The end of tribal politics?

Richard Striner

December 09, 1992|By Richard Striner

THERE is reason to believe that we are witnessing one of the recurring moments in American history when conservative-liberal polarization breaks down to a significant extent.

A mood of impatient rebellion against the conservative-liberal rat race -- from the grassroots plea in the Richmond presidential debate for a cessation of mudslinging to the widespread search among intellectuals for "new paradigms" of ideological reconciliation -- was a clear and pervasive presence in the politics of 1992.

Both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, for example, said they wanted to move beyond the clash of orthodoxies that has characterized our politics in recent decades. Mr. Clinton has spoken of a "third way" that will reconcile polarizations.

American history has turned upon these moments of ideological synthesis. At the dawn of the 20th century a critic and journalist named Herbert Croly perceived the historical pattern in his own times. In his influential book, "The Promise of American Life," Croly credited Theodore Roosevelt with solving the oldest conservative-liberal dispute in our national existence: the Hamiltonian-Jeffersonian feud among the founders.

In the 1790s the Hamiltonians (conservatives) and Jeffersonians (liberals) assailed each other hysterically. Their conflicting social outlooks were revealed as they assailed each other's responses to the French Revolution. They attacked one another's philosophies of government as well; the minimal-government "liberalism" of Jefferson clashed repeatedly with the activist-government "conservatism" of Hamilton. (Conservatives and liberals have long since exchanged their philosophies of governance -- though not their distinct social outlooks.)

Croly's point was this: Theodore Roosevelt succeeded in

harnessing the Hamiltonian method to advance the Jeffersonian spirit. He had used the power of the federal government to empower the common person. He had used Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.

This achievement has been repeated at critical moments of American history; in fact, it preceded the age of Croly and Theodore Roosevelt. Abraham Lincoln was an unstinting advocate of government intervention on behalf of "the people." He declared in the 1850s that "the legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they cannot, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves."

Here was audaciously Hamiltonian governance -- but it supported the autonomy and self-fulfillment of ordinary people. Was Lincoln a "conservative" or "liberal"? He was both: His view of human nature -- to protect the liberty of the sheep from the liberty of the wolves, as he put it in 1864 -- was resonant with themes to which conservatives and liberals both can respond.

As a Republican, Theodore Roosevelt was consciously seeking to revive such Lincolnesque politics. He urged "ordinary citizens to combine . . . through that biggest of all combinations called the government" in order to protect the public interest and conserve the natural domain. Like Lincoln, he insisted on a balanced view of human nature that sought to uplift the downtrodden whenever possible while deterring aggression through national strength.

And the lessons handed down by Theodore Roosevelt profoundly influenced the life of his younger Democratic fifth-cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The warm and sunny personality of FDR did not preclude the angry resoluteness that guided America through World War II and put an end to the monstrosity of Nazi Germany. The Hamiltonian power of the state was again put to work on behalf of the everyday citizen in FDR's New Deal.

As the lingering fears and resentments of the 1960s are driven ever further from the center of our public life by the shared concerns of the '90s, the insights of people like Herbert Croly have renewed pertinence. Significant numbers of Americans appear to want a balanced view of human nature, together with a seemly balance of liberty and governance, restored to our national politics.

We know that government action should not be regarded as a panacea, but we have little patience with the doctrine of "fend for yourself" when the results become socially chaotic. We want police protection and traffic management and zoning regulation when we need them. We want emergency assistance if we find that our home was constructed on a toxic dump. We dread the unregulated forces of the market when the health of our families is at risk. Our Jeffersonian defense of our lives, our liberties, our homes and our property depends upon vigorous Hamiltonian stewardship to back us up.

The results of this election year have short-circuited conservative-liberal warfare, at least temporarily. Whether Mr. Clinton's "New Covenant" will keep that warfare suppressed remains to be seen. But at this late date we deserve to be released for a while from the tribalistic politics of dogma. We deserve to see the legacy of Lincoln and the two Roosevelts -- the legacy of democratic stewardship empowered by the great republic -- made good once again in our land. And perhaps we will yet live to see it.

Richard Striner is assistant professor of history at Washington College in Chestertown.

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