The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry

The New Deal & Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry

by Gordon Lloyd, David Davenport


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817916855
Publisher: Hoover Institute Press
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Pages: 120
Sales rank: 1,186,513
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Gordon Lloyd is a professor of public policy at the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He also serves on the National Advisory Council for the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center through the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. He lives in Malibu, California. David Davenport is counselor to the director and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a columnist for and the San Francisco Chronicle and delivers regular radio commentaries on the Salem Radio Network and, where he is a contributing editor. From 1985 to 2000, he served as president of Pepperdine University, where he was also a professor of public policy and law.

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The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism

A Defining Rivalry

By Gordon Lloyd, David Davenport

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1686-2


The New Deal and the Origin of Modern American Conservatism

The New Deal and Hoover's Burkean Moment

It is widely claimed that modern American conservatism was born in the 1950s with the publication of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale in 1951, Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind in 1953, and, perhaps most important, the founding of National Review in 1955. The ideas advanced in these publications — limited government, moral truth, free markets, and American sovereignty and strength, as summarized in National Review's founding mission — did launch an intellectual movement which soon enough advanced to the political arena, most visibly with the nomination of conservative Barry Goldwater for president in 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.

But the search for the birth of modern American conservatism needs to reach back further than the 1950s. Even as the French Revolution of the eighteenth century prompted Edmund Burke's foundational conservative document, Reflections on the Revolution in France, establishing Burke as the father of modern conservatism, so too did modern America have its own revolution, President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and its own contemporary conservative respondent, Herbert Hoover. Indeed, Hoover's and Roosevelt's writings and speeches, beginning with their presidential campaign in 1932, but especially after the New Deal began to be implemented in 1933, frame the progressive-conservative debate that has dominated the American political and policy landscape for the last eighty years and is still going strong.

In retrospect, we can now see more clearly that the New Deal was America's French Revolution, and the post-presidential Herbert Hoover, if not our Edmund Burke, was at least a prophetic voice crying in the progressive wilderness of the 1930s, pointing the way toward what has become modern American conservatism. As the influential conservative Frank Meyer wrote, the conservative movement of the 1950s was a delayed reaction to the New Deal. But it's useful to return to both the New Deal revolution itself and the real-time reaction provided by Herbert Hoover.

When Hoover saw the revolutionary nature of the New Deal unfolding, he had what we might call a Burkean moment: a realization that to be an American conservative meant no longer cooperating or temporizing with progressivism within the American System, but shifting to become a defender of the American System against a progressive assault. In his public leadership as secretary of commerce and then as president, Hoover felt that progressivism could be assimilated into the American System through his two-fold approach of "American individualism" and "constructive government." But in this later phase, dominated by the sweeping changes of the New Deal, Hoover became a full-throated constitutional conservative, horrified by what he called the challenge to liberty from Roosevelt's New Deal. He saw the very constitutional system itself, as well as the constitutional morality of the American people, poisoned by "a revolutionary design to replace the American System with despotism."

What exactly did Hoover mean by the American System? He meant a system in which individual freedom and equal opportunity lead to a sense of responsibility which inspires Americans to take care of each other while pursuing their own and their communities' best interests, unhindered by government bureaucracy or central planning, both of which lead to despotism. The American System limits government to those areas where it can do the most good (public education, the Federal Reserve System, maintenance of protective tariffs) but otherwise trusts public life to the self-government of individuals acting in voluntary cooperation, from labor relations and scientific research to religious expression and charitable organizations.

Even as historian J.G.A. Pocock argued that revolutionaries confront a "Machiavellian Moment" when they come face to face with the problem of how to govern, a Burkean moment occurs when conservatives come face to face with the problem of how to resist revolutionary change with which they strongly disagree. There are really two choices: to flee or to fight. When Hoover understood, like Burke in his day, that a revolution in values and institutions was taking place, he sought to stop it in its tracks. In fact, the record shows that the one person who spoke most, wrote most, and campaigned most — and most coherently — against the New Deal as it unfolded was Herbert Hoover. And even though he was unable to persuade a majority of Americans at the time, his arguments against the New Deal's transformation of America laid out the case that would eventually become known as modern American conservatism.

