The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Fourteen
FROM HARTZ TO TOCQUEVILLE

SHIFTING THE FOCUS FROM LIBERALISM TO
DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA

James T. Kloppenberg

DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA has been a contest among diverse groups of people sharing neither common convictions nor com- mon aspirations. Disagreements over issues as basic as salvation, slavery, and sovereignty date from the arrival of English settlers in North America. Although the impulse to identify an essential and enduring American ethos has persisted ever since, the evidence of struggle has be- come irresistible. Designating any specific set of commitments as genu- inely or distinctively “American” no longer seems convincing. The chap- ters in this volume emphasize both the depth of the battles that have shaped our national political culture and the contingency of the outcomes. They demonstrate why students of American political history should re- nounce efforts to characterize as definitive a particular unchanging set of animating substantive values.

In the context of these chapters, which illustrate the uncertain, open- ended, and provisional nature of the apparent triumphs (and defeats) in American public life, I undertake here a ground-clearing exercise. By ex- amining in some detail the arguments that the political scientist Louis Hartz advanced in his influential volume The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), I want to show why scholars who study American politi- cal history should trade in the tarnished notion of an American liberal tradition for the richer insights available from a focus on struggles over democracy in America.

I do not intend to minimize the importance of such liberal ideals as individual autonomy, representative government, and toleration of diver- sity. To the contrary, taking such ideals seriously is indispensable to the historical study of American culture. I want only to insist that liberalism historically has included such ideals (the “virtues of liberalism,” as I have called them elsewhere). Liberalism should not be understood merely as

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