[note: I’m taking a Labor Day hiatus as I resolve a few Web site issues. Till next week, I hope you enjoy a couple popular articles from the spring. Thanks.]
“America’s political history in less than two minutes”
Some visionaries of the left live in an imaginary America. They live in a nation where pleasant visions lead to socially revolutionary realities.
The remaining visionaries of the left live in a nation where exercising a robust imagination leads to profound disappointment -- because we’re a profoundly conservative people.
A brief history of America’s tenacious conservatism -- don’t panic; I promise to make this painless -- might be helpful in reassessing not so much liberalism’s goals as its prospects of achieving them, which are actually better than at first we might think. So here we go…
Even in its infancy, America made excuses for its decidedly “un”-conservative defections. Americans, certainly, were not the excitable type, like those mad Frenchmen across the seas destroying everything sacred. Our revolution was somehow more civilized, more thoughtful -- not even revolutionary, really, in the sense that irrational passions rule in such times. This revisionism started as historical myth, but swiftly morphed into living truth. As soon as we completed the dirty work of what was, of course, a violent revolution, we settled into industrious conservatism, religious revivalism and sober commerce.
The underlying cause was America’s roots in classical liberalism (not the modern variety). Seventeenth-century Lockean convictions of individualism, restrained government and the supremacy of private property were, and are, the rudiments of the American character. Even when presented with evidence that these principles often suffer from internal conflict, our national character resists radical change to preserve ideals. In short, we have often preferred the harsh consequences of inequality to basic fairness.
The sad history of the Reconstruction era was a prime example of American conservatism washing over progressivism. By the Civil War’s end, 620,000 men had perished in what had become the North’s struggle for political and social rights for all -- all men, at least. In fairly short order, however, a hunger for more economic, and less social, progress consumed the North. Reconstruction died a quick death, and we are still coping with the consequences.
If ever there was a time to brusquely reject classical liberalism, it was the Great Depression. The system was in disrepair, perhaps beyond repair. Yet, by and large, Americans stuck with it. Even leading and comparatively radical intellectuals of the era remained attached to classical liberalism’s principles, largely due to the absence of a revolutionary urge among distressed workers. Truly left-oriented thinkers had little of a base to build on, and they knew it.
The left was right, of course, when during the postwar era it decried American sins of poverty, racism and corporatism. Subsequently the left was right to be deeply disturbed by the phenomenon of Reaganism, and Al Gore and John Kerry’s inability to mop up the floor with a vacuous politician from Texas. That such men could be viewed by so many as reasonable prospects to attain, and then keep, the highest office only attests to yet another generation of conservative sympathies.
On the other hand, and it’s a big other hand -- the early 19th century was mixed with progressive causes like abolitionism and public education; what Reconstruction set in motion couldn’t be eradicated, and indeed reemerged in the “Second” Reconstruction of the 1960s; FDR’s New Dealers managed to shave capitalism’s rough edges and, incrementally, advance the cause of a civilized society; and though a drop in the bucket compared to many European social democracies, the Great Society further advanced the cause of social decency and some of it, such as Medicare, stuck.
So yes, Americans are a profoundly conservative people. But they’re conservative in the traditional sense of gradual change and incremental progress -- not in the reactionary impulses of a contemporary conservatism that is digging its own political grave through gross overreaching. It’s taken 20 years for many Americans to see that the conservatism they thought they supported has been wearing sheeps’ clothing.
For now, perhaps the most the left can hope for is an effective defense: slowing a government whose only activism promotes a ruthless plutocracy. Meanwhile, modern liberalism can continue offering a needed vision of America that rejects impersonal economic gain as the highest objective. Liberalism plays a much-needed role in extolling us to heed Lincoln’s “better angels of our nature.” And little by little, I am confident, it will re-gain as modern conservatism -- radicalism, really -- shows it true colors.