Thursday, March 16, 2006

American Politics: Essay on American Political Development

The American Way: the Power of Liberalism in American Political Development


The political traditions of liberalism, republicanism and ascriptivism have been used to explain, in various ways, the development of the American political system. In particular, many scholars have sought and fought over for decades the tradition that explained the most important aspects of our system. Some have claimed that just one tradition represents that American experience. Others, take the view of Brugger, who argued that “stereotypical thinking… is rarely so marked as among those thinkers who believe that there can be only one founding tradition (Brugger ?). In each case, the conclusions of these scholars fell along equally diverse paths. The arguments of Louis Hartz, Rogers Smith, Michael Sandel and Lawrence Goodwyn exemplify this important dialogue. For Hartz, the Lockian liberal tradition set the base for all the crucial developments in American politics. Smith disagreed, asserting instead out of a multiple traditions perspective what he called the ascriptive tradition, whereas American politics was based on the “accident of birth,” particularly with regard to citizenship laws. Sandel’s theory is rooted in a republican, communitarian tradition, with emphasis on the common good over the liberalism of individual rights. Lastly, Goodwyn’s research on mass democratic movements, in particular the Populists’ agrarian revolt, presents a mixed picture of republican and liberal traditions.

In this essay, I argue that the liberal tradition of Hartz has had the most overarching and parsimonious power in describing the development of American politics. Most specifically I claim that the liberal tradition is powerful because of its influence on the Lockian (and American) idea of property rights. Moreover, Hartz’s claim that Americans forever sought “the same estate,” reemphasizes the longing towards a Horatio Alger, individualized upward mobility. For while political scientists may treat Algerism as a myth, or even a “civic myth” for Smith, American citizens do not. The contributions of Smith, Sandel and Goodwyn do not go unnoticed in this essay. However, even their arguments, both implicitly and explicitly reinforce an already dominant liberal tradition. I start by examining more closely these arguments, and then proceed to examine Hartz with respect to the liberal tradition and property rights.

Smith, Sandel and Goodwyn

It is important to note the nuance of each argument within each of the four texts. In Hartz’s Liberal Tradition…, he argues, quite persuasively, for the dominance of the liberal tradition in America. For Hartz, America’s liberal tradition arose out of what Santayana called a “natural” phenomena, whereas America skipped a feudal tradition unlike their European counterparts (Hartz 8). Therefore, Lockian liberalism was not a reaction to some other antagonism, rather, it was very much engrained with the birth of the country. And, as Hartz asserted throughout the book, liberalism prevailed at almost every turn. This is not necessarily the same type of argument suggested by Smith, Sandel or Goodwyn.

First, Smith does not argue that ascriptivism explains all aspects of American political life. (This could suggest in its own right that it cannot be the most parsimonious of the traditions). Regardless, Smith argues in a multiple traditions perspective that “American political actors have always promoted civic ideologies that blend liberal, democratic republican, and inegalitarian ascriptive elements” (6). So for Smith, citizenship cannot be explained through Hartz’s liberal lens or Sandel’s communitarian approach alone, but with a more attuned consideration to birthright, race, and gender. Oddly enough, Smith is a liberal himself, but unlike Hartz realizes that ascriptive elements must be taken seriously. It goes without saying that American political structures were illiberal and undemocratic, especially with respect to race and gender in various ways. Smith proves this in numerous instances: the racism of Andrew Jackson, the exclusion of the Taney courts, and the judicial legacies of Dred v. Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. These problems are exacerbated by a Constitution he says is “ambiguous” on issues of race, gender and ethnicity (116).

Are these concerns enough to debunk Hartz and explain the most “crucial”
aspects of American politics? Smith’s argument about ascriptivism is fascinating and powerful, but I am not sure it warrants itself as a tradition per se. If by tradition one means, as the English dictionary denotes, “a set of such customs and usages viewed as a coherent body of precedents,” Smith might find himself in trouble. A racist, illiberal strand is present throughout American history, but is this strand the coherent body that makes up the political system. Individual rights gets at the heart of the American way, and indeed, separates itself from other countries in this respect. Moreover, it is this belief in liberal, individual rights that trumps ascriptive behaviors in the long run. So yes, while the Constitution was ambiguous towards minorities, it provided a framework of liberal “rights” to use as a weapon against prejudice. Amy Guttman provides a similar analysis with respect to suffrage. “Equal suffrage…is an instrument for realizing liberal values. It is not itself a fundamentally liberal value” (75).

