Book Review

A Commercial Republic Roundtable: Entry 2 from Lawrence Glickman

The Book

A Commerical Republic: America’s Enduring Debate Over Democratic Capitalism

The Author(s)

Mike O'Connor

Editor's Note

This is entry 2 (of 4) in our roundtable on Mike O’Connor‘s 2014 book, A Commercial Republic. Mike O’Connor was a long-time writer for the S-USIH Blog—one of our original contributors, helping especially with book reviews. A few years ago, after the publication of A Commercial Republic, Mike hung up his history spikes to return to school. For the past few years he has been student at the University of Texas (Austin), where he just completed a Master’s in Public Affairs. After you read these reviews, it won’t be hard to see how he developed an interest in public affairs, policy, and economic development. [Note: Although Andrew Hartman is not a contributor to this roundtable, he helped put it together.]

Mike O’Connor’s remarkably learned and wide-ranging, A Commercial Republic is the kind of book that David Armitage and Jo Guild, authors of the History Manifesto, claim is no longer being written. In this impressive work, Mike O’Connor asks big questions about the relationship between capitalism and democracy via lucid explorations of six separate and often intricate debates about political economy over the longue duree of U.S history. In his granular and distinct case studies, O’Connor occasionally seems to lose the forest for the trees. And later chapters of the book sometimes appear to underestimate the power of the history traced in the early chapters. These are minor shortcomings in a book that offers rich and original insights about the relationship between democracy and capitalism over the course of American history. There is much to say about this thoroughly-researched, fair-minded, thoughtful, and deeply-felt book, which carefully and critically examines crucial debates about political economy beginning with Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson up through the Age of Reagan. I limit my focus to three topics: the book’s use of “liberalism” as a central organizing principle, the issue of occasionally underemphasizing historical precedents, and the question of elite versus non-elite sources. These topics may well reflect my hobbyhorses more than O’Connor’s intentions; I choose these themes not because they are central issues of the book, but because I think they raise important questions about contemporary writing in intellectual history. O’Connor, in spite of his detailed knowledge of political economic debates throughout US history, missed some historical precedents, and, I believe, these omissions are related to a broader issue about the biases of intellectual history and the nature of the sources that intellectual historians typically employ.

O’Connor fearlessly embraces the centrality of the category of “liberalism,” a term that has been mostly abandoned or demonized by politicians and whose hegemony has long been challenged by historians, but he regards as the progenitor of both democracy and capitalism. As O’Connor shows throughout, insofar as capitalism and democracy are not identical but exist in tension, liberalism, too, can take on disparate political valences. In O’Connor’s telling, the role of government in mediating between the forces if democracy and capitalism turns out to be crucial. “Today it is only a small exaggeration to claim that everyone in the United States is a liberal,” writes O’Connor. His conclusion that the conservative consolidation of the late twentieth century therefore represents “an intramural squabble within the country’s Liberal tradition” (244), makes too large a claim, however. How, against this backdrop, are we to understand either the nature of conservatism or the drastic decline of liberalism and its refusal as a label by politicians and ordinary Americans alike? (I am not an innocent party to this discussion, having written an article whose premise was that, although at one time most Americans identified as liberal, today very few do. And what about “neoliberalism,” not discussed in the book but frequently invoked by contemporary scholars as a way of explaining important trends that have accelerated since the crack-up of the “liberal consensus”?)

O’Connor accepts the mid-century consensus judgment of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Louis Hartz and others about the potency of liberalism. But, at least since Alan Brinkley’s pioneering 1994 article on “The Problem of Conservatism,” historians have been skeptical of Lionel Trilling’s claim in his 1950 book, The Liberal Imagination, that, “In the United States at this time Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” [Brinkley, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” American Historical Review 99:2 (April 1994), 409-429. Quotation 411.] And, in any case, in O’Connor’s understanding, liberalism is not a Hartzian straitjacket but a more open-ended political tradition, with many possible political meanings. By thus defining the term capaciously, O’Connor is able to highlight the transmogrification of this guiding principle. And it is hard to disagree with his conclusion that “freedom,” as defined by conservatives, has far outstripped equality, as understood by those on the left. Liberalism has not “incorporated them successfully or well,” he writes, and moreover, “the tradition offers few answers about how to balance these competing priorities” (245).

Still, for all of O’Connor’s reminders about historical precedents, perhaps because of the assumption of liberal hegemony, the later chapters sometimes appear to overstate the degree to which conservative political developments of the late twentieth century were novel. “On economic issues,” O’ Connor writes in the conclusion, “conservative presumptions circumscribe the universe of perceptions and choices” (p. 242). Certainly, the Reagan Revolution to which he attributes this shift played a crucial role in pushing the menu of economic policy options to the right. But there is reason to conclude that the shift began significantly earlier. For example, O’Connor claims that Republican presidential candidates were generally moderate or liberal until Barry Goldwater. But this is problematic. He writes, “Throughout most of the fifties and sixties, the leading Republicans were moderates such as Dwight Eisenhower, Thomas E. Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. They accepted the New Deal as a permanent part of the American landscape…” (p. 210). At first advocates of a popular anti-New Dealism figured their campaign as a struggle for the soul of liberalism, a term they believed that Roosevelt had misappropriated. But eventually they gave up the claim for the label, which they associated with planning, collectivism, and even totalitarianism. If we accept FDR’s redefinition of liberalism as New Deal politics, no presidential Republican candidate in this era qualifies as a moderate. In 1936, Alf Landon ran against the excesses of the New Deal. Thomas Dewey wrote The Case against the New Deal in 1940, when he was a presidential hopeful. Eisenhower’s endorsement of the New Deal was for more tepid and situational than conventional wisdom suggests: from 1948 through 1952, before he was president, Eisenhower regularly lashed out against