History Questions

by John Holbo on May 3, 2006

I’m reading Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality [amazon]. It’s a pretty ok little intro, suitable for undergrads; but kinda pricey for what it – a slim paperback, several years old (though I guess there’s a new edition.) Anyway, here’s a passage that raised my eyebrow:

Two other developments, also fortuitous, gave substantial aid to the burgeoning conservative cause [in the US in the 50’s]. I refer to the resurrections of Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke throughout the decade. Both had languished in this country prior to the Second World War. In seven years of a better than average undergraduate and graduate education at Berkeley in the 1930’s, I never once heard Tocqueville referred to and Burke was limited to something called the ‘organic school’. But this changed remarkably beginning in the late 40’s. A new edition by Knopf of Democracy in America came out in 1945, and its attraction was immediate. Paperback editions and printings of this book and also of The Old Regime and the French Revolution were legion by the end of the 1950’s. ‘As Tocqueville says’ came to rival ‘as Marx says’ in faculty clubs. Perdictably, the political left tried to appropriate Tocqueville, finding some kind of Baconian cryptogram no doubt, but Tocqueville’s proper linkage to conservatism was nevertheless fully recognized in the 1950’s.

Burke’s resurrection was less notable and widely feld perhaps but it was impressive. he became known, chiefly through Kirk’s Conservative Mind, as the founder, the Karl Marx, of Western conservatism, and even his Reflections on the Revolution in France, once almost abhorred in American academic and intellectual communities, became the object of a considerable number of printings. The 20-year project of his Collected Letters by the University of Chicago Press began in the 1950’s. An impressive number of anthologies, textbook paperback printings, and scholarly commentaries changed Burke’s once lack-luster status in America. (p. 98-99)

Is this plausible? (Never mind about the gratuitous cryptogram snark – which, by the by, is out of character with the tone of the rest of the book.) Was Tocqueville really an invisible nobody until recently? And was Burke truly revived in the academy with Kirk’s instrumental assistance? (My distinct impression has always been that Tocqueville has been, and remains, a perennial hero on all sides; and that Kirk’s influence within the academy – as opposed to outside it, in conservative little magazines and thinktanks and such – has been relatively marginal. I wouldn’t have credited him with starting a Burke boom in academe.)

While I’m at it, another question: conservatives have traditionally gotten good rhetorical mileage by casting their liberal or progressive opponents as sinister, bloodless brainiacs – Burke’s “sophisters, economists and calculators”; or as sinister, bloody Jacobins. Well, anyway, one of the thoughts that popped into my head, reading Nisbet’s bit on the French Revolution, is that the elements of the upheaval he catalogues divide pretty neatly into two piles: crazy ‘wipe the slate clean and start over’ schemes; stuff that looks, in retrospect, pretty mild. Or at least right. Mild humor results from last minute baiting and switching of these piles. I started a sentence about how Jacobin governors concluded that ‘the traditional kinship structure’ was ‘against nature and contrary to reason’, expecting to end it by hearing about some hare-brained, hair-raising, short-lived scheme to steal kids from parents and raise them in panopticons, with nothing to read but Emile. But it turned out that what was enacted were: civil marriages, divorce laws, repeal of laws of primogeniture, and abolition of parental authority over sons when they reach adulthood. (I think even Rick Santorum would be ok with some of that.)

Making a connection of sorts: it seems to be somewhat common wisdom – even among Democrats – that, at least in the recent past, the Democrats really were in the hubristic habit of thinking that dumb ‘wipe the slate clean’ social engineering schemes were not, in fact, really dumb – in the sense of doomed to be clubbed to death by the law of unintended consequences, upon first contact with actually existing actual social reality. Real live Democrats, with actual grips on real levers of political power, really did get their poor dear Harvard boutique liberal pointy-heads up in the clouds, and they weren’t coming back unless dragged kicking and screaming.

I said I had a question, didn’t I? Well, then: what are the best, i.e. clearest, most graphic, examples of this sort of problem? Doomed social engineering schemes, the fault of fool Democrats. Failed public housing projects? School busing? Momentous Supreme Court decisions? (Court decisions are sort of poor candidates, formally, but some will say that this is precisely what makes them such disastrous social policy mandates.) What are the clearest cases of foolish failures to look up from the neat, tidy, academically lovable blueprints for the one minute it would take to appreciate how many subtle cobwebs of local and intermediate social adaptation and efficiency must be swept away by this peremptory realignment imposed from on high? I am – you aren’t surprised – inclined to think that, for the most part, Republicans have managed to stick Democrats with a frame that is, at best, two hundred years out of date. Democrats are not always on the verge of blurting out some radical Benthamite felicific calculus, to be enacted as legislation. Democrats don’t really go in for ‘wipe the slate clean’ proposals, in a big way. If only because, in the last 25 years, they have slowly wheeled into position as conservators of the New Deal legacy. (If you pine for wiped slates, Democratic domestic policy must seem dull indeed. What you want is: Republican foreign policy. If you want someone virginally untouched by Hayekian wisdom, touch a lapsed libertarian. Jim Henley can put you in touch.) But I do grant that one reason the two-hundred year old frame can at least seem to fit is because, a generation ago, it fitted a bit less badly than it does today. (Hell, Nixon imposed wage-price controls. Can you imagine what the Democrats must have been up to, if the Republicans were turning socialist? Here’s an interesting fact, regarding the announcement of imposed controls in ‘72: “President Nixon expressed grave concern that if he gave his speech during prime time on Sunday, he would preempt the tremendously popular television series Bonanza, thus potentially alienating those addicted to the adventures of the Cartwright family on the Ponderosa ranch.” The past is a weird country. And the speech was a hit, apparently. Everyone thought the government setting prices sounded great. “And the Dow Jones Industrial Average registered a 32.9-point gain – the largest one-day increase up to then.” Go figure.) So I’m curious: when was the last time that the Democrats proposed something so ambitiously unworkable that it was right and proper to come all Burkean correct on them? I need a history lesson.