Sandel’s argument is also a very tailored, nuanced argument. While Sandel has sympathies and aspirations for a more republican, even communitarian tradition, the republicans have ultimately lost to a dominant liberal tradition. For Sandel, the republican tradition fought a losing battle from the beginning because of the establishment of what he calls the procedural republic. The procedural republic defines “rights according to principles that are neutral among conceptions of the good, republican theory interprets rights in the light of a particular conception of a good society” (25). The Bill of “Rights” is constructed to let individuals pursue their own ends, not enhance any sort of common good that republicans aspire to. Because of these facts, Americans have forever searched for a “public philosophy,” that might unite them civically and morally.

Sandel’s quest for a public philosophy is an important one. I even admit to longing for some common good myself. But the societies of the American political systems have not shared similar wishes. Although Sandel realized potential for the promotion of republican values in the American welfare state, it ultimately “failed to cultivate community” (119). Instead, the American welfare state, from a Sandel perspective, threw money at individuals allowing them to use it at their own discretion.

In bemoaning the tragic defeat of conservatism — linked to the republican tradition by a belief in the civic good — Clinton Rossiter posited that “American conservatism [was], for at least a hundred years, the intellectual prisoner of the American tradition” (68). Without giving it a second thought, the “American tradition” Rossiter alluded to was classical liberalism. Indeed, Sandel reluctantly comes to the same conclusion about the practical applications of a republican community.

Goodwyn, like the authors before him, has his own unique position in the debate on American political traditions. Goodwyn never formally announces his position on either side, but writes instead about the odd legacy of mass democratic movements in the United States. His case study — the agrarian revolts of Populism — revealed a mixed picture of the status of the tradition arguments. On the one hand, he emphatically promotes mass democratic movements and collective behavior against forms of oppression. On the other hand, he notes the importance of what he calls “individual self-respect” in forming them. Goodwyn elaborates this point articulately: “This individual and collective striving generated the movement culture known as populism” (34). Although historians like John D. Hicks argued that the Populist movement arose straight from the roots of Jeffersonian republicanism, Goodwyn reaches some alternative conclusions (Billias and Grob 26). In summarizing the beliefs of William Lamb, he mused that “the farmer as producer-entrepreneur and small-capitalist — the ‘hardy yeoman’ of a thousand pastoral descriptions — is nowhere visible in Lamb’s view” (39)

Lamb’s comment reaffirms a crucial question about the validity of calling the Populists a sole republican movement. That is, in what ways is the populist movement a movement about the “common good?” Are the Populists for economic justice or economic “just us?” Perhaps the Populists roots point towards republicanism. But their goals, which included a reassessment of the crop lien system and a respect for the farmer to that of the worker, did not extend to everyone. The farmer did not always join the Alliance to help the Alliance. He joined to help himself become a more economically independent person.

Goodwyn, like Sandel, has a melancholy outlook at the end of his case study. Goodwyn’s Populists were in some ways an anomaly to the history of mass democratic movements. No other group had such an effect on American political structure and monetary policy, only to lose out in the end. The reasons for the loss were numerous, but he is particularly concerned with the cultural and ideological dominance of a “privatization” in American life that only Gramsci might understand (265). Instead of politics for the community, politics became corporate and private. “In the aggregate,” Gooodwyn wrote, “the boundaries outline a clear retreat from the democratic vistas of either the eighteenth-century Jeffersonians or the nineteenth-century Populists” (265). For one shining moment, a mass movement mattered in American politics. Henceforth, only one tradition reigned — liberalism.

Hartz, Locke, Property and Alger

Thus far, the essay has explained why Smith, Sandel and Goodwyn, as well as the traditions of republicanism and ascriptivism, cannot be used to explain the most crucial aspects of American political development. Each argument does not explain in full detail the theoretical richness of each position. They are, in fact, small slices of a bigger pie in American traditions research. Likewise, Hartz does not speak for all liberals. The liberal tradition of which Hartz writes, however, and its emphasis on property rights and economic liberty, has better explained the American system.

Hartz’s sole claim about the liberal tradition rests on Locke. As Locke wrote in his …Treatise …, “the great and chief end, therefore of men’s uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of property” (185). Locke’s idea of government, hence, is merely to protect “life, liberty, and property.” This idea, although converted to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, permeated American thought from the outset. The American concept of property baffled the Native Americans. “Who can own land,” they asked? Yet, Americans became the most expansive — and protective — peoples when it came to private property. Jefferson’s call for virtuous “yeoman farmers” to self-govern seemed to stand no chance in a society that loved property more than the collective good. Richard Hofstader argued this point. “The sanctity of property, the right of the individuals to dispose of and invest it, the values of opportunity and the natural evolution of self-interest and self-insertion,” Hofstader wrote, “… have been staple tenets of the central faith in American political ideologies” (30).

