AMERICAN LIBERALISM AND THE DEMOCRATIC DREAM: TRANSCENDING THE AMERICAN DREAM

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  • Policy Studies Review Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 69-102

    AMERICAN LIBERALISM AND THE DEMOCRATIC DREAM:

    John E Manley Stanford University

    TRANSCENDING THE AMERICAN DREAM

    Three dreams run through American history: the democratic dream, the elitist dream, and the American dream. The embryo of the democratic dream was on the boats that brought the Pilgrims here in 1620. William Bradford, leader of Plymouth Colony, attributes the Mayflower Compact, America's first constitution, to the "discontented and mutinous" speeches of some passengers who said that when they "came ashore they would use their own liberty, for none had power to command them, the [charter] they had being for Virginia and not for New England ..." (1953, pp. 76-77). The Mayflower Compact sought to quiet such rumblings, but from the early demands for liberty on the Mayflower, and similar resistance to elite control in Massachusetts Bay, evolved the democratic dream of a society of generally equal, independent, free, and prosperous people.

    The democratic dream, which is far less well-known than its conservative and liberal rivals, does not say all people are equal in abilities or talents; rather it says no society sharply divided between rich and poor, privileged elite and mass, can be democratic because, in a society where nearly everything has a price, equality is a necessary condition of independence and freedom. Democracy respects the will of the majority, and some economic inequality may be tolerated, but the general social objective is a dominant middle class. This saves the democratic dream from the charge of mindless leveling, while putting popular limits on the degree of inequality thought compatible with democratic society.

    The elitist dream also came over on the Mayflower. Bradford recounts with horror the story of Thomas Morton who enticed indentured servants in Massachusetts into rebellion, helped them set up their own free community, which then fell into "great licentiousness": drinking, setting up a maypole, taking Indian women as consorts, and dancing like fairies (1953, p. 206). Bradford's Massachusetts counterpart, Governor John Winthrop, thought democracy the worst of all forms of government, and the Reverend John Cotton wondered out loud, "If all the people be Governors, who shall be Governed?" (Adams, 1921,

    Blacks were sold in Virginia the year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.' Lord Baltimore established a feudal order in Maryland with full manorial rights, and similar fiefdoms were created in New York. Indentured servants and women were less than second-class citizens, with the notable difference that male servants could in time attain full freedom. To many newcomers, the new world's attraction was the opportunity for domination, not

    pp. 143-44).

    89

  • democracy, but throughout the colonies democratic resistance is evident from the beginning.

    The elitist dream envisions an America of the superior few and inferior many. It denies that America stands for mass equality, independence, freedom, and emancipation from the curse of poverty. Such rewards go disproportiona- tely to the winners of a competition in which all (allegedly) have an equal opportunity to compete, and losers have no fair complaint against w h e n 2 Elitist beliefs have either accommodated or supported slavery, subjugated women, justified displacement and even annihilation of Native Americans, legitimated capitalism over the egalitarian society of independent producers preferred by Jefferson, and permeate American life today.

    The American dream--which critic Maxwell Geismar calls our "ruling myth" (1970, p. 45)3--is a compromise of the democratic and elitist dreams. On economic equaliv, the American dream is elitist: The United States promises the equal opportunity to become unequal, not social and economic equality. What purportedly saves the American dream's claim to be democratic is support for legal and political equality; independence, freedom, and real equality are reserved for the successful. For most people, the American dream means marginal economic improvement; democracy, in all but the formal or legalistic sense, is essentially dropped from the promise of American life.

    This essay argues that neither conservatism nor liberalism, the two poles between which American politics normally swings, can be expected to advance democracy in America. The conservative elitist dream makes no pretension of concern for social democracy, and a revived liberal version of the American dream offers at best a less oppressive social order than that envisioned in the conservative dream. An earlier dream of America--Thomas Jefferson's radical democratic dream--must be rediscovered and adapted to contemporary American life.

