When Whigs Attack!

by John Holbo on March 9, 2005

I’m rereading Louis Hartz’ 1955 classic, The Liberal Tradition in America, one of the first academic books that fired my brain when I got to college. (David Greenstone taught me. I should read his Lincoln book out of filial piety.)

Here’s a bit on Hartz by Arthur Schlesinger: "The broad liberal objective is a balanced and flexible "mixed
economy," thus seeking to occupy that middle ground between
capitalism and socialism whose viability has so long been denied
by both capitalists and socialists." Interesting shifts in usage since that was written. For a Democrat to stump for a ‘mixed’ economy today would be ballot box poison. But all Schlesinger is saying is: the New Deal. Which folks like.

Hartz’ basic thesis is packed into his Tocqueville epigraph: "The great advantage of the Americans is, that they have arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution; and that they are born equal, instead of becoming so."

As Matthew Yglesias put it the other day: "I’m not sure whether to think it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the
American tradition has turned out this way, as a vicious family
squabble between what are really two strains of Whiggery rather than a
grand ideological debate between Tories and socialists, but that’s the
way it goes."

As Hartz explains it, socialism never takes root in the US because socialism is what you get when a liberal gets exasperated, in a ‘why won’t you DIE?’ way, conronted with some Feudal relic, and starts reaching for some serious levers of power to take care of this problem. (That’s putting it a bit baldly, but that’s the thesis.) America "lacks a genuine revolutionary tradition … And this being the case, it lacks also a tradition of reaction … and becomes as indifferent to the challenge of socialism in the later era as it was unfamiliar with the heritage of feudalism in the earlier one." As a result, there is also a sort of ‘fish last to know it’s in water’ cluelessness about the ubiquity of our Lockean liberalism. The chief danger is ‘tyranny of opinion’, excess unanimity. "When a liberal community faces military and ideological pressure from without it transforms eccentricity into sin, and the irritating figure of the bourgeois gossip flowers into the frightening figure of an A. Mitchell Palmer or a Senator McCarthy." And, of course: "The American liberal community [during the Red Scares of the 1920’s and 1950’s] "contained far fewer radicals than any other Western society but the hysteria against them was much vaster than anywhere else." Ever was it so.

Hartz is capable of fine little turns: "There can be an appalling complexity to innocence, especially if your point of departure is guilt." (Think about it.)

And: "The task of the cultural analyst is not to discover simplicity, or even to discover unity, for simplicity and unity do not exist, but to drive a wedge of rationality through the pathetic indecisions of social thought." (Yes, I think there is deep socratic wisdom in that formulation.)

And another smart thing: "In politics men who make speeches do not go out of their way to explain how differently they would speak if the enemies they had were larger in size or different in character. On the contrary whatever enemies they fight they paint in satanic terms, so that a problem sufficiently difficult to begin with in a liberal society becomes complicated further by the inevitable perspectives of political battle."

This implies double cluelessness, through narcissism of small differences. When you get angry at your enemies – and you will – you need some sufficiently pungent philosophical vocabulary to function as vent and vehicle for your excess of affect. Unfortunately, your enemy shares your major Lockean premises. So you hallucinate it is otherwise. (To use Hartz’ terms) whiggish liberals accuse democratic liberals of being socialists (or, latterly, communists; more lately, Islamofascists and traitors); democratic liberals accuse whiggish liberals of being aristocrats (or fascists.) Mark Schmitt had a post about this a few days ago: Andrew Sullivan reaching vainly for an point of righteous moral principle to separate himself from the other side regarding tax rates.

Of course – being a democrat, not a whig – I am most offended by the right’s recent indulgence in kneejerk pee wee hermeneutics of suspicion: the Powerline ‘the Democrats are traitors’ line; Instapundit ‘Ward Churchill is the authentic face of the left‘; Nelson Ascher’s Berlin Wall nonsense; Wretchard’s ‘the left is in a revenge plot with Islamofascism‘ line. Blah blah. It’s a form of motivated irrationality – a tactical deployment of stupidity, shutting down inconvenient conversations; it has its psychic satisfactions, I’m sure. But just as the best laid plans that start with ‘first I’ll get falling down drunk’ oft go astray, so tactical stupidity tends to turn strategic. Stupidity, like hope, is not a plan. (Like beer goggles: smear goggles. When you wear them, you can’t tell the difference between Matthew Yglesias and a shoe bomber.)

