The Call of American Liberty

Books reviewed in this essay:

The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry, by Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).

The Crusade Years, 1933-1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath, ed., George H. Nash (Hoover Institution Press, 2013).

New power emerges out of confusion—and ours is a confused age. No dominant historical narrative supplies us with a common story, and without a common story we belong neither to each other nor to shared ideals. When a people are unscripted by history, the past becomes raw material, to be processed via key moral and political vocabulary by those who would willfully impose “new modes and orders,” to quote Machiavelli.

New Deal and Modern ACDisordered times produce the search for order and the desire to impose order. Gordon Lloyd and David Davenport are in the former category. Their book The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism seeks to revise our historical understanding of the rise and development of American conservatism by tracing it to Herbert Hoover. What interests the authors just as much, if less directly, is examining how ideas and movements emerge in response to crisis moments. The New Deal, they claim, was just such a moment and Hoover’s long “crusade” against it provided what has been, ever since, the “defining rivalry.”

Two questions present themselves immediately: Was this a crisis moment? And did Hoover generate the philosophical-political response that would become the basis of an emerging “conservative movement”?

This is hardly an academic exercise on their part. By reclaiming the story of the crisis and the principles that became clear in response to it, Lloyd and Davenport aspire to offer a usable history to contemporary conservatives fishing around for an account of the American-ness of conservatism.

The most important, and challengeable, claim they make is that when Hoover confronted the “revolutionary” nature of the New Deal, he had a “Burkean moment.” To their thinking, the New Deal represented the third crisis of our Republic—the Founding and the Civil War being the first two. “Each of these crises defined or redefined the very nature of the American republic,” they assert.

It is certainly true that those first two “moments” forced an intense conversation about and examination of the nature of the nation and its political expression. To acknowledge those crises does not, however, require us to believe that there were no other crises before the 1930s, nor that the New Deal was itself a crisis. Lloyd and Davenport claim that it was America’s French Revolution—and on this historical claim, a great deal rests.

These are very contestable ideas. For instance, the transformations in American economy, society, culture, and intellectual life were more dramatic in the last two decades of the 19th century than any other period in American history. The subsequent political development after 1900 of Progressivism was the result (rather than the cause) of titanic changes in the very fabric of American life. The Industrial Revolution was the most visible part of a revolution in manners, morals, habits, and ideas that we are still working through. To my way of thinking, the third crisis of the Republic took place in those years and is best described as a crisis of authority.

Nonetheless, Lloyd and Davenport see in the New Deal the American equivalent of the French Revolution, a radical assault on the social and institutional order. Perhaps the Progressives of the previous generation were only interested in reforming that order. Here I must disagree with my friends (and indeed they are both good friends) because I see deep challenges to what Hoover called the “American System” well before Franklin Roosevelt took office.

If Hoover had a Burkean moment it seems to have come rather late in the game. My own sense is that Hoover did awaken to the dangers of the New Deal and become a crusader against all forms of “collectivism” because of this awakening, but that, unlike Burke, he had not been sufficiently prescient in seeing the logic of unfolding events. A darker image would be to think of Hoover as the Owl of Minerva whose flight at dusk reveals only what has already happened.

Then, too, Burke’s moment was rather conflicted. He famously asserted that an entire age—the age of chivalry—was gone and that all the virtues that attended that age and its cultivated affections would be sundered. At least rhetorically, Burke presented himself as eulogist as much as prophet. This does not describe Hoover—he was a crusader (his word) and fought a battle of ideas and principles against the forces of collectivism, American and foreign. Whether their different rhetorical strategies supported programs that were similar—something we could call “conservatism”—is an open and interesting question. It seems clear that Burke was a Whig before he wrote Reflections and he was a Whig after. He did not become something new, a “conservative.” Rather he was engaged in a conserving task as a Whig.

What about Hoover—did he become a “conservative” as he awakened to the threat?

The question of our 31st President’s political philosophy is contested, but that he was considered a “Progressive” for much of his early career is clear, even if the meaning of the label is not. More importantly, by the standards of any previous chief executive, Hoover’s response to the economic crisis that began to emerge during his administration was energetic and radical. As we know, the administration of his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, folded many of Hoover’s programs and ideas seamlessly into the “first New Deal.”

All of this suggests an awakening, a change, a turning around on Hoover’s part. His fight against the New Deal and its principles was vigorous, sustained, and intellectually coherent. Whether or not he ought to have been concerned about the strains of Progressivism that challenged longstanding American ideals, Hoover’s post-presidential crusade treated the New Deal as a watershed in American history and his response to it as the necessary defense of the “American System,” then endangered. His principles were more like Calvin Coolidge’s after 1933, but his preaching in defense of the American System was all Hoover—vigorous and combative. In this sense, Hoover changed, turning the last decades of his long life (he died in 1964 at the age of 90) into a fight for the American soul.

We are still left with the question of whether Hoover should be considered the fountainhead of modern American conservatism in preference to, say, the usual list of intellectuals and journalists (Buckley, Hayek, Kirk, Meyer). This is of more than passing interest, for it goes to the heart of contemporary conservatism and its prospects.