Two Revolutionary Moments

Richard Price, the British moral philosopher and preacher of the eighteenth century, argued that there was a fundamental harmony among the Glorious English Revolution of 1688, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789. All three revolutions, Price argued, represented the almost inevitable victory of the forces of democracy over the old and unjust monarchical and aristocratic order. Not so, said his countryman Edmund Burke, pointing out that the French Revolution was different in character from its English and American counterparts. The French Revolution was dangerous, Burke wrote, because it was driven by "envy," especially envy toward the holders of property. It contemplated nothing less than the total destruction of the old order, since the revolutionaries despised the past, and a complete revamping of the role that government would play in the daily life of the people. It was as though Burke understood that the British and American revolutions were fundamentally political, whereas the French Revolution was primarily social in nature.

It is useful to distinguish a political revolution — a fundamental alteration in the form of government — such as occurred in Britain and the United States from the larger social revolution in France. The British revolution constitutionalized the monarchy. The American Revolution replaced the British monarchy and its overseas empire with thirteen state-based republics joined together in a federal union. The Founders debated for eighty-eight days how to construct the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as how to divide the powers between the nation and the states. But not once did they debate social issues such as public relief, national festivals, or ancien regimes. Burke said the American and British revolutions were essentially restorations, but the French Revolution was a dangerous and total transformation of the political, social, and economic order into something the world had never before seen. This was a true revolution, one that was linear and thus progressive, not circular and restorative in character.

The case for the French Revolution is found in the works of J.J. Rousseau and his protégés. Their approach focuses not on governmental structures but on community, solidarity, and ensuring égalité (what we would call today equality of outcome). Competition is opposed because of its supposed vices of selfishness and greed. At the core of the Rousseau narrative is a turning away from the very existence of wealth and its unequal distribution which comes with the improvement of the human condition. Instead, he held that a system that abides or even encourages competition is socially and ethically flawed because it produces an unacceptable distribution of property and power. This, of course, has become the philosophy behind the equality narrative that was part and parcel of the New Deal as well as public policy in the age of President Obama. The social issue becomes a political issue and the role of government shifts from being an arbiter of the disputes among the numerous and varied interests of society to being a major player in the production and distribution of national income and wealth.

The Burkean moment then, experienced by Hoover in the 1930s and by conservatives ever since, was the realization that liberty is in danger. It is not so much that Western civilization is in danger as that American liberty is in danger. As Hoover said of Roosevelt then, and many have said of Obama today, the progressive regime would move America more toward the European model of statism and socialism-lite. It would turn its back on constitutional government established by the Founders to the extent necessary to achieve its social and political goals. Hoover's Burkean moment prompted him to realize that the very nature of the American regime was changing with the New Deal and that these fundamental and sweeping changes had to be resisted. Thus was modern American conservatism born as a response to the revolutionary New Deal.

The New Deal and Hoover's Response

Franklin Roosevelt saw the 1932 election as an opportunity to transform the American System from its attachment to a conservative past to a utopian quest for a secure future. The federal government should "assume bold leadership," he said in his July 2, 1932, address accepting the presidential nomination, noting that the laws of economics to which Herbert Hoover and others had been attached were not "sacred, inviolable, unchangeable" at all, but made by human beings. As political scientist and historian Ira Katznelson concluded in his recent book: "In a decisive break with the old, the New Deal intentionally crafted not just a new set of policies but also new forms of institutional meaning, language, and possibility for a model that had been invented 150 years before," adding that it "retrofit[ted] capitalism and shap[ed] a welfare state."

In the breathless first hundred days of the New Deal, a vast array of emergency legislation was enacted. Although these enactments were considered by Congress, they were drafted by the executive branch and subjected to very little debate. Part of the New Deal revolution that has persisted is that these new measures consistently shifted power from the legislature to the expert administrators of the executive branch. In all, some forty new administrative agencies, referred to by historians as the alphabet soup agencies, were formed in the first year of the New Deal. The most sweeping law, the National Industrial Recovery Act, gave the president incredibly broad new powers over industry and enabled the creation of massive public works programs. Republican Congressman Charles Eaton of New Jersey said at the time that it was the New Deal's effort "to remake the entire structure" of American capitalism. The US Supreme Court later ruled that its broad delegation of power to the executive branch was unconstitutional, though much of the law remained. As is noted in chapter 3, the federal government grew dramatically in size and power during the New Deal.

In the name of taming an economic crisis, President Roosevelt undertook emergency measures to reshape the federal government, few of which went away when the recovery was completed. Roosevelt practiced what President Obama's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, later preached: it's a shame to waste a good crisis. In a very real sense, the New Deal managed to reinvent and reshape the federal government in ways that still form the basic shape of American domestic policy today.