Hartz’s thesis about American exceptionalism is important to note here. Because America had no feudal tradition, or conversely, a revolutionary tradition, the uniqueness of private property in the American sense becomes very clear. Hartz notes this point in reference to Daniel Shays. Shays, a Massachusetts farmer, led a rebellion protesting the number of farm foreclosures in his New England area. In France, Hartz argued, Shays might lead a socialist revolution, battling the wealthy aristocrats who controlled the economy, much like Babeuf did. But Shays had no mindset for such a reaction. Instead, Shays’ wanted not to destroy the American liberals, but rather become a richer liberal himself (75).

The Shays example is not entirely unique. Few American social movements have sought to destroy the Lockian liberal way of life. Case in point is the Civil War. One of the most crushing realizations for African Americans after the Civil War was the difficulty in obtaining private property. Although blacks had a relatively feudal existence prior, the American ideal of owning one’s own land soaked into the mindset of freedmen throughout the South. But their relegation to sharecropper, in essence another type of slavery, cut deep in their psyche. In other chapters of American history, social movements might have wanted to tweak the system, like Goodwyn’s Populists did in the late 1800s. But with the exception of the Amish and other communal groups, attempts at land and resource sharing have failed more than succeeded. Hartz is aware of this when he writes that Americans have, “[insisted] on being let alone to pursue their material fortune” (Intro. X).

No discussion of Hartz would be complete without due reference to Horatio Alger. Alger, who espoused a dream for “a pot of American gold” to those who sought material wealth, was an instrumental facet of Hartz’s thesis. The notion of Americans being “let alone” to follow their capitalist dreams seems to be the crux — at least in Lockian sense — of liberal theory and Algerism. Hartz’s theory on Alger ties in well to previous statements about private property. Few social movements sought to destroy private property. The same can be said about Alger. Although one might be poor and neglected by the system, everyone sought after the “same estate.” As bad as one’s individual situation might have been, Hartz argued, when the individual thought about politics overseas or in other regimes, the American way was certainly preferred (81). By being “born equal,” as de Tocqueville claimed, Americans had abundant opportunity to pursue their capitalist fortunes. Hartz’s argument is glaring in weakness on one key issue: minorities. And scholars riddled his argument with holes because, it is true, Americans have not always been ‘born equal.” But yet, this embodiment of the American dream lives on, and is passed down like a ‘civic myth’ to each generation. Smith argues that American institutions create these myths. There is some shred of truth somewhere, however, when immigrants still come to America seeking the “same estate.” [1]

Smith and Sandel add more weight to the hypothesis that economic Algerism and self-interest motivate American politics. Smith recognizes that “every plucky lad” who chased the pot of gold was a corroborator to big business (347). Moreover, in terms of political society, “American civic life has in a staggering variety of ways been designed to further ‘liberal’ corporate economic interests” (Smith 5). Sandel also sees fend-for-yourself Algerism in certain republican movements. Although Ronald Reagan may have talked up the value of having a public philosophy, Sandel noted that he was more of a “market conservative,” than a “civic conservative” (315).


This essay hoped to show how the liberal tradition was the dominant political tradition in American political development. Ascriptivism and republicanism are both powerful claims. Smith, Sandel and Goodwyn illuminate many crucial aspects of American politics. But there was something missing in each of their arguments. For Smith, he never fully separates the ascriptive tradition from its liberal and republican predecessors. Is the ascriptive tradition a tradition then, or just some strand in United States history? As well, does ascriptivism explain the entirety of American political development or just one facet? Sandel, for all his diligent efforts, is confronted by a permeating liberal tradition. Sandel cannot explain republicanism, or communitarianism, as dominant because the founding American documents wade in liberal values; the right over the good. Goodwyn’s claims are more difficult. To summarize succinctly, mass democratic movements for Goodwyn are rare and successful movements are rarer. The reasons are numerous, but examining a political culture that is not revolutionary, and did not seek a common good can answer much of their defeat.

We are then left with Hartz. The job of jamming all of American history into one tradition is difficult. Hartz acknowledged this himself when he surmised that, “one can get into a lot of useless argument if he affirms the liberalness of a liberal society in absolute mathematical terms” (7-8). Nonetheless, Hartz takes a stab at determining that the liberal tradition explains American politics the best. Hartz’s exceptionalist claim explains many of the values Americans hold dear, including property rights and the Algerism of seeking the “same estate.” Although it might seem odd to explain political development in terms of economics and property, Locke’s notion of government, which was the keystone of America’s founding documents, does just that. The history of the United States was geared towards the American way, those individual impulses whereas man pursued his own self-interest. The future of America will inevitably ride along the same wave.

[1] Some have suggested, however, that America is becoming less and less a land of opportunity. For example, Mexicans are returning to Mexico in larger numbers than are entering.

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