Ships passing in the Night

by zunguzungu

As Shyam K. Sriram notes (in a review at PopMatters, of all places), Kramnick and Lowi (the editors of the new American Political Thought anthology) start out by challenging Louis Hartz’s argument about America’s “liberal tradition” by arguing that “he almost missed the boat by ignoring America’s “conservative tradition.”

This is a pretty old refrain by now, but while there are a variety of criticisms one could make of Hartz’s book (published in 1955), I find theirs to be symptomatically weird. They write that:

“America has a conservative political tradition that is just as broad and deep as the liberal tradition. But the two are rarely in true competition, let alone dialectical tension. They are as ships passing the day – conservatism being local and parochial, liberalism more cosmopolitan; conservatism concerned with order and obligation, liberalism with consequences and satisfactions. One pursues goodness, the other happiness.”

What’s seems strange to me about Kramnick and Lowi’s dismissal (though I should add that I haven’t read the entire essay yet) is that you would think Hartz was unaware of American conservativism. But he wasn’t, at all. Hartz not only didn’t argue that there was no conservative tradition, but rather, he argued that the fundamental weirdness of American conservative thought has to be understood by the structural predicament of a constitutionally enshrined revolutionary liberalism.  In other words, he makes the very interesting argument that American liberalism occupies the place that conservativism occupied in Europe, such that — since defending the nation’s holy origins necessarily entailed a defense of the secular liberalism enshrined in its revolutionary constitution — American liberalism was always already a sort of conservative politics. And the reverse is true; because conservative thinkers were attempting to fundamentally alter the fabric of the constitution, putting religion and authoritarianism into the fabric of American governance will be, just as necessarily, a revolutionary act. This was a (still very smart and provocative) way of making sense of how badly the politically categories which were developed in Europe in response to the French Revolution actually work when applied to American political debates, and how deranged the debates sometiomes get as a result. Instead of being crazy, in other words, HArtz’ approach (for all its other faults) suggests that American political discourse is simply incredibly neurotic for structurally explicable reasons: phrases like “empire for liberty” and “freedom isn’t always free” occur because of these kinds of structuring paradoxes, as does the weird thing where both liberal and conservative presidents are required to extol the virtues of Theodore Roosevelt, that most liberal of conservatives and conservative of liberals.

Hartz’s sense of American political discourse was, of course, infected by a kind of mid-fifties liberal triumphalism, and that has to be taken into account; as I said, there are lots of limitations to his half-century old account. But the fact that you can use the phrase “liberal triumphalism” about a decade which is a vernacular shorthand for Eisenhower and Mad Men-style conservative verities just illustrates what we still have to learn from his approach: American liberalism and conservative thinking are hopelessly entangled with each other, in ways that are deeply characteristic and constitutive of the American political tradition. There is nothing “exceptionalist” about this, except insofar as having a particular history makes the particulars of cultural and political activity explicable in a particular sense, something that I would imagine would be fairly uncontroversial. But that leads me to speculate that the controversial thing, now, is this very notion, the idea that conservative and liberal actually aren’t ships passing in the night.

It seems to me to be quite a conservative framing, in fact, to think of a “tradition” as a thing which ever could be isolated from its opposite. When Kramnick and Lowi stage “conservatism [as] being local and parochial, liberalism more cosmopolitan,” after all, the very idea that a tradition could be so parochial and local as to be unaware of its antinomy requires a certain kind of conservativism of both sides. To argue that there has been no conversation between, in this sense, is to deny the very basis on which a liberal “cosmopolitanism” might be articulated.

In this sense, while the idea that “conservatism [is] concerned with order and obligation, liberalism with consequences and satisfactions,” isn’t completely wrong, it seems very far from adequate to me. Why are liberals calling for the obligation to fully explore whether any constitutional wrongdoing was done during the Bush presidency while it is conservatives who argue that the terrible consequences of such an action make it inevitably unsatisfactory? I have my own answer, of course, but it’s the sort of question which this formulation of conservative and liberal can’t even allow for. And the notion that “One pursues goodness, the other happiness” is just wrong; the idea that liberals don’t pursue goodness and conservatives don’t pursue happiness is only possible if you accept each sides worst-faith versions of each other, and even a moment’s conversation with anyone of either persuasion would illustrate how poorly it works as a description.