The Conservative Tradition in America

By Charles W. Dunn; J. David Woodard | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Emergence of Contemporary
American Conservatism

In the United States at this time [ 1950], liberalism is not
only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For
it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative
...
ideas in general circulation.

LIONEL TRILLING1

As World War II ended, liberalism stood as the foremost ideology in American politics. Louis Hartz wrote that "America represents the liberal mechanism of Europe functioning without the European social antagonisms." 2 A fluid class structure, unbounded opportunity, and acquisitive individualism stood out as hallmarks of Hartz's analysis of liberalism's dominance. Conservative emphasis on community, authority, deference, and the sanctity of tradition appeared out of place.

Acknowledgment of a large role for the national government in American life became a widely accepted truism after the New Deal. President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced in his 1932 inaugural address that "the money changers [have] fled from their high seats in the temple of civilization." 3 The ostensible creators of the Great Depression, finance capitalists and advocates of private markets, relinquished their position to the priests of a new order, government officials with a vision for management.

An entire generation, marked by the unforgettable collapse of the national economy and the successful mobilization against German and Japanese aggression, accepted the idea that government should set the economic agenda and care for the welfare and security needs of society. Conservatism's "last rites," pronounced by Lionel Trilling in 1950,

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