David Horowitz of course wins this race to the bottom with his Network. Others have mocked it into the ground, and rightly.I whipped this up to amuse. I call it: the Nutwork. Or: When Whigs Attack!

You might object that Darkseid is not a whig. But that just goes to show you don’t see, you don’t see. 

You might object that Darkseid is non-existent, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have feelings about him. Horowitz’ defines the left as an Injustice League of America because this is emotionally satisfactory. (Adapting his own terms, he is an ‘affective conservative’: an entertainment figure "whose politics are emotionally rather than intellectually based".) Figures like Ward Churchill are foregrounded due to their emotion resonance. The Network is a pattern language of negative affect. There is no particular reason why the objects of this emotion need to exist.

The individual profile pages of my Vast Whig Conspiracy need to be filled in. I suggest you amuse yourselves by crafting suitable entries in the grand ‘I can’t retract my claws!’ Horowitzian style; or a tut-tut ‘more in sorrow than in anger’ Instapundit tone. Or a brisk ‘up is clearly down’ Powerline voice. I think the game should be: keep it pseudo-analytic. Lots of broad hints at connections. That would be funniest. (Go ahead. Think of this as therapy. Get all the bad stuff out of your system so you can think straight once again.) Perhaps people can be shamed out of their illiberal nonsense. Really, it’s un-American to denounce good liberals as un-American. [UPDATE: Come to think of it, by the terms of my own argument, nothing could be more American than to denounce good American liberals as un-American. My point is that it’s our favorite rhetorical pastime, which is rather silly of us.]

Am I saying we can all just get along if we all just cut the nonsense and admit we are a nation of pragmatic liberals and Hartz was right? No, but I pretty much agree with what Timothy Burke says in this post. Count me in as a liberal sack of garbage.

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floopmeister 03.09.05 at 3:47 am

As a result, there is also a sort of ‘fish last to know it’s in water’ cluelessness about the ubiquity of our Lockean liberalism.

Spot on. It can be funny listening to American political dialogue from outside the bubble – the Democrats would be a centre left (and a hell of a lot more Centre than Left!) party in any other Western country, I feel.

Still, Australia suffers from the same syndrome of the Tyranny of Opinion, except we are all good Benthamite utilitarian Whigs.

Sorta the same, but we swapped the ‘Manifest Destiny’ claptrap for a ‘Lucky Country’ smugly materialist apoliticism…


Eric Rice 03.09.05 at 3:51 am

Are you sure Zod isn’t really Zed, Sean Connery’s character from Zardoz?


john 03.09.05 at 3:55 am

This is genius. Two points:

a) Was Glenn Reynolds really in Tron?

b) The “Plan 9 Guy” is, of course, Tor Johnson.


Mark Schmitt 03.09.05 at 5:11 am

This is hilarious — the only appropriate response to Horowitz.

But on the second page, your quote from “The Paranoid Style” is attributed to Douglas Hofstadter, the author of “Goedel, Escher, Bach,” when of course you mean the not as erudite Richard Hofstadter. Needless to say, if Horowitz got hold of that error, he would use it to discredit the ENTIRE PROJECT.


peter ramus 03.09.05 at 5:20 am

A squib for Discover the Nutwork.org:

Before entering politics, Tom Delay got his exterminator’s license at de Maistre’s famous St. Petersburg Academy in Sugarland, Texas, where he played wingback for the Exalted Executioners.


jholbo 03.09.05 at 5:22 am

Oops! Thanks Mark, I’ll correct my little Godelian slip.


Delicious pundit 03.09.05 at 6:42 am

Delicious! I especially dig the Flann O’Brien reference.

But — who the hell does Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) have to foreclose on to get some service around here? I also nominate Scar, from Lion King. And Coach Bob Knight, but only the photo where he’s got the bullwhip. And Mr. Pennybags.