I don’t doubt Republicans can come up with lots of things – Hillarycare! (No, bad example. Try again.) I’m curious what Democrats can come up with. I guess, in a general sort of way, I’m trying to figure out what would be a good way to gauge – and talk about – general social mood, regarding the prospect of social engineering. What makes folks think the government can do everything, then turn around and decide it can’t do anything?



joel turnipseed 05.04.06 at 3:13 am


The printing histories of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America bear out Nisbet’s claim: in the U.S., editions came out in 1898, 1900, 1904, 1905… and not again until 1945 (and again in 1946, 1947, 1948, 1951).

As to his “academic currency” in the 20s/30s–I’m no expert, but in the 300-400 books I’ve read over the past couple years in working on my biography/social history of anti-war/anti-Wall Street protestors (and reactions against them), I don’t recall seeing his name (the American Liberty League, for instance, never invoked it).

A couple things to think about:

1) Conservative reaction to reform in America was pretty profoundly (excepting guys like Nock and Babbit) anti-intellectual/provincial prior to the Second World War. A lot of the attorneys/financiers who wrote/ran organizations like the American Legion, American Liberty League, etcetera, were as little likely to know who Sinclair Lewis was as Alexis De Tocqueville (I came across one letter in an archive that referred to Lewis as “St. Clair Lewis–whoever he is”).

2) World War Two–and the sharp turn of the Soviets from ally to enemy (with the concommitant rise in awareness of the Stalinist Terror)–turned a lot of intellectuals toward conservativism, and gave rise to the need by conservatives to become more intellectual (win with ideas rather than guns).

As to the second half of your post, I think it’s more, with Democrats, a kind of “frog in the boiling pot” lesson-learning than “hand in the frying pan.” That is, guys like Johnson, McCarthy, and Humphrey were all staunch anti-communists, and the more intellectual liberals like Moynihan began to see the failures of Great Society programs to address various social problems, etcetera, resulting in our only successful Democratic President in a quarter (or, depending on how you view it, nearly a half) century being Clinton, who was hardly going to “ban the money changers from the temple.”

As to all that, what we really need is a visit from Rick Perlstein! He seems like just the guy for this kind of question…


Anonymous Coward 05.04.06 at 3:45 am

“crazy ‘wipe the slate clean and start over’ schemes…”
“…something so ambitiously unworkable that it was right and proper to come all Burkean correct on them?…”

this is the symbol of such a project… of course, it’s not Democrat and it’s comtemporary not historical.
But then, it’s the most radical thing attempted since 1789 or 1917…


josh 05.04.06 at 3:59 am

I don’t know about Burke; but there certainly was something of a Tocqueville renaissance in the English-speaking world in the post-war period. He hadn’t been wholly forgotten — later European analysts of the US were aware of him, and esteemed him, as the predecessor to whose example they strove to measure up (Bryce, writing in 1888, described Tocqueville’s book on America as ‘famous’; but there was a period when Bryce’s work on America was better known, in the English-speaking world, than Tocqueville’s). But he was certainly not regarded as a canonical political thinker, in Britain or America. The revival of his reputation — his rise to prominence as a social and political theorist and analyst of the US — had a great deal to do with mid-20th century politics — the experience of totalitarianism and the Cold War, but also worries about growing conformism in Western society — and with academic trends (such as the rise of sociology and American Studies as disciplines). It also helped that Tocqueville’s papers had been acquired and brought to America shortly after WWII by George Pierson of Yale, whose book on Tocqueville played an important part in Tocqueville’s revival in the US(I’m not sure, but I tend to think that a look at the secondary literature on Tocqueville would bear out Nisbet’s claim even more than the publication info usefully cited above); other important figures in Tocqueville’s American revival (as far as my impressions go) were Max Lerner, Louis Hartz (I suspect), and possibly also Riesman and the LOnely Crowd folks. In the UK, Tocqueville had been even more obscure until the post-war period, when he was promoted by, among others, Hugh Trevor-Roper (who, I’m told, was responsible for adding Tocqueville to the set readings for Oxford historians when he was Regius Professor in the late ’50s/early ’60s), Jacob Talmon, Hugh Brogan, Max Beloff, and the emigre Tocqueville scholar J.P. Mayer.
As to the ideological dimension of all of this, most of Tocqueville’s advocatges were certainly anti-Communist, and broadly-speaking liberal. THe British Tocquevillians just cited were more or less men of the moderate centre-right (though Talmon is hard to categorize, and I don’t know about Mayer).In the U.S., however, my impression is that those most responsible for promoting Tocqueville tended to be (anti-Communist) liberals, rather than conservatives.


