America’s Liberal Tradition: Hartz and Tocqueville

***My dissertation will look at the structure of liberalism, republicanism and authoritarianism–so many posts represent “prep. work” for my dissertation.

It would be obtuse to ignore the giant language of liberalism in America–and worse yet to not know what it means.  Liberalism, according to Hartz, covers American society.  Liberalism, according to Hartz, “is” the political language of America.  Said differently; when Americans talk about politics, they are all talking within the structure of liberalism.  Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America, expressly found that all major political parties of America’s past remained within the language of liberalism; but that the parties did not understand how to expand liberalism: to expand the opportunity of capitalism and democracy.

Hartz wrote that Tocqueville helped to make clear his liberal theory of American political culture.  Hartz explained, “One of the central characteristics of a nonfeudal society is that it lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition… it is ‘born equal,’ as Tocqueville said” (Hartz, 1955, 5).  Yet it was not simply the absence of feudalism that described why America’s point of departure denied Chaos its due.  Hartz said that there was “the presence of the liberal idea” (Hartz, 20).  The Lockian doctrine is liberalism (Hartz, 10-11).  To Hartz, “There has never been a ‘liberal movement’ or a real ‘liberal party’ in America: we have only had the American Way of Life, a nationalistic articulation of Locke…” (11).

In America, there was no proletariat, not even a petit-bourgeois. America “shattered it” (Hartz, 91).  Democracy, or the equality of opportunity among White men (during this time period others were not “equal”), allowed any six year old to become a thirty-six year old Representative in their respective state legislature.  Indeed, this was often the campaign slogan for many of the presidential candidates—candidate X was raised in a log cabin, etc.  Hartz explained that “there are no aristocracies to fight, and the Federalists and the Whigs are denied the chance of dominating the people in a campaign against them” (Hartz, 93). In America, the people that wanted legitimate power over the people always arose from a majority of liberal factions—of the people.  Hartz concluded, “there was no mob: the American democrat was as liberal as the Whigs who denounced him” (Hartz, 95).

The Democrats could reconcile that equal opportunity under capitalism created an American democrat starving for prosperity.  Hartz called this America’s “acquisitive democracy,” citing Hammond (138).  The idea of monetary enrichment at election time found a flow of capitalistic rhetoric.  However, the Democrat had such a peculiar trouble articulating capitalistic development within the party framework.  For example, how could capitalism embrace equal opportunity in the midst of slavery?  The White men that held onto the idea of equal opportunity were constantly forced to witness the hypocrisy within the nation; especially Jefferson, since the closest slave to him was often preparing his food in his kitchen.  Hypocrisy is a virus to a language, and so the language must expel the virus if it is to continue.

According to Hartz, the Whigs in American political history, particularly Hamilton, made the Constitution and judicial review their elite—mistakenly likening them to their aristocracy.  The Democrats, in this manner, would invariably overrun the Whigs—regardless if the appointed judges resembled Democrats.  For example, the landmark Supreme Court decision of McCulloch v. Maryland was a liberal decision (Hartz, 109). The Whig and Democrat parties both attacked liberalism.  The Whig manifestation of “unite[d] … rich individuals” was as foreign as the Democrats “anti-nationalism” overture in campaigns to liberalism (Hartz, 109).

Hartz would not believe that republicanism could become the dominant political language in America.  Hartz delineated that the major political parties merely improved their clarity of vision (perhaps improved their speech) regarding liberalism.  Whigs impacted the Democrats political platform and language and vice-versa.  Moreover, Jefferson and Jackson realized how capitalism aught to be embraced by “equal opportunity” (Hartz, 111).  The idea that today’s poor may become tomorrow’s rich permeated the society.

Hartz found that when a political party lost sight of liberalism, then it faded from the political landscape.  The demise of the Whigs was generally due to the fact that they could not break from European ideas: feudalism, or, designed economic structures.  Freedom was too strong in the minds of Americans and the Whigs mistakenly (and constantly) desired to control it.  They were knocked out and didn’t realize that “equal opportunity” was foundational in a liberal society.  The Democrats accepted, embraced, and eventually totally enabled the idea of equal opportunity to the natural citizens of America—and they survived. This raises an important point:  wouldn’t political parties that favored republicanism as their dominant language be quieted by liberalism?

Hartz believed that the basic ethical problem of a liberal society was “not the danger of the majority which has been its conscious fear, but the danger of unanimity, which has slumbered unconsciously behind it… irrational Lockianism…” (Hartz, 11). In this case, the majority factions are fighting to uncover the future political thought which will become accepted by the masses as modern political ideology.  Would both parties simply expound liberalism to the people, and if so, then is America only ripe for liberalism?  Might republicanism be the answer to a fading liberalism?

Every generation witnesses new political platforms—and the old ones are replaced.  There is, as Hartz said, a new Jefferson, so “…instead of recapturing our past, we have got to transcend it.  As for a child who is leaving adolescence, there is no going home again for America” (Hartz, 32). However, Hartz assumes that the American political language will remain liberalism for centuries to come. Thus is Hartz’s stance.  But what if the Lockian tradition, the freedom to own property among individuals, will become so commonplace—that Locke is a mute (and moot) point of articulation.  Like an excited seven year old explaining basic addition—we know that already!

Another major political theorist expounding the political language of America was Tocqueville, in Democracy in America. According to Offe, Tocqueville explained that America always had “freedom of the press,” as was opposite the case in much of Europe.  In this way, when a European country like France fought for freedom of the press, it often became violent.  But because America did not need to fight for it, it is “the country of the whole world that contains the fewest germs of revolution” (Reflections on America, 2005, 15).  So in the point of departure from a British colony to an independent nation, it skillfully created a government from its societal norms and values.  And many of these values stemmed from Locke.

Tocqueville may or may not appreciate Hartz’s determination that liberalism, i.e. the language of Locke, was the dominant political language in America.  Equality meant many things to Tocqueville.  For example, he wrote, “It [government in America] does not break men’s will, but softens, bends and guides it; it seldom enjoins, but often inhibits action; it does not destroy anything, but prevents much from being born; it is not at all tyrannical, but it hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles and stultifies so much that in the end each nation is no more than a flock of timid and hardworking animals with the government as its shepherd” (Girdwood, 2009, 229).  Thus, Hartz and Tocqueville were frightened that the liberal language would, in fact, be consumed by all Americans.

Tocqueville believed that individualism could have been a lethal force, but the freedom of Americans to create associations of any kind—and the fact that they indeed did so—limited the potential poisonous manifestations of individualism.  Madison and Tocqueville wrote of the tyranny of majority.  While Madison urged auxiliary precautions to be arranged within the Constitution, Tocqueville again looked to associations.  He wrote, “…freedom of association has become a necessary guarantee against the tyranny of the majority” (Levi, 283).  Associations thus prevented domination by the government upon the people in the “Republican” form of government.

Finally, we see President Obama expanding liberalism–arguing for equal opportunities for Gays and his recent decision to give women the equal opportunity to become a soldier. Americans still have not, as Hartz called for, transcended liberalism…we are still blind boxers–fighting for it.

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6 thoughts on “America’s Liberal Tradition: Hartz and Tocqueville

  1. Pingback: what’s a “Liberal democrat”? An American! | Political Pipeline

  2. Pingback: Review for American Politics Comp. Exams | Political Pipeline

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