Even before the New Deal was implemented, Herbert Hoover saw that Roosevelt intended major changes. In a speech at Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1932, near the end of the presidential campaign, Hoover said that Roosevelt's proposed programs were not the kind of "change that comes from normal development of national life," rather proposing to "alter the whole foundation of our national life ... and of the principles upon which we have builded the nation." In particular, Hoover continued, over against the decentralization and self-government intended by the Founders, Roosevelt proposed a "centralization of government [that] will undermine responsibilities and destroy the system." The New Deal proposals, he concluded, "represent a radical departure from the foundations of 150 years which have made this the greatest nation in the world." In a statement that affirms the argument of this book, Hoover said the 1932 election was "a contest between two philosophies of government" and would decide "the direction our nation will take over a century to come."

We find in Hoover's response to Roosevelt's New Deal two fundamental arguments that frame the philosophy of modern American conservatism. First, Hoover argued that the New Deal challenged individual liberty, which was not only a political but also a moral and even spiritual matter. Second, it also challenged the Constitution, both the fundamental rights it guarantees and its system of a decentralized government of checks and balances and balances of power. Instead, the New Deal would transform the federal government's role into one of heavy regulation and regimentation. These core conservative messages, which constitute the origin of twentieth-century American conservatism, are — or at least should be — the core message of conservatives even today.

The Challenge to Liberty

Hoover's first tenet was that the New Deal challenged individual liberty, a message that resonated more powerfully then than today when people, especially younger people, have become more comfortable with big government. In his 1934 book, The Challenge to Liberty, he argued that "the spiritual and intellectual freedoms cannot thrive except when there are also economic freedoms." This argument was central to the later contributions of F.A. von Hayek in The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, two books that have guided twenty-first-century defenders of conservatism. In his "Crisis to Free Men" speech on June 10, 1936, at the Republican National Convention, Hoover argued that the Roosevelt programs had crushed "the first safeguard of liberty" in their quest for a new order by the substitution of personal power for independently cast electoral votes. In his 1938 speech, "The Challenge to Liberty," Hoover again argued that philosophical case for liberty, pointing out that there had been "a gigantic shift of government from the function of umpire to the function of directing, dictating, and competing in our economic life."

But there was an important new emphasis in Hoover's defense of liberty that was not as prominent in the pre-New Deal Hoover, namely that "liberty is an endowment from the Creator of every individual man and woman upon which no power ... may deny." This appeal to "unalienable rights" as the moral foundation of liberty was not in the forefront of Hoover's earlier work, when he thought that the American contribution to "human betterment" was based in the blending of traditional American values of rugged individualism and equality of opportunity with the "constructive government" contribution of a tamed progressivism.

Armed with this foundational change of emphasis, Hoover revisited the values articulated in his 1922 American Individualism pamphlet and his 1928 campaign speeches. He wanted to make sure that the reader recognized that there was a two-fold continuity in his overall defense of the American System since the 1920s: It is "no system of laissez faire" and liberty and progress go together. In the language of his earlier work, there was a fundamental compatibility between American individualism and constructive government. The notion that government should do next to nothing and business should do as it pleases, and that "every man for himself" should prevail, "has been dead in America for generations," Hoover said. It was trotted out in these heady days of the New Deal, Hoover added, as "political invective for a long list of collectivist writers who infer that it dominated and directed the policies of the United States up to some recent date, when it was suddenly vanquished — and abandoned." Hoover described this interpretation as no more than dishonest polemic and pointed out what he said in his 1922 American Individualism: we abandoned laissez faire "when we adopted the ideal of equality of opportunity — the fair chance of Abraham Lincoln."

Interestingly Hayek also said in The Road to Serfdom that he was not defending laissez faire, which he saw as a term hauled out by critics of free markets as an easy way to promote socialism in the 1940s. By the early twentieth century the term laissez faire had acquired the negative meaning of leaving things as they are or letting the government do nothing. The earlier nineteenth-century meaning of laissez faire was that we should let individuals make their own decisions concerning their daily lives. The government should become involved in a necessary few and carefully defined areas such as common defense and public tranquility and in policies that advanced the infrastructure of a market economy. These should certainly be core values of modern American conservatism today.


Excerpted from The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism by Gordon Lloyd, David Davenport. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

1 The New Deal and the Origin of Modern American Conservatism 1

2 Liberty versus Equality 19

3 Limited Government versus Expansive Government 39

4 Constitutional Conservatism versus Liberal Reinterpretation 61

5 The 2012 Election and the Future of Conservatism 83

About the Authors 99

Index 101

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