John Holbo 05.04.06 at 4:07 am

Thanks Josh, one of my own formative intellectual experiences in college was reading Tocqueville in one class while I was reading Hartz in another. So I tend to take Hartz as establishing a baseline, for Tocqueville’s prominence in the 50’s. It is possible that my line needs recalibration. As you say, the idea that Tocqueville was reborn as a conversative darling in whom the poor (anti-communist) liberals just wished they could get their hooks – well, that doesn’t sound right.


Brett Bellmore 05.04.06 at 5:44 am

“, resulting in our only successful Democratic President in a quarter (or, depending on how you view it, nearly a half) century being Clinton, who was hardly going to “ban the money changers from the temple.””

But who did try to nationalize the health care industry. Which certainly looks like a “crazy ‘wipe the slate clean and start over’ scheme” to me.


Timothy Burke 05.04.06 at 6:33 am

I don’t think Democrats, even the New Dealers, map well against the “wipe the slate” clean constituency. I think there was such a group, and that they occasionally shaped actual initiatives, but that they weren’t part of party politics. They were bureaucrats, experts, architects, polemicists and so on: Corbusier, for one good example. Democratic administrations in the US may have been slightly more prone to opening the door to them: one thing that the “wipe the slate clean” types did have in common was enormous faith in the state as an institution, which arguably was a mark of New Deal Democrats as well. But I don’t think that’s an easily sustainable claim: a lot of the most significant kinds of projects of this kind manifested at local or state levels, and they also did so sporadically or in an incomplete fashion.


Maurice Meilleur 05.04.06 at 6:34 am

Another question to ask alongside the “what harebrained utopian schemes did the Democrats ever dream up?” would be “which ones, if there were any, were ever actually put in place?” The answer is, none. Even the shape of the Great Society programs reflect the political battles and compromises that went into their creation and implementation — they reflected, for example, American federalism and a political culture that stresses equality in terms of opportunity and process, and freedom in terms of absence of restraint. Yet conservative critics like to think that Democrats like FDR and Johnson came to power and swept political culture, institutional memory, and Constitutional principle and precedent aside. (I don’t mean “right-wing” critics, by the way, since the political right, as distinct from conservatives, have no necessary allegiance to tradition and precedent themselves.) History — those pesky facts! — doesn’t bear out their complaints. On domestic policy, Democrats have had to compromise, to be opportunistic, to bargain just as much as have Republicans.

Oh, and Brett (#4)? Hogwash. If by “nationalize health care” you mean even something as mild as a “single payer” system, you’re quite wrong. That the Clinton task force was proposing single-payer care was a nightmare conjured by insurance companies (and not all of them, by the way) to scare Mr. and Mrs. Peoria. A better comparison would be the Massachusetts plan that Gov. Romney just signed into law. You know, the one that doesn’t put price caps on health care or eradicate private insurance, but instead subsidizes those prices and premiums.


Maurice Meilleur 05.04.06 at 6:36 am

Timothy, I stepped on your point.


Tom T. 05.04.06 at 7:10 am

Re: #1

Joel, your statement that WWII “gave rise to the need by conservatives to become more intellectual (win with ideas rather than guns)” suggests that there was some earlier period in which conservatives advocated winning power in the US through violent means (i.e., with guns). What did you have in mind?


JRoth 05.04.06 at 7:34 am

Indeed, Grett, the failure of HillaryCare was its commitment to bending over backwards to avoid even hinting of nationalized medicine. The resulting pretzel policy was unattractive, to say the least. Of course, it would also have resulted in less of our national wealth being put into health care while increasing access and doing nothing to prevent the wealthy from getting whatever care they could afford. So I can see why you would oppose it.

I’m genuinely curious, Brett: are you actually ignorant of the facts of what Hillary proposed, or are you just here to score points/derail the discussion. Because your comment is indefensible on the merits.


Barry 05.04.06 at 8:21 am

“But who did try to nationalize the health care industry. Which certainly looks like a “crazy ‘wipe the slate clean and start over’ scheme” to me.”

Posted by Brett Bellmore ·

Bullsh*t. The Clinton plan would have even kept the insurance companies in the picture. Any plan even distantly approaching ‘wipe the slate clean and start over’ would have had the destruction of the health insurance companies as a starting point.


SamChevre 05.04.06 at 8:26 am

I’m looking for policies with the following characteristics:

1) Associated with those who would today be Democrats
2) Abruptly changing existing social/political relations
3) That were actually implemented
4) That had results that were unexpected to their proponents and that at least some portion of the American public thought/thinks are undesirable

Off-the-top of my head list:
-School desegregation by using military force. No proponent thought the end result would be to completely change neighborhood demographics
-“Slum clearance”/public housing–No proponent thought it would destroy communities and increase disorder
-Making unwed mothers eligible for AFDC
-Baker vs Carr
-Civil Rights Act of 1964–no proponent thought it would outlaw family wages or require anything like affirmative action


hw 05.04.06 at 8:28 am

The commenters are right about Tocqueville — he went into eclipse between the 1880s and the 1940s, and was then re-discovered. When he was out of fashion, the foreign observer who everyone read was Lord Bryce, who published his study of the US, The American Commonwealth, in 1888. I wrote a seminar paper on the Tocqueville-Bryce-Tocqueville oscillation a long time ago…


Maurice Meilleur 05.04.06 at 8:40 am

Samchevre, your standards for identifying policies lower the bar tremendously.

