Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Whigs vs. Modern Liberals

I have read all of thirty-odd pages of Daniel Walker Howe’s The Political Culture of the American Whigs. So far it’s wonderful. But I’m taking this post to explore the one sentence I have come across so far that I disagree with strenuously.

The opening chapter, entitled “The Whigs and Their Age," tries to outline and explain the core values of the Whigs from different perspectives and using different points of reference. Toward the end of the chapter, Professor Howe examines the idea that Whig policy “supported ‘the positive liberal state.’” He opines that this is “[o]ne of the most useful characterizations of Whig policy that has been offered.”

He then qualifies this endorsement, because characterizing Whigs as champions of “the positive liberal state” “makes them sound too much like twentieth-century liberals. Actually, the differences between the Whigs and twentieth-century liberals are more important than the similarities.”

Professor Howe then explains what he thinks those differences are. He begins:
Whig policies did not have the object of redistributing wealth or diminishing the influence of the privileged. Furthermore, the Whigs distrusted executives in both state and federal government (they had been traumatized by the conduct of Jackson), whereas twentieth-century liberals have endorsed strong executives more often than not. For all their innovations in economic policy, the Whigs usually thought of themselves as conservatives, as custodians of an identifiable political and cultural heritage.

So far, so good. All of these points seem fair, and I have no quarrel with them.

Then Professor Howe concludes as follows:
Most deeply separating the Whigs from twentieth-century liberals were their [the Whigs’] moral absolutism, their paternalism, and their concern with imposing discipline.

Here is where Professor Howe and I must part company. I infer that he is thinking of modern liberals as they like to think of themselves: inclusive, tolerant of alternate lifestyles, morally relativistic – think Woodstock and Haight Ashbury – as opposed to those mean, morally judgmental and intolerant conservatives – think Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

But these assumptions about modern liberalism and conservatism are caricatures that grossly distort both. In many ways – I would say in most ways – modern liberalism is far more morally judgmental and intolerant than is conservatism. The moral thought police in modern society are overwhelmingly on the left, seeking to condemn and regulate to death every deviation from the politically correct line on everything from gender and sex to race and religion. Just ask FIRE, Lawrence Summers and Ezra Levant.

In fairness the Professor Howe, the book was published in 1979, almost thirty years ago. It may be that the march of liberalism toward fascism was not so apparent then.

1 comment:

  1. Sean Nalty9:45 PM

    Hi again Elektratig,

    I really enjoyed your post on Whig/Democratic ideology and its relationship to contemporary liberal/conservative positions. I once asked a professor of mine when liberal academics decided that they did not really belong to the party of Jefferson and Jackson, but to the party of Lincoln-T.R.-F.D.R.-Kennedy. He probably thought it was a strange question, but he told me that the events of the 1960's really changed how contemporary liberals identified themselves with their Democratic roots. In fact, Daniel Walker Howe's study of Whig ideology and his newest offering both, in no small way, assisted in moving scholarly consensus away from the Schlesinger-Wilentz view of Jacksonianism to one sharply critical of nearly every aspect of Old Hickory and his supporters. Still, I think Jackson will probably rebound a bit in stature from his current lows, much as Grant has seen a remarkable rise in his presidential reputation from the "nadir" that Henry Adams and other intellectuals of his generation sought to characterize Grant's administration. I guess Victor David Hanson is right in the end, as much as many of my good friends would like to issue a judgment for posterity.


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