    VITAL CENTER LIBERALISM

    A quarter century after Lyndon Johnson's Great Society perished in Vietnam, and the "end of liberalism" was declared (Lowi, 1969), the question frequently occurs: If Johnson had resisted war, would liberalism have success- fully established the Great Society at home? Johnson himself explained the Great Society's failure in terms of "guns vs. butter." "I knew from the start," he told Doris Kearns, "that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved--the Great Society--in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes ..." (1976, p. 251). War spending surely drained money from the Great Society. Indeed, in the 20th century the domestic programs of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Johnson were all sacrificed to war. But the "guns vs. butter" theory deflects attention from the hard anti-communist line that was one of the pillars of 20th century liberalism, and it conveniently suggests there is nothing wrong with liberalism that a return of liberals to power and more money for social programs cannot solve. The theory also fails to explain why, decades after the end of the Vietnam war, liberalism still had a bad name, and the American people repeatedly shut liberal Democrats out of the White House:

  • Manley: American Liberalism and the American Dream 91

    It was not progressivism that failed in the 1960s, but a particular kind of liberalism: "vital center" liberalism.

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s theory of vital center liberalism was institution- alized in the anti-communist Americans for Democratic Action in 1946, and codified in his book, The vital Center (1949). The postwar red scare, Harry Truman's loyalty program for federal employees, the red-baiting of unions and of Henry Wallace, conservative attacks on the "socialistic" New and Fair Deals, and the plague bacillus of McCarthyism all undermined progressivism and heightened interest in a new liberal alternative. Advocates of vital center (or cold war) liberalism captured the Democratic party after World War I1 and purged it of progressives who were said to be soft on communism. In this context, Schlesinger tried to reconcile New Deal liberalism and capitalism, and to distinguish militantly anti-communist liberalism from the progressive--and allegedly tainted--liberalism of the past.

    Liberalism and capitalism needed reconciliation after World War 11, because capitalism's legitimacy was weakened in the 1930s when the economy failed. As millions of people sought work that capitalists could not provide, the New Deal moved left, embraced the welfare state, and took considerable responsibility from capitalists for managing economic recovery. If Franklin Roosevelt's description of himself as a "little to the left of center" is accurate, and if he took capitalism as much for granted as his family (Perkins, 1946, pp. 328-33), one may ask, why did many capitalists fear him? Partly, it was style and rhetoric. FDR obviously enjoyed venting popular unrest and shaking members of his class with such 1936 campaign statements as: "I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match .... I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master" (Leuchtenburg, 1963, p. 184). Those who thought he was talking about them could hardly be expected to appreciate such remarks. Partly, it was policy. FDR was prepared, as he put it, to "throw to the wolves" the 46 men with incomes over $1 million if this were necessary to save capitalism. William Randolph Hearst attributed Roosevelt's 1935 "soak the rich tax bill to a composite personality: Stalin Delano Roosevelt (Schlesinger, 1966, pp. 325-29). But mainly it was the emergency. Historian William Leuchtenburg (1967, pp. 53-54) captures it well:

    As the 1936 campaign got underway, the note of class conflict sometimes reached a high pitch. At an excited night meeting at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a stern-faced Danton, State Senator Warren Roberts, spat out the names of the Republican oligarchs: Mellon, Grundy, Pew, Rockefeller. The crowd greeted each name with a resounding "boo." "You could almost hear the swish of the guillotine blade," wrote one reporter afterwards. Then came Gover- nor George Earle, their handsome Mirabeau, and he too churned up the crowd against the enemies of their class. 'There are the Mellons, who have grown fabulously wealthy from the toil of men of iron and steel ... Grundy, whose sweatshop operators have been the shame and

  • 92 Policy Studies Review, Fall 1990, 1O:l

    disgrace of Pennsylvania for a generation; Pew, who strives to build a political and economic empire with himself as dictator; the duPonts, whose dollars were earned with the blood of American soldiers; Morgan, financier of war." As he sounded each name, the crowd interrupted him with a chorus of jeers against the business leaders. Then the gates opened at a far corner of the park; a motor-cycle convoy put-putted its way into the field, followed by an open car in which rode Franklin Delano Roosevelt, grinning and waving his hat, and the crowd whipped to a frenzy, roared its welcome to their champion.