Speaking for myself, I took the “social engineering” and “wiping the slate clean” provisions on their face. “Abrupt change” opens the door to many more policies (like the ones you mention), but it also makes the question far less interesting and meaningful, in light of conservative critiques of Democrats and American liberalism for being either “sinister, bloodless brainiacs” or “sinister, bloody Jacobins.”

(Those are John’s words, obviously, but I think they’re an accuarate summary of the critiques in question.)


Slocum 05.04.06 at 8:49 am

I’m curious: when was the last time that the Democrats proposed something so ambitiously unworkable that it was right and proper to come all Burkean correct on them?

The first example that comes to mind is a leftish enthusiasm for the idea of reshaping society for (and by) a resource-scarce future. I know a number of people (mostly academics) who are attracted to the vision of social transformation that, for example, Kunstler describes in “The Long Emergency”.

I will readily concede that the chances of these things becoming actual policy proposals put forward by the Democratic leadership are minimal, but the tendencies are definitely there. Environmental apocalism is again in fashion, and there is a strong sense that these folks hope for these effects more than fear them. Our lifestyles are stupid, wasteful, and aesthetically tasteless and it is only right that ‘peak oil’ and the coming energy shortages should soon smite them. Kunstler doesn’t fear the end of the viability of Walmart, McDonalds, the suburbs, etc–rather he clearly hopes for it. And this does not seem to be an isolated, fringe opinion; there is a lot of sympathy out there.


John Holbo 05.04.06 at 8:52 am

I agree that Samchevre is lowering the bar, with regard to the question of whether there is any real warrant for these Burke-derived conservative rhetorical strategies. But the question of how many things he can find that fit his more modest bill is still interesting, and more or less germane to the discussion.


Sean McCann 05.04.06 at 8:56 am

not quite wipe-the-slate-clean, but I think the efforts to democratize the party nomination processes in the ’70s, and the whole preceding history of the effort to break party power, had big unintended consequences–i.e., the rise of the radical right.


CKR 05.04.06 at 9:00 am

If we look at President Bush’s actions, Social Security. Conservatives also looked with askance at AFDC, which Bill Clinton ended.

Social Security, with its Medicare add-on, doesn’t meet John Holbo’s criteria, however. It could be considered a wipe-the-slate clean sort of initiative in that it provided a broad safety net for the first time in US history. However, it’s far more success than failure, enough of a success that voters weren’t buying Bush’s attempt to destroy it, so scratch that. AFDC probably wasn’t as wipe-the-slate-clean at first, since Social Security was already there, but it did have unintended consequences, like discouraging marriage by participants, so it might almost fit.

We might also include the Bay of Pigs fiasco, brought on by a Democratic administration, but certain segments of the conservative persuasion today would probably have done the same thing.


Steve 05.04.06 at 9:12 am

Wipe the slate clean from above:
1) Hillarycare
2) Abortion Ruling by Supreme Court in 1973
3) Gay marriage rulings by Massachusetts Supreme Court
4) Affirmative Action (i.e. imposition of quotas, which are explicitly contradictory to both the language of Civil Rights legislation and professed intention of that legislation, as well as any human reading of the US Constitution)
5) Arguments as to the 2nd Amendment (not successful-yet).

Notice the pattern. These Democratic policies are typically imposed by the Courts (i.e. pointy-headed academics who happen to be in the judiciary)-not voted on by the people or the legislatures.

“Court decisions are sort of poor candidates, formally, but some will say that this is precisely what makes them such disastrous social policy mandates.”

Also notice that this is precisely wrong. Court decisions are the best candidates for this type of imposition, because they are by definition non-democratic. Legislative decisions, even if silly social-engineering, are at least supported by the people (or their representatives)-if they weren’t they wouldn’t pass.

So a reasonable way of restating your question: which significant policy/social changes were imposed by judicial decisions?

Another way of restating it: Scratch a Democrat-you won’t find a democrat underneath.



Blar 05.04.06 at 9:25 am

Hmmmm, crazy utopian “wipe the slate clean” social engineering experiments? You want something that Democrats have actually enacted, so I suppose that this won’t do.


Sebastian Holsclaw 05.04.06 at 9:27 am

I’m not sure it has been well studied, but there is something around the area of the unintended consequences of trying to apply civil rights precedent in the mental health field that has had hugely problematic (and I presume unintended) consequences. Like many problematic initiatives I think they reacted to a real problem (improper institutionalization) but did so with such a broad stroke as to cause a large number of other problems. A more conservative (if that is what you want to call it) or incrementalist approach would probably have led to a better outcome for lots of current street people.


Barbar 05.04.06 at 9:27 am

Hey guys, I have an interesting idea: I think Hillarycare was a good example of a proposed radical wipe-the-slate clean policy. Can anyone punch any holes in that idea? I THOUGHT NOT. REPUBLICANS RULEZ, DEMOCRATS DROOLEZ.


SamChevre 05.04.06 at 9:31 am

I somewhat agree with Steve–the radical changes tend to be judicial, not legislative.

Part of my point was that for policies changed through the legislative process, the level of radicalness is not really that high.

For the most radical changes of the last 80 years, I would list:
1) The increasing power of the federal government relative to the states. In 1920 it took a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol, in 1940 it took only a law to ban marijuana.
2) The application of the federal Bill of Rights to the states.
3) The change in interpretation of the 1st Amendment to ban most public expressions of religiousity, most especially the school prayer cases.