This is fun. Were you also talking about a book or something?


eb 03.09.05 at 6:51 am

James Kloppenberg published an interesting retrospective on Hartz’ Liberal Tradition a couple of years ago in Reviews in American History. If you have access to Project Muse you can read it here.

I’ve been meaning to read Hartz (both Liberal Tradition and Founding of New Societies but I haven’t quite gotten there yet.


ogged 03.09.05 at 7:03 am

This is really very good. And though Mark is too gracious to mention it, you misspelled his last name too.


jholbo 03.09.05 at 7:30 am

Got it, ogged. Sorry Mark. Eric, I’m pretty sure I got Zod, not Zed. You remember? “Then die as you deserve to!” “Kneel before Zod!” All that. Zardoz is another of my favorites, thought. Great stuff.


eb 03.09.05 at 8:11 am

Also relevant here for thinking about the liberal tradition is this passage from Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, in reference to the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate over the Constitution:

“Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments… In effect they expropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that was never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests. In other words, the Federalists in 1787 hastened the destruction of whatever chance there was in America for the growth of an avowedly aristocratic conception of politics and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics. By attempting to confront and retard the thrust of the Revolution with the rhetoric of the Revolution, the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics. They thus brought the ideology of the Revolution to consummation and created a distinctly American political theory but only at the cost of eventually impoverishing later American thought.”


Keith M Ellis 03.09.05 at 9:13 am

Best. CT. US. Political. Post. Ever.


DeadHorseBeater 03.09.05 at 9:16 am

Being a big L Liberal, I’m quite glad to see the American political discourse ‘impoverished’ by not having socialists, aristo-feudalists, or fascists.

Good riddance to bad baggage, I say. May our never-ending flow of immigration keep us from ever having so much national cohesion that we abandon Liberal ideals.


belle waring 03.09.05 at 10:09 am

I love you sweetie. this is a perfect way to spend time on the internets.


Toadmonster 03.09.05 at 10:41 am

Not the Nuge!


abb1 03.09.05 at 12:50 pm

I know, this is all about Horowitz, but

“The broad liberal objective is a balanced and flexible “mixed economy,” thus seeking to occupy that middle ground between capitalism and socialism whose viability has so long been denied by both capitalists and socialists.”

‘Socialism’ here means ‘no private ownership of the means of production’, correct?

So, do you think it’s viable? Then why have we developed what we have in the US now – something that has nothing to do with capitalism or socialism – ‘corporotocracy’?



Steve 03.09.05 at 1:36 pm

A Very typical academic argument. Analyze the system to determine that all of your enemies are wrong (even though an honest analysis of the ‘system’ would suggest that all participants-your enemies and your friends-would be wrong). Kind of like deconstruction being used to disempower dead white males even though it self-evidently also applies to live black females (and even to the argument of deconstruction itself). Blah. I get it. My enemies suck. If I write an academic tome, I can use big words to say my enemies are suck, but don’t pretend your doing anything more sophisticated than singing ‘Fuck Bush’ to the choir.



Uncle Kvetch 03.09.05 at 2:52 pm

pee wee hermeneutics

Hee hee. Brilliant.


bob mcmanus 03.09.05 at 2:53 pm

The Serious Article

Proposed Texas Tax Plan:
$0-13415 +5.57% increase in tax burden
13415-22833 +5.16%
22833-31745 +4.95%
79271-100593 +1.65%
100493-140853 -0.43%
$140853+ -2.88%
“I am most offended by the right’s recent indulgence in kneejerk pee wee hermeneutics of suspicion”

Yes, this is the most important issue,the ungentlemanly rhetoric of the right. We all have our priorities.


jholbo 03.09.05 at 3:07 pm

Well, yes Bob. I didn’t really mean to suggest it is the most pressing problem, merely that – as a lefty – I am most sensitive to excesses coming from the right.

I agree that shifts in the tax burden are a more important issue than rhetorical excess.


