Posted: January 24, 2008
A review of The Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the 21st Century, edited by Gordon Lloyd
ven as American conservatives face and attempt to shape an uncertain future, they face and attempt to shape their own past as well. In particular, today's conservatives seek political wisdom from intellectual forebears who might help them in their present struggles to preserve liberty against liberal collectivism. This essentially backward-looking project takes the form of an archeological dig, the first stage of which is to bulldoze from the site sprawling acres of tendentious scholarship. We are thus indebted to Pepperdine University political scientist Gordon Lloyd, who in his splendid edited collectionThe Two Faces of Liberalism: How the Hoover-Roosevelt Debate Shapes the 21st Century, has applied his bulldozer to the New Deal era.
Perhaps nowhere else in 20th century historical scholarship is the story line less flattering to conservatism. As it typically goes, the heartless, clueless conservative President Herbert Hoover, paralyzed by a dogmatic adherence to laissez faire individualism, stood by and watched as the nation slid into steep economic depression in the 1930s. Thank heaven, then, for the advent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who cast aside the narrow, liberty-obsessed liberalism of the past, and introduced a new liberalism, featuring a powerful national government dedicated to alleviating the plight of "one-third of a nation ill housed, ill clad, and ill nourished," and to providing the material conditions necessary for genuine equality of opportunity.
Lloyd, however, probes beneath the clichés and constructs a richer and livelier understanding of the New Deal era. Here, Roosevelt's storied pronouncements are matched by thoughtful and hard-hitting responses from Hoover, who did not in fact fade into the woodwork after losing to FDR in 1932 but rather spoke out for years thereafter against the New Deal. InTwo Faces of Liberalism, Lloyd includes not only Roosevelt's major addresses—his speeches to San Francisco's Commonwealth Club and Oglethorpe University in 1932, his Inaugural Addresses from 1933, 1937, and 1941, and the transcripts of various "Fireside Chats"; but also a fine selection of Hoover's long-forgotten speeches, including his efforts to explain "Our American System" during his 1928 presidential campaign and presidency, as well as radio transcripts and addresses at various Republican party events.
For conservatives, the most interesting question presented by Lloyd's volume is this: should we embrace Herbert Hoover as one of our own? After all, as these readings demonstrate, even well before the advent of the New Deal, Hoover was an eloquent defender of individual liberty against the collectivism of the age. In a campaign speech in October 1928, he argued that our "political and social system" was "founded upon a particular conception of self-government in which decentralized local responsibility is the very base." Furthermore, "only through ordered liberty, freedom, and equal opportunity to the individual will his initiative and enterprise spur on the march of progress." Hoover argued that during the First World War the federal government "became a centralized despotism which undertook unprecedented responsibilities, assumed autocratic powers, and took over the business of citizens. To a large degree we regimented our whole people temporarily into a socialistic state." Upon returning to power after Woodrow Wilson's tenure, he continued, the Republican Party faced a "choice between the American system of rugged individualism and a European philosophy of diametrically opposed doctrines...of paternalism and state socialism." Republicans chose to go "resolutely back to our fundamental conception of the state and the rights and responsibilities of the individual."
Given such an assessment of Wilsonian "despotism," it is hardly surprising that Hoover should have found the New Deal deeply alarming as well. Franklin Roosevelt, after all, looked back to the mobilization for the Great War and came to a diametrically opposed conclusion: that it represented, as he put it in the "Forgotten Man" radio address of April 7, 1932, a "great plan," conceiving of a "whole nation mobilized for war" with "economic, industrial, social and military resources gathered into a vast unit" capable of meeting any national challenge. Small wonder that FDR should revert to a military analogy in his First Inaugural Address, calling for the nation to "move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline."
Hoover saw in the New Deal "a mixture of coercion, collectivism, and lust for personal power poured into the American system of free men," and he saw the Republican Party as "the conservative party in the sense of preserving true liberalism."
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Before we install Hoover's bust in the pantheon of conservative heroes, however, we would do well to heed the warning issued by Hoover biographer George Nash in the Foreword to this volume: "Herbert Hoover was not a pure Reaganite; there was in him too much of the social engineer and temperamental activist for such a label to be affixed to his name." Indeed, Hoover was more a progressive than a conservative Republican, closer in political convictions to Theodore Roosevelt than to Ronald Reagan.