Mark Schmitt 05.04.06 at 9:32 am

This is a fascinating post, much to think about. It was always my understanding that Burke and Tocqueville were revived in the 50s, but then I get this history from the right’s self-created mythologies.

If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy Albert O. Hirschman’s wonderful short book, The Rhetoric of Reaction, which treats each of the conservative arguments against progressive schemes as an old and stale frame.


Uncle Kvetch 05.04.06 at 9:38 am

3) Gay marriage rulings by Massachusetts Supreme Court

Sorry, but I fail to see how expanding the right to marry to include same-sex couples constitutes “wiping the slate clean.”


Anderson 05.04.06 at 9:44 am

I would guess that Tocqueville’s vision of America and Russia as the two great powers of the world made a lot of people start taking him seriously in 1945 & thereafter.


Barbar 05.04.06 at 9:45 am

The same goes for every other item on Steve’s list, I believe. I especially like the bitching about affirmative action as a “radical” policy proposal contrary to everything America holds dear, when slavery was written into the Constitution. Then again, slavery was removed by a painless gradual incremental process. (Not that I am in favor of affirmative action, but come on.)


Barry 05.04.06 at 9:46 am

Uncle kvetch, it will inveitably lead to the destruction of Western Civilization, and our conquest by Islamofascism, so close enough.


Russell L. Carter 05.04.06 at 9:53 am

I’d like to point out to those lamenting the nefarious “wipe-the-slate-clean” scheming that you’ve overlooked the especially pernicious suffrage (as well as other civil rights) and environmental law changes that wiped away so much freedom.


BigMacAttack 05.04.06 at 10:17 am

If you say name something ambitious and unworkable(or the risk of it working poorly is very real), and I say Nationalizing Health Care and/or Hilary Care, and you say that doesn’t count, the conversation is pointless.

Talk amongst yourselves but please don’t act all surprised the next time the American public shoots down one of your schemes. (And yea the same is true of George Bush and SS as well.)

Gay Marriage is a radical proposal. It breaks with 1000s of years of tradition. You might say the same thing about ending slavery. But the question isn’t is it right, the question is, is it radical and is the implementation top down. The answer to that is yes, don’t pretend otherwise.

You did set the bar extremely high. I am not sure the proposal has to wipe the entire slate clean, it just needs to break radically with tradition, as opposed to being an organic branch. (Yeah, yeah, how do you know the difference? Good question.)

Sorry, if I am just repeating Steve, but I just read his post, and my mind is made up to post.


BigMacAttack 05.04.06 at 10:24 am

Actually, reading more post posts, now I am glad I posted.

If the only time you think it is proper to get all Burkean is when the proposal the proposal calls for wiping the entire slate clean, you really are a degenerate Jacobin.


Maurice Meilleur 05.04.06 at 10:28 am

Oh, damn it all. Here come the effing trolls.


joel turnipseed 05.04.06 at 10:55 am

Tom T. – “ideas vs. guns” was about Cold War/foreign policy battle with Soviets (and we had used armed force against the initial revolution, with U.S. troops in Russia from 1918-1920), but even domestically, the bloody–and frequently lethal–labor battles of the 20s, and especially 30s, no doubt left many conservatives thinking of a better way… but also, as many have said, and probably led-by, w/r/t Tocqueville (or funding for, say, Encounter), many of these same battles were fought by anti-communist liberals.

Which meshes with a lot of the comments above, vis. The New Deal as radical innovation: it’s my impression that FDR was actually quite conservative, especially as compared to his rhetoric–and that a lot of industrialists/bankers saw The New Deal as a way to cement their emergence in the face of previous economic power-holders & also against more radical labor forces. Certainly populist demagogues like Huey Long thought so, as well as The Nation associate editor Mauritz Halgren (to use one example) in his The Gay Reformer: Profits Before Plenty under Franklin D. Roosevelt (Knopf, 1935). An excellent account of the actual machinations of businessmen/industrialists can be found in Thomas Ferguson’s essay in Fraser & Gerstle’s The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980.

Mark Schmitt–thanks for the Hirshman recommendation: looks good (and is in the bag).


joel turnipseed 05.04.06 at 11:20 am

Uh, Steve — you forgot what is arguably the most significant Supreme Court vote of the 20th century: The Switch in Time that Saved Nine (which, had it gone the other way in the aftermath of the Sick Chicken Vote & in the face of FDRs court-packing, would have put the U.S. into a tailspin).

OTOH, your point is not well-taken. The court’s power is not to shape society–but to determine which emerging shapes can continue to develop. Which is to say: if there weren’t already powerful forces at work in each of your cases, there would have been nothing for the Supreme Court to say about them–and the Court certainly did not “impose” them on society.


BigMacAttack 05.04.06 at 11:40 am

Maurice Meilleur,

Now you are parodying liberals. Hands over your ears screaming nanny nanny nue nue I cannot hear you when the ‘unwashed’ conservative masses chime in.


Gene O'Grady 05.04.06 at 12:00 pm

Venturing into an area I know nothing about, it was my impression that Burke was read in English departments in the 20’s and 30’s for his aesthetic views and connections with Johnson and his circle. Not sure how that correlates to his later political writings.