The Navigator 03.09.05 at 3:14 pm

1. No way, no day, no how is Sesame Street’s Grover a Whig. I love Grover, as do all right-thinking people.

2. The entry for Frist, instead of bothering to draw “connections,” should just say:
“…Now, you’re a doctor. Do you believe that
tears and sweat can transmit HIV?
I don’t know. I can tell you …
(Off Camera) You don’t know?
I can tell you things like, like …
(Off Camera) Well, wait, let me stop you, you don’t know that, you believe that tears and sweat might be able to
transmit AIDS?
Yeah, no, I can tell you that HIV is not very transmissible as an element…”


Doug 03.09.05 at 4:58 pm

So why not open up the page to readers? Let them comment & draw connections, wiki-style.


Randolph Fritz 03.09.05 at 6:30 pm

Love the Nutwork.

I think, rather, that the Whiggism that Hartz observes is more a matter of the intense majoritarianism of the US political system, rather than any expression of personal beliefs; there are plenty of people in the USA who, in Europe, would count themselves as moderate socialists. But our party system is such that neither major party can be socialist. To repeat myself, the two major US parties are geographic coalitions rather than representatives of particular groups or views. They must therefore give at least the appearance of being “big tents”, and neither party can be socialist, though both have their “progressive” factions.


washerdreyer 03.09.05 at 7:03 pm

The inclusion of King John from Disney’s Robin Hood is priceless.


Matt Weiner 03.09.05 at 7:23 pm

I protest this anti-Grokism. Didn’t you read the end of Moominpappa at Sea?


Russell Arben Fox 03.09.05 at 7:36 pm

John, shouldn’t it just be “Tarkin [Grand Moff]”? I think the “Moff” is part of his title. Perhaps you should change it; you don’t want to mess those who hold the Empire in fond esteem, right?

Best revelation of the Nutwork? Clearly: the Mothra Fairies. I always knew there was something wrong with them.


bob mcmanus 03.09.05 at 8:51 pm

My point in the above post about tax change in Texas, Mr Holbo, was an attempt to demonstrate that America is engaged in a full-scale Class War. This will spread to Europe and Canada as Republicans drive wages and living standards down to second-world levels.

I took great offense at the tone of moral and intellectual superiority you and Mr Burke took
towards “Wealth Bondage”. And the priority I was referring to was the comfortable distance you try to maintain from those who are actually enraged by the conditions and future of the poor and working poor.

But keep your integrity and balance, and remain proudly “a liberal sack of garbage.”


bob mcmanus 03.09.05 at 9:09 pm

I keep reading and rereading the Tim Burke essay. It is a beautiful piece of work. And I am not the audience it was aimed at, I am just a blue-collar schmoe buried in Redland. But I see that brilliance and I just keep asking

“Why aren’t we getting any help down here? Why are we losing everything?”


Lawrence L White 03.09.05 at 11:28 pm

I would say Burke misreads the Wealth Bondage post. Neither the Happy Tutor nor Turbulent Velvet are snarky, superior postmodernist types. Rather, they are two of the most pained, suffering voices on the internet.

Some folks are taking the nation’s current misfortune harder than others, and the strain shows in their writing.


HP 03.09.05 at 11:30 pm

A minor correction: The actor playing the Plan 9 Guy is Tor Johnson. The character’s name is Inspector Dan Clay.

For some of us, this is important.


Alan Bostick 03.10.05 at 8:50 pm

How can you include Grand Moff Tarkin but neither Darth Vader nor Senator Palpatine?

And why is Charles Foster Kane so conspicuously absent?


Skippy McGee 03.14.05 at 2:27 am

I was forced to read the same book by Schlesinger my first year in college. Man, what unbelievable rubbish. I have not heard that much gleeful exposition of diabolical gibberish since THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. What a horrible attack on the American Republic posing as a thoughtful call for “reform.”
I think the book should be retitled and reissued in a new format as “How To Trick Gentiles Into Giving You Permanent Tenure On Academic Welfare,” as a far more appropriate description. The book is a bewildering sprawl of conflicting ideas arguing both for and against socialism in America without conviction in either premise. Of course, if you take a look around you can see that America got socialism irregardless. That’s how subversion works over the long term.

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