeed Hartz also issued the warning which alloyed American middle-class enthusiasms to the dangerous "conformitarian ethos" generated by the promise of social mobility, the principle of equality, and, material well-being.
People at McCain-Palin rallies calling for Barack Obama's head, and referencing him to "well, you know....an arab," should remind us that populism - which both political parties have been conveniently been able to leave to various surrogates and media spokespersons to abuse and exploit every day, (a la "culture wars,") - is alive and kicking. There is lots of anger out there. And yet we should wonder whether today's good ol' red-state resentment also calls into question Hartz’s notion that American democracy has indeed been able to successfully sever itself from a feudal past. What was it that George W. Bush was able to tap into? What was Hillary Clinton going for that one week in Pennsylvania? Or, more historically, was not the populist appeal of, say, William Jennings Bryan back in the late nineteenth century – or even Andrew Jackson earlier – the vestiges of a feudal inheritance which at brief moments has been able to push back against the forces of Lockean liberalism and American Whiggishness? What of the early agrarian movements of the nineteenth century, or the populist movements that later appeared after the Civil War, which sought to preserve small-scale production through cooperative trade and enlist the hopes of ordinary people about ordinary human things, such as families, Churches, small businesses, and, above all, in the capacity of small landed collectivities to make decisions for themselves responsibly?
Rest assured I am NOT at all advocating some romantic turn to the good ‘ol days of hoedowns, Jim Crow, and vigilante justice but instead reconsidering how the diverse efforts of plainsfolk, meek as they may be – warts and all – have contested the notion that the state and the metro poles of financial capital are the only sites of political activity. The issue is therefore less political restoration than political renewal. So, yes, anachronism abounds – rest assured – especially in today’s world of blogs and “networking,” and especially in light of the recent collapse of the “ownership society.”
Hartz claimed that the American democrat, the genuine "progressive," is at bottom a middle-class concoction, part Horatio Alger, part John Calhoun, but always and ultimately a “‘petit-bourgeois’ giant… a pushover for its democratic capitalism, its pot of gold.” It all reflected the “self-made” individual and the promise of procuring wealth presented by the American founding. No wonder Americans would become known for chasing treasure with a single mindedness that struck most foreigners as daring and adventurous yet utterly uncouth - and all while simultaneously looking at themselves as morally upright, God-fearing people. Thinking of a remark made by Tocqueville the aristocrat in the second volume to Democracy in America makes it difficult not think of the rabid fawning of those attending political rallies these days. “Their vanity, “he wrote, “is not only greedy but restless and jealous; it will grant nothing while it demands everything, but is ready to beg and quarrel at the same time….It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it.”
Nonetheless if the Founding Fathers were revolutionary with respect to gaining independence from the British crown they were also completely smitten with the propertied class, quite appreciative of the alignments between plutocrats and the federal government, and deeply fearful, suppressive, and even loathsome, of the demos. Not even Jefferson had the stomach to question King George, much less other Southern slaveholders or wealthy merchants, for keeping rich above poor. Indeed democracy implied the breakdown or loss of power – a takeover of institutions and resources, as well as the radical reinterpretation of priorities and agendas which were to otherwise belong to persons of wealth, an elite class. Democracy signified the political not so much in terms of “leadership” and acquiescence as with equalizing the context within which ordinary people would attempt to effectively coordinate.

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