HooverAid in answering this question can be found in a newly released, heretofore forgotten, manuscript of Hoover’s called The Crusade Years: 1933-1955, which has been edited and introduced by George H. Nash. Hoover had published so much over his lifetime that we might rightly question the value of publishing this long manuscript, much of it drawn from speeches and Hoover’s other writings. But it well rewards the reader. Nash’s masterful editing supplies not only thoughtful context but sufficient additions of fact so as to help the reader understand well Hoover’s arguments that were deeply entangled in nearly forgotten events or struggles. The volume is not a concise expression of the author’s philosophy of the American System, but it provides all the essentials while chronicling Hoover’s ongoing fight with the agents of collectivism. This is the Hoover—urgently absorbed in the controversies that enter his and the nation’s life—who has already passed through Lloyd and Davenport’s “Burkean moment.”

The Hoover of this memoir is best described as an American liberal rather than a conservative. The liberal identity (along with the modifier “American”) is in fact what links Hoover the Progressive and Hoover the crusader. As he put it in 1937, when he was four years out of office, “The New Deal having corrupted the label of liberalism for collectivism, coercion [and] concentration of political power, it seems ‘Historic Liberalism’ must be conservative in contrast.”

To differentiate the new from the inherited version we could call them collectivist liberalism versus self-rule liberalism, or perhaps authoritarian liberalism versus liberty liberalism. Either way, Hoover identified Americanism with the latter and saw the former as a pernicious European import incompatible with the native species. This was not a milder fight for being an intra-liberal one. Necessarily, it was not subject to compromise but could produce only victory or defeat: the American system of individualism and liberty will die if New Deal liberalism survives. This may strike most of today’s conservatives as hyperbolic, but the crusade flag planted by Hoover hangs over the movement as a pressing if unarticulated question.

At the center of Hoover’s liberalism is the “rugged individual.” Somewhat incongruously, this archetype is both a transcendent ideal and a product of the peculiar American experience—a tension that rests near the heart of all claims to American exceptionalism. In this case the individual is, while self-reliant, hardly atomistic. Living outside of the European corruption of aristocratic privilege, this individual is a font of creativity: developing the art of self-rule, the desire to take care of himself, while simultaneously fostering the dense web of voluntary institutions that help others learn the habits and virtues of rugged individualism. The liberty that attends American individualism gave rise to another kind of creativity in the sciences, economy, in all manner of inventions and improvements. Hoover was especially impressed with energetic tinkering and improving, the American need to change things, the obsession with efficiency.

The rugged individual he so loved was the source of American greatness. Therefore the key to America’s future was the protection of the environment that fostered this human type. For this reason (though Hoover was vague about details), he accepted the reforms of the Progressive era as largely salutary because they prevented the individual from being overtaken by the privilege of concentrated power: economic power. For him the Progressive reforms—free enterprise but not laissez faire—were consistent with the Founding principles because they protected the individual from a power too large for him to challenge. And, most important, perhaps, they were reforms that fit into a constitutional frame of government and so squared nicely with Hoover’s insistence on the American tradition of self-rule and limited government.

The New Deal was, in his view, a break from the Progressive tradition. It was as alien as European statism, for its goal—or at least its logical outcome—was the destruction of the rugged individual, and with it, liberty and creativity. Moreover, the New Deal sought to transcend the Constitution and replace a limited government of self-ruling individuals with administrative rule by elites unbounded by constitutional limits. When Hoover used the word “collectivism” he was in earnest, and The Crusade Years throws at it far more than platitudes, minutely taking apart very particular New Deal and Fair Deal policies. Something new was happening to America—it was for Hoover, as for Lloyd and Davenport, the American coming of the Jacobins.

The crusading Hoover looms large for Lloyd and Davenport because he represents the essential challenge to the New Deal understanding of government that they believe is still at work in America. The coauthors differ about what can be done about this. For Davenport one might say that Hoover’s fight was valiant but largely lost. The good species of liberalism has been routed—and so there is little to conserve. Lloyd holds out more hope, believing that beneath the ups and downs of electoral politics, Americans remain, in their bones, a “center-right” nation. The cause ahead for “conservatives” (who are quite properly, in light of the foregoing, describable as American liberals), is to teach the American story with particular emphasis on the heritage of liberties (economic, religious and political) and the great opportunity for self-rule that the Constitution provides. And a fine chapter in it is what Herbert Hoover did to affirm self-rule, limited government, and above all the Constitution, as the great symbol and source of our deliberative nature. For Lloyd, at least, the people remain culturally American—which is to say individualists, rightly understood.

Their joint assertion remains that today’s crisis is essentially a playing out of the New Deal revolution. To the degree that this assertion is taken to heart, it opens up heretofore settled subjects. Instead of accepting the New Deal ideas and programs as incorporated into the American system, and instead of thinking of the American conservative movement as having its origins after the New Deal and thus after the Revolution, Lloyd and Davenport call conservatives to a much more radical course than even they recognize. The question, again, is whether this new narrative of American conservatism will reconfigure our history, because as our history goes so will our future.

Additional resources:

-Podcasts with George Nash on Hoover’s The Crusade Years and Freedom Betrayed.