Uncle Kvetch 05.04.06 at 12:28 pm

Heavy sigh. I’ll probably hate myself in the morning. But here goes nothing.

Gay Marriage is a radical proposal. It breaks with 1000s of years of tradition. You might say the same thing about ending slavery.

Sheer, unmitigated piffle. According to “tradition” in most societies through most of human history, marriage was an economic transaction between two households, an exchange of one form of property for another. Marriage as we know it today is 150 years old, tops.

The comparison with slavery is specious. The abolition of slavery had an immediate and profound effect on millions of people–the slaves themselves and their former owners–and less directly, it could be said to have reshaped the whole of society in fundamental ways. Pace Rick Santorum, there is simply no analogous effect that the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples could possibly have on heterosexual married couples. The “radicalness” of same-sex marriage is simply stated as fact–it has yet to be convincingly argued.

In short, BMA, if gay marriage were instituted nationwide tomorrow, Britney Spears would still be able to get married in Vegas on a drunken whim, and then get divorced 48 hours later and dismiss the whole thing as a “joke.” The institution will survive.


BigMacAttack 05.04.06 at 12:48 pm

Uncle Kvetch,

Marriage is still an important economic transaction. Just ask a kid with an unwed mom.

Marriage as we know it dates back to the Roman Republic and beyond. Or marriage as we know it dates back to no fault divorce or it dates back to about .0001 seconds ago.

And one very striking thing about marriage across cultures and times is that it is/was always(almost?) between men and women.

I really don’t care all that much one way or the other about gay marriage.

But the idea that it isn’t a radical proposal is silly.


Barbar 05.04.06 at 12:52 pm

And granting women the right to vote was also a radical proposal. Blah blah blah.


Uncle Kvetch 05.04.06 at 1:13 pm

But the idea that it isn’t a radical proposal is silly.

Like I said: always stated, but never actually argued.

By definition, a radical change should have radical effects. I’m still waiting to hear what kinds of fundamental societal transformations (along the lines of, say the abolition of slavery) SSM would bring about. I see you’re no more capable of answering that question than Senator Santorum.


Ben Alpers 05.04.06 at 1:20 pm

Here’s an admittedly crude measure of the place of Tocqueville in the American academy in the mid-20th century.

I just did a JSTOR search looking for “Tocqueville” in titles and abstracts of articles and reviews in history, polisci, philosophy, public policy and sociology journals.

From 1930-45: 16 hits.

From 1946-1960: 19 hits.

From 1961-1975: 65 hits.

From 1976-1990: 90 hits.

I was actually a bit surprised at how few hits this search got, especially after 1946. So I did it again looking for “Tocqueville” anywhere in the text. Here are the results:

From 1930-45: 197 hits.

From 1946-1960: 707 hits.

From 1961-1975: 1295 hits.

From 1976-1990: 2012 hits.

That seems to match more or less the pattern reported by Nisbet.

Incidentally, in the early years, as has been suggested above, George W. Pierson seems to have been the key figure in American academic thinking about de Tocqueville.


Ben Alpers 05.04.06 at 1:33 pm

On the question of radical Democratic programs, I’m surprised nobody has mentioned the Great Society’s Community Action Programs (CAPs). In fact, I think even these fall well short of the “wipe the slate clean” Jacobin model that John is asking about. But they’re probably about as radical as actual federal programs proposed by Democratic administrations ever got.

FDR’s suggestion in his 1944 State of the Union Address of a “Second Bill of Rights” that would include the right to “a useful and remunerative job,” the right “to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation,” the right to a decent home, the right to healthcare, and the right to a good education (among others) might suggest — especially to those on the right — some slate wiping, but as these suggestions never really became specific policy proposals, it’s very hard to tell. And as one of FDR’s other proposed rights was “the right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad,” even this hardly sounds like a truly radical departure.

Incidentally, didn’t Nixon introduce affirmative action at the federal level? Last time I checked, he wasn’t a Democrat.


JB 05.04.06 at 1:33 pm

John, thanks for a very interesting post. There’s an useful book that touches on the Tocqueville aspect of this discussion: “Reconsidering Tocqueville’s Democracy in America”, edited by Abraham Eisenstadt (Rutgers, 1988), with interesting essays by, among others, Nisbet, Arthur Schlesinger, Daniel Rodgers, and Sean Wilentz. Eisenstadt and Rodgers both suggest that the “Tocqueville revival” probably dates to 1945 with the publication of Phillips Bradley’s unabridged addition, which appeared as WWII ended, quickly becoming a “major classic among the intelligentsia”, and, in its Vintage paperback edition, widely used in college classrooms. According to Rodgers, Richard Heffner’s 1956 mass-produced, abridged edition was used in classrooms but was also popular amongst the general public, widely available in “bus stations and neighborhood bookstores”. As others have noted, Tocqueville was familiar enough by the late forties to be a major influence on Riesman, Glazer, and Denny (1950), Hartz (1955), and Lerner (1957).


Ian Myles Slater 05.04.06 at 1:38 pm

A Tocqueville renaissance of sorts, if not on a large scale, was certainly in the works prior to World War II. George Wilson Pierson’s “Tocqueville and Beaumont in America” appeared in 1938 (O.U.P.) the current paperback edition, from Johns Hopkins University Press (1998), is under the title of “Tocqueville in America.