For all his concern with preserving American individualism, for instance, Hoover was certain that we had "long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th century—the notion that it is ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.'" Our national sensibilities were rapidly progressing beyond that faulty notion, he wrote in 1920, "steadily developing the ideals that constitute progressive individualism." Among the "glorious spiritual forces" growing within the American people "is a rising vision of service. Indeed if I were to select the social force that above all others has advanced sharply during these past years of suffering, it is that of service—service to those with whom we come in contact, service to the nation, and service to the world itself."
This new "progressive individualism" laid the moral foundation for Hoover's larger political project, rooted in his sensibilities as a Stanford-trained engineer, and first applied as Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Because Americans had "in the past quarter of a century evolved a higher sense of organized co-operation than has ever been known before," as he put it in 1928, every major segment of American social and economic life was gathering in all-encompassing associations, willing and able to work out their differences peaceably, because many had been "founded solely on public interest."
Critical to the growth of Hoover's "associationalism" were the new social sciences, such as economics and public administration, which would supposedly generate objective social data in service of the progressive vision. Government would play the role of facilitator, according to Hoover, serving "to bring together discordant elements and to secure co-operation between different industries and groups."
Indeed, as political scientist Barry Karl has suggested, the quintessential expression of Hoover's progressivism was his mobilization of the U.S.'s social scientists to gather data for the President's Research Committee on Social Trends. In his preface to the committee's 1933 report, Hoover praised the "the scientific mood and the scientific method as correctives to undiscriminating emotional approach and to insecure factual basis in seeking for constructive remedies of great social problems."
As the nation sank into the Depression, Hoover initially clung to associationalism as his preferred approach. But he also proved perfectly willing to spend federal dollars indirectly to sustain wages and employment, boasting in 1930 that his administration was "engaged upon the greatest program of waterway, harbor, flood control, public building, highway, and airway improvement in all our history," and at the end of his administration embracing the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, an immediate precursor to similar New Deal programs. Even in full stride as a New Deal critic, Hoover would boast that it was the Republican Party that had "created seven out of the ten great Federal regulating agencies of today," as well as federal income and estate taxes, limitations on hours of employment for women and children, old-age pensions, mother's pensions, "and a score of other social reforms."
Small wonder, then, that the economist Wesley Mitchell would point out that Hoover's objections to New Deal planning were ill-conceived, writing to him that "though you frequently couple national planning with regimentation...you are really an exponent of deliberate and thorough planning." Or that, as historian Joan Hoff Wilson would note, FDR aide Rexford Tugwell would claim in a 1974 interview that "practically the whole New Deal was extrapolated from programs that Hoover started."
Conservatives, then, should understand that although Hoover could certainly be a spirited critic of the New Deal, his distinctly progressive liberalism and FDR's own brand had surprising, or rather, disappointing similarities. Lloyd is correct to call these political antagonists the "two faces of liberalism."
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The book's title has another lesson to teach, however. One of FDR's great achievements was to rescue 20th-century progressivism from its own worst propensities. Like Hoover, Roosevelt sought policy advice from a cadre of progressive social scientists, but he added a profoundly human face to progressivism's otherwise antiseptic, technocratic, social-engineering essence. What we most remember FDR for was his ability to assure the average American that a genuine, compassionate human being sat in the Oval Office, acutely aware of, and doing everything possible to alleviate, the suffering of "one third of a nation." That was something Hoover was notoriously unable to do. Ironically, this left conservatism, rather than technocratic liberalism, with a reputation for coldness and indifference to public distress.
Since the New Deal, progressive liberalism has prospered whenever it manages to put on a warm, human, New Deal face—think President Clinton's "I feel your pain"—and has suffered whenever it wears its cold, technocratic face—for example Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, with its swarms of social engineers blindly disrupting neighborhoods and social traditions, or President Carter (the "nuclear engineer") with his propensity for elaborate national plans for every American problem.
For its part, conservatism is often hampered by its inability to offer a genuine alternative to liberal technocracy, since conservatism, too, can wear a sterile, managerial face. Too often, it seems, we are more hostile to liberalism's populist side than to its technocratic side—foreseeing a greater danger in FDR's expansive compassion than Hoover's technocratic hard edges. It was a mistake that Ronald Reagan, who proudly began his political life as a New Deal Democrat, never made.