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Bush Is No Clay

Friday, October 21, 2005
Somehow I missed this article by Sean Wilentz in the New York Times Magazine comparing modern conservatism to the Whigs. A friend showed it to me - thanks Ryan!

In his piece, Wilentz argues that modern conservatism is not some new or alien outgrowth of American history, but is in fact has a long historical pedigree stretching back to the old Whig party of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and though he didn't mention him - Abraham Lincoln, in many way the last Whig as well as the first Republican.

Wilentz identifies three areas in which the Whigs and today's right wing agree: pro-business/anti big government, conservative populism, and conservative christian morality. I would contend that although there is of course a great deal of truth to Wilentz's piece, he is essentially off the mark when he places the right wing within the Whig tradition.

In the first instance, the Whigs, while pro-business, were not anti-government. As Wilentz notes, the Whigs embraced Henry Clay's American system, with federal resources used to promote economic development. This meant a tariff, money on infrastructure, and a national bank. These institutions amounted to the creation of a stronger national government and industrialization. In the short run these did policies did benefit elites, tying them to today "trickled down theory." (One of the things that distinguishes the Whigs, of course, is that their "supplys side" policies worked, but that's another story.) However, the general trend of their policies was the expansion of national institutions and nationalism, not today's states right rhetoric. And I don't recall anywhere where a major Whig attacked "government regulation," despite Wilentz's claims.

What the Whigs were against was not "big government" but overweening executive power. The reacted to the strong Presidency of Jackson, fearing he was paving the way for a populist tyranny and frequently comparing him to Caesar. Today's conservatism, on the other hand, is terribly fond of executive power, as the Bush Presidency has demonstrated.

The conservative populism that Wilentz notes has little in common with today's attack on the "liberal elite." Yes the Whigs worked hard to portray themselves as regular people, but this is the essential prerequisite of anyone seeking political office in a democracy. But if you read Wilentz's quotes carefully, these Whigs are not bashing elites but party machines. Jackson's Democratic party, organized by Van Buren, was the world's first mass party organization characterized by party bosses and patronage. Now tell me, which political party today does this sound like? Certainly not the Democrats.

Wilentz is on stronger ground when he ties the Whigs to conservative protestant morality. This was one of the major additions to the old Federalist ideology by the Whigs. However, the Whigs were more concerned by what they called "mob rule." This was in part an attack on Jacksonian populism and the party machines, but also a critique of appeals to emotion in politics. The Whigs accused the Democrats of being demagogues who flattered and corrupted the people with crass jingoistic appeals. Again, this critique could easily be levelled against today's "movement conservatives."

Wilentz also neglects a major issue area where Whigs and Republicans disagree: foreign policy. While today's Republican party is ultranationalist and imperialist, the old Whigs resisted territorial expansion and militarism. This was in part because their party would be split by the expansion of slavery, but also for more fundamental reasons. The Whigs distrusted militarism for its ability to subvert a democracy, and believed that expansion amounted to rape - an application of their Christian principles.

So George Bush is certainly far outside the political tradition of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. There was a conservative tradition in America that included the Whigs. It stretched from the Federalists to the Whigs to the Republicans of the 19th century. That tradition was in favor of a strong national government, economic nationalism, and the protection of civil liberties. This is a better description of the Democratic party than today's Republicans.

Unfortunately, today's right wing is related to a very different political tradition - Calhounism. John C. Calhoun was the champion of the South during the 2nd quarter of the 19th century. He was in favor of unregulated free trade, wanted to eliminate the major source of government revenue -tariff, promoted natural economic resources (like cotton - today's version of oil) rather than manufacturing, wanted a weak national government and strong states, and pursued an expansionist, imperialist foreign policy. Calhoun also viewed a conservative social hierarchy, buttressed by fundamentalist christianity, as the key to the social order. And of course he was a southern white nationalist with nothing but contempt for the rights of ethnic minorities or civil liberties.

Which party does that sound like to you?
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:42 AM
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