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Smith: Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Smith. 1993. Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The multiple traditions of America. American Political Science Review 87 (September): 549-566.

In Brief

Author's abstract: "Analysts of American politics since Tocqueville have seen the nation as a paradigmatic "liberal democratic" society, shaped most by the comparatively free and equal conditions and the Enlightenment ideals said to have prevailed at its founding. These accounts must be severely revised to recognize the inegalitarian ideologies and institutions of ascriptive hierarchy that defined the political status of racial and ethnic minorities and women through most of U.S. history. A study of the period 1870-1920 illustrates that American political culture is better understood as the often conflictual and contradictory product of multiple political traditions, than as the expression of hegemonic liberal or democratic political traditions."

Our treatment of minorities and women goes against the claim that America was born a liberal society governed by the popular will. Americans made scientific, religious, and historical claims to support ideologies of white male supremacy. "Why, then, should the ideologies and institutions of racial and gender hierarchies be deemed "afterthoughts," instead of key components of American political culture?" (556)

Though the liberal ideology is currently winning, we endanger it by assuming it has no opponents.

America's Liberalism was Limited at Best

"Thus to approach a truer picture of America's political culture and its characteristic conflicts, we must consider more than the familiar categories of (absent) feudalism. and socialism and (pervasive) bourgeois liberalism and republicanism. The nation has also been deeply constituted by the ideologies and practices that defined the relationships of the white male minority with subordinate groups, and the relationships of these groups with each other. When these elements are kept in view, the flat plain of American egalitarianism mapped by Tocqueville and others suddenly looks quite different. We instead perceive America's initial conditions as exhibiting only a rather small, recently leveled valley of relative equality nestled amid steep mountains of hierarchy. And though we can see forces working to erode those mountains over time, broadening the valley, many of the peaks also prove to be volcanic, frequently responding to seismic pressures with outbursts that harden into substantial peaks once again" (550).

Liberalism has been but one of America's main traditions.

America's Three Main Traditions

"American politics is best seen as expressing the interaction of multiple political traditions, including liberalism, republicanism, and ascriptive [racial, sexist, etc.] forms of Americanism, which have collectively comprised American political culture, without any constituting it as a whole" (550).

Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz

Coming from Europe, Tocqueville was fascinated by a relatively free and egalitarian society. Having never had an aristocracy or domestic nobility, America had taken egalitarianism to its natural limits. In America, he saw Europe's future. Liberalism reigned supreme.

Myrdal, writing on the "Negro problem" in the 1940s, also saw only one tradition: liberalism. In his analysis, Americans recognized liberal notions of equality (including racial) as "morally superior" to baser instincts. (In my words: he saw it as similar to the tension between the natural man and the divine.) Racism was especially typical of rural, backward, poor, uneducated people in the deep South. Though we wrestle with ourselves over it, liberalism is winning.

Hartz, too, sees American liberalism descending from its shared experience living it, until Horatio Alger stories become part of the national dogma. He worries that we uncritically adopt these ideas--which can lead to a McCarthyite tyranny of the majority--but sees liberalism as supreme. American politcal problems arise from tensions between liberal concepts of majority rule vs minority rights, democracy vs property rights.

Limitations of Democracy in America

Tocqueville recognized the limits. He saw that the Native Americans and blacks were excluded, and pessimistically predicted that whites would destroy the Native Americans and have a violent struggle with the blacks. He also supported the view that women and men are not civicly equal.

White Supremacy was a Serious Philosophical Challenger to Liberalism

There was more than just liberalism; there was also white supremacy. White supremacy was supported by appeals to science (enlightenment rationality), religion, history, and culture. It was not merely a prejudice of the uninformed. Hartz and Myrdal generally ignored these racist and nativist ideologies--and they were, in fact, ideologies, not just prejudices. This omission is inexcusable; for example, Hartz sees liberalism as an ideology that does not know race, yet he fails to recognize the presence of a strong ideology creating racial categores, just as pre-liberalism ideologies also created categorical hiearchies (e.g. feudalism).

Lots of evidence for this as a unique political thread. See sections in immigration quotas, "white man's burden" as US acquired Pacific territories, and segregration policies of 'separate but equal.' Starts around halfway through article. Smith's point: in all these policies, the US was neither fully racist nor fully liberal, suggesting that there really were conflicting American ideological traditions.

Empirical Implications

See Hero and Tolbert 1996.

Research on similar subjects


Smith, Rogers (author)American PoliticsAmerican ExceptionalismLiberalismRacismCulturePublic OpinionPolitical Values

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