Breaking Down the Narrative

Conservatism in the United States arrived at its alliance with libertarianism quite recently, by historical standards.  We forget that mainstream conservatives, such as Richard Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower, weren’t particularly libertarian by today’s standards.  They accepted relatively high levels of taxation and government spending as a matter of course, so long as big portions of that spending were aimed at strong national defence and the promotion of American business.  Libertarianism as a viable component of American politics, and the spread of the idealization of free-markets, really began within the lifetime of those in their forties today, with the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Today, it is hard to recognize continuity between the “conservatism” of Eisenhower or Nixon, and that of Jim DeMint, Glenn Beck, and Rand Paul, except for relatively hawkish views on national defence and foreign policy.    Four “waves” of libertarian activism in recent years1 have legitimized free-market, anti-regulatory ideas to the point where substantial portions of the American people believe the following narrative:

  1. The Founders were free-market libertarians who believed in a strictly limited federal government, with limited powers over the economy or the private sphere of individual behavior.  
  2. The Founders’s vision prevailed in America (to varying degrees) until the early 20th century, with the creation of the Federal Reserve, increasing regulation of business, culminating in the Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which created a statist, illiberal, unfree government masquerading as constitutional, but in fact illegitimate.

If you believe this narrative, you tend to vote with the Republican party today, and might even have sympathy with, or active support for, the current “Tea Party” movement.  You might have voted for Ron Paul in a primary, or looked for politicians who follow his pledge and principles.

If, however, you recognize but are opposed to the implications of this narrative, you’re likely a moderate or liberal, and likely vote with the Democrats today, mostly.

There are lots of problems with the American political system today.  Congress is regularly deadlocked given rules of Senate procedure that have nothing to do with the Constitution and by which James Madison, principal architect of the Constitution, would be horrified.  The Executive Branch, in order to deal with the inability to do anything in Congress (and because power forms its own gravitational field), have expanded the administrative, regulatory, and executive powers of the Presidency far, far beyond anything Nixon, Eisenhower, or Johnson would have recognized.  And so on.

But we have a problem of basic ideas, that is eating away at our ability to fix any of it.  We have a problem of basic shared narrative.

That narrative problem is the increasing assumption, by people on both sides of the aisle, that the above two beliefs (#1 and #2 above) are basically accurate stories of our past, regardless of whether one approves or not.

What makes this a problem is that neither belief given above is true.

That’s right.  Everything you thought you knew about the Founders being small-government libertarians is wrong, despite the near-constant assertion to the contrary.  And because much of the 19th century was not the laissez-faire “Paradise Lost” to begin with, the changes we made during the New Deal are not the radical departure and realignment that both sides make them out to be.

There is far more continuity in the American story than we’re admitting, because it helps us win arguments and elections today if we oversimplify, make the past look “cleaner” than it actually was.

My plan in the next few posts is to remind us of how our past isn’t as simple as #1 and #2 above imply.

My goal is to make a point:  if the New Deal really isn’t a statist, illiberal, unfree betrayal of our small-government, free-market roots, the current attacks by the Tea Party activists and far-right Republicans on health care reform, tax cuts and tax increases, regulation of Wall Street and big business, loses a great deal of its purported moral force.

In other words, those who believe that the liberal agenda isn’t the path for America can’t rely on being able to paint it as morally wrong and a betrayal of our past.  Instead, they’ll have to convince Americans that it’s correct on the merits.

I’m not examining that particular question….yet.  There’s quite enough work to do first, trying to combat the notion that the conservative economic agenda is “ordained” by our Constitution and the intentions of the Founders.

Stay tuned for part two, where I examine proposition #1 above….were the Founders actually libertarian free-marketeers in the modern sense?


  1. The first was the candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the second was the “Reagan Revolution” of the early 1980’s, the third was the 1994 “Contract with America” and ascendancy of Grover Norquist’s anti-tax crusade, and the fourth is the current Tea Party movement.

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