    As it turned out, FDR was in a mood to steal the left's thunder (especially Huey Long's) not dip deeply into the pockets of the rich or uproot capitalism. But relations between liberal Democrats and business were strained in the 1930s; in the 1940s, repairs began. Schlesinger emphasized liberalism's and capitalism's shared values, especially the belief in a free society; he praised the "prodigious accomplishments" of capitalism, and extolled the "confidence, intelli- gence, and [even] ruthlessness of the businessmen." Kind words were found for robber barons Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. Capitalists extracted a heavy price in human terms for progress, he admits, but not as heavy as that paid for industrializing the Soviet economy. For all their contributions, capital- ists still cannot be relied on for effective governance. Governance requires the noblesse oblige and concern for the national interest of the vital center's hero, Franklin Roosevelt. With such leadership, capitalism and vital center liberalism together promise freedom, a healthy economy, and the American dream (Schlesinger, 1949, p. x, pp. 12-14, pp. 43-44).

    Schlesinger's praise for business was matched by his contempt for progres- sives. Henry Wallace was the immediate target, but Schlesinger's indictment embraces the entire progressive tradition in America. Progressives are attacked ad hominem as "soft" and "sentimental"; they are said to have a "shallow conception of human nature" because they believe in the essential goodness of humans, and in the inevitability of progress; ultimately, they believe in the dream of communism.

    Burdened with a social analysis that consisted of "dry and broken plati- tudes," Schlesinger argues that progressives easily became apologists for Soviet Union. He charged progressives with acting as if Dostoevski, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sorel, and Freud never charted the possibilities of depravity, and as if Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini never transformed depravity into a way of life. Romantic notions about the working class, formed before capitalism raised mass living standards, and misplaced faith in the radical potential of unions, rounded out Schlesinger's critique. History has passed progressives by, Schlesinger concluded, which is just as well because realpolitik was too serious a matter to be left to impotent romantics (Schlesinger, 1949, pp. 36-41).

  • Manley: American Liberalism and the American Dream 93

    PROGRESSIVE LIBERALISM

    Vital center liberalism was a product of the cold war and had its day; can anything of progressive liberalism be salvaged from the liberal wreckage? No one familiar with the turbulent history of progressivism in America will answer this question confidently, but if progressivism is to enjoy a resurgence it must offer a superior democratic vision of America than the "interest group liberalism" of the New Deal; help Americans rediscover their progressive roots in the democratic dream of Thomas Jefferson; reject the deepening social and economic inequality of capitalism; and help free America from the remnants of cold war anti-socialism. The remainder of this essay focuses on the first three concerns, leaving foreign policy for separate attention.

    Progressivism in the early part of the 20th century, as John Chamberlain noted on the eve of the New Deal, cut across many philosophical lines:

    It looked back to Jefferson and Jackson; it looked across the ocean to the primitive communism of Tolstoy. It dallied with DeLeonism, an intransi- gent brand of socialism that had gone its own fiery way when Debs and Victor Berger and Morris Hillquist commenced to think in terms of immediate objectives, such as shorter hours of work. It even looked forward to no government at all, following Kropotkin and the anarchists. Altogether, discontent at the opening of the new century made a crazy- quilt pattern (Chamberlain, 1965, p. 42).

    With such a crazy-quilt it is perhaps understandable that Richard Hof- stadter, author of one of the most influential histories of progressivism, would have difficulty defining it. For Hofstadter, progressivism "was not nearly so much the movement of any social class, or coalition of classes, against a particular class or group as it was a rather widespread and remarkably good- natured effort on the greater part of society to achieve some not very clearly specified self-reformation. The general theme was the effort to restore a type of economic individualism and political democracy that was widely believed to have existed earlier in America and to have been destroyed by the great corporation and the corrupt political machine ..." (Hofstadter, 1954, p. 5).

    Yet, for all its diversity, progressivism was clearly a reaction to changes in nineteenth century capitalism. As long as the American population was small and frontier opportunities...