This is a bit less accurate, but may suggest that the continuing emphasis on Tocqueville as a thinker may be thought more important than the biographical documentation, or the constrasting views of the two companions. Unhappily, the abridged version, edited by Dudley C. Lunt, which came out in 1959, had already used the “Tocqueville in America” form of the title, and since even the shorter text is over 500 pages, this can lead to considerable confusion for those ordering a used copy at a “bargain price.” (I note that Amazon does not distinguish the editions very clearly.)


theCoach 05.04.06 at 1:48 pm

Wouldn’t it be better if we looking for something that was implemented, and had observable results?


Sebastian Holsclaw 05.04.06 at 1:52 pm

“Wouldn’t it be better if we looking for something that was implemented, and had observable results?”

Sure, HUD as implemented before Reagan and Bush I got their hands on it.


Martin James 05.04.06 at 2:03 pm

I am divided over this question. On the one hand it does seem hard to come up with specific programs that seem radically liberal.

On the other hand this is just because liberal sentiment is a triumphant success.

This doesn’t mean the conservative commentators of years gone by were wrong as to the consequences of liberal policies from their point of view. Just that we don’t see things from their values.

I would say that by far the most significant of these is gender equality. Its a majority preference today. Yet, I would have to say that the typical conservative commentator of 100 years ago would find the family relations of today beyond a nightmare.

Similarly with our attitude toward the federal governments and the welfare state.

Material success, potential and personal growth, gender and racial equality and seem to tilt the scale in it the favor of liberal policies.

But the conservative critique is based on the concept of corruption. Both left and right agree that we have not cured the problem of corruption.

Are we convinced that conservative critique is wrong in reagard to corruption? Just because the current set of leaders accused of corruption does not represent liberal policies, do we really know that their corruption ( assuming it exists) is the result of not having more liberal policies rather than being the result of the welfare state?

Are we sure they were wrong to say, if you start down path x, you will get people y even though people y may still be spouting the old rhetoric?

If so, what does explain the failure of liberal governments to thrive on the path they were heading? What makes the conservative critique appealing to so many?


Rick Perlstein 05.04.06 at 3:27 pm

I wish I had some time and energy to join you. In lieu of that, I will write a short essay limning the major recent political policy that most tragically partakes of the Jacobin fantasy of “wiping the slate clean”:

Iraq Iraq. Iraq, Iraq Iraq, Iraq: Iraq; Iraq, Iraq. Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq Iraq. Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. Iraq!


Kieran Healy 05.04.06 at 3:42 pm

Ben – probably need to standardize those counts by the # of articles in jstor for each period.


Kieran Healy 05.04.06 at 3:46 pm

Never mind about the gratuitous cryptogram snark – which, by the by, is out of character with the tone of the rest of the book.

Not so much out of character for Nisbet in general. In an review of Nisbet’s _The Sociological Tradition_, Gianfranco Poggi complains that Nisbet gives Marx the role of “quello che prende gli schiaffi” — the character in the play who is there to be slapped around from beginning to end.


abb1 05.04.06 at 4:14 pm

There’s nothing radical there whatsoever. The political system itself is very conservative, reactive, not proactive.


yoyo 05.04.06 at 4:17 pm

What about drug criminalisation?


josh 05.04.06 at 4:22 pm

Thanks to all the relevant posters for the interesting info on Tocqueville’s ‘revival’. I’ve posted a few thoughts prompted by this discussion (which, however, studiously avoid any discussion of current, or indeed concrete, politics) on another, new blog I’m involved in, here:


Sebastian Holsclaw 05.04.06 at 4:31 pm

Drug criminalization is an interesting case where both liberals and conservatives have joined together to make things really awful.


abb1 05.04.06 at 4:48 pm

To name ‘Hillarycare’ here is ludicrous, I really don’t have any polite words to address you, people.

You should’ve mentioned that FDR’s manifesto (the ‘economic bill of rights’ or whatever it was called) and pretend that was a serious document.


Brett Bellmore 05.04.06 at 5:29 pm

“Bullsh*t. The Clinton plan would have even kept the insurance companies in the picture.”

Which simply established it as more in the fascist vein than socialist; Instead of abolishing insurance companies, they would have been “assimilated”, borglike, becoming de facto apendages of the government, offering only those insurance packages the government approved of, while privately purchasing treatment outside the government approved plans would result in massive fines.

No, sorry, but it WAS a plan for a government takeover of the health care industry. And not even very cleverly disguised.


Tom T. 05.04.06 at 8:24 pm

Re: #33

Joel, thanks. I’d misread you.


ben alpers 05.04.06 at 9:55 pm

Ben – probably need to standardize those counts by the # of articles in jstor for each period.

I had thought of that, Kieran. But in addition to that being more work than it’s worth, I’m not sure one has to. I assume that there are more articles in jstor the closer you get to the present (until you get past the horizon at which articles go to jstor, at which point one would see a dramatic dropoff). But I also assume that, for at least much of this period, the sheer number of journals and articles in journals was increasing.

But to the extent that the (presumed) growth in jstor articles reflects an overall growth in journal articles, one might not want to control for it. It all depends on whether one is interested in the amount of work published on Tocqueville or the percentage of work devoted to Tocqueville.

But I fear that I have already tread far onto quantitative ground on which qualitative folk like I go only at the risk of looking ridiculous.

So I’ll shut up.


brooksfoe 05.04.06 at 10:45 pm

Which simply established it as more in the fascist vein than socialist; Instead of abolishing insurance companies, they would have been “assimilated”, borglike, becoming de facto apendages of the government,

You mean like airplane manufacturers?


brooksfoe 05.04.06 at 10:52 pm

The thing is, democratic governments essentially never adopt wild-eyed pie-in-the-sky radical reformations on the domestic scene, except in situations of national crisis or immediate post-revolutionary periods. There are too many domestic stakeholders for truly sweeping ideological attempts to remake society to be adopted, at least if your model is the elimination of the nuclear family or something like that. Such sweeping remakings can of course be attempted in colonies and countries you’ve occupied through warfare, because their citizens don’t vote in your elections. Hence Iraq.


josh 05.04.06 at 11:59 pm

In response to #58: I’m also a non-quantitative person, so have no idea what I’m talking about; but it occurs to me that one possible approach would be to look at the number of articles on Tocqueville in relation to the number of articles on several other thinkers. This of course wouldn’t control for any changes in the prominence/popularity/academic coverage of those other thinkers, but it might at least suggest whether there was a steady increase in the number of articles dealing with political thinkers generally — due to the larger number of journals and articles generally — or if mentions/discussions of Tocqueville increased more significantly relative to (some) other thinkers.


Scott Martens 05.05.06 at 1:57 am

I’m not exactly a Democrat, but the more intellectual sectors of the granola left view a lot of environmental engineering as “ambitiously unworkable”. The Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to control major rivers, massive dam projects like Glen Canyon, the New Orleans levees – those sorts of things are seen as having been too ambitious and unworkable and having very negative unexpected consequences. They are, to be sure, not specially Democrat issues, but large scale environmental engineering is often seen as analogous to large scale social engineering.


abb1 05.05.06 at 2:02 am

Oh, Ben Alpers already mentioned fdr’s ‘economic bill of rights’. Sorry, I didn’t see it yesterday, it was late here.


Brett Bellmore 05.05.06 at 6:15 am

“You mean like airplane manufacturers?”

That would be a fair comparison, IF airplane manufacturers were limited to selling a short list of government designed aircraft, homebuilts were a crime, and aircraft mechanics were all drafted.

Airplane manufacturers are in bed with the government, but they’re not quite as under the thumb as Hillary intended everyone in the health care industry (Including us customers) to be. Still, you do have a point: The left’s fondness for “no sparrow shall fall” levels of regulatory oversight, combined with the right’s habit of financial support for industry, is pushing us in the direction of genuine fascism.


abb1 05.05.06 at 7:21 am

Oh. My. God. Brett. It’s alive!

Yes, Merging Of Corporate Power And State Power.


LowLife 05.05.06 at 8:33 am

There’s the designated hitter rule. Though somewhat workable I’m sure Burke wouldn’t think it was Cricket.


anon 05.05.06 at 11:46 am

Carl Sandburg references de Tocqueville in The Prairie Years, published in 1927. See James Hurt’s discussion of Sandburg’s biography as a work of American civil religion for why this is interesting as a part of the revival of interest in de Tocqueville, irrespective of your views on Sandburg’s work.


digamma 05.05.06 at 1:35 pm

1) The increasing power of the federal government relative to the states. In 1920 it took a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol, in 1940 it took only a law to ban marijuana.
The question Democrats never asked themselves at the time was, “What do we do if Republicans get control of this omnipotent government we’ve created?”


abb1 05.05.06 at 1:50 pm

Yes, good question, but I thought the most impressive power grab by the feds happened under certain Republican president, the oxymoronically honest railroad lawyer guy. I guess he never asked himself and couldn’t even imagine that his enemies the Southerners will be controlling all branches of the federal government one day.


SamChevre 05.05.06 at 1:59 pm

OK, mark it on the calendar–I entire ly agree with abb1.


joel turnipseed 05.05.06 at 3:55 pm

Well, I think I agree w/you 62.4% of the time (or is it 37.6%?), abb1, so it’s not worth marking on the calendar–but absolutely, Abe’s bones are spinning at high rpms that the current government is acting in his name.

As to Sandburg: Money quote is Wilson’s “The corn is getting high, indeed!” when panning it in Patriotic Gore as the worst thing to befall Lincoln since John Wilkes Booth.


anon 05.05.06 at 5:02 pm

Don’t agree re Sandburg. Have you read the Hurt article? Have you read Sandburg?


Z 05.06.06 at 9:49 am

Interestingly, the revival of interest in Tocqueville in the US (which I think is genuine) was followed (but later) by a revival of interest in France (maybe starting in the late 70s). That fact entails peculiar consequences, not the least funny being that studying Tocqueville in France today is distinctly associated with an American approach to social science. Alexis himself might have been proud.


serial catowner 05.06.06 at 11:33 am

For totally pie-in-the-sky initiatives that became disasters, it’s hard to beat the rightwingers.

Just in the past century, we see the unregulated capitalism of the 20s, Prohibition, Isolationism, and the War on Drugs.

At the time, they were proud to be Prohibitionists or Isolationists, or, best of all, tycoons. They left their fingerprints all over the trainwreck.

And these were unabashedly big mistakes. Anyone who’s been in the country long has a relative affected in a major way by at least one of them.


Mario 05.07.06 at 11:52 pm

I would say the Total Force Policy is the only enacted policy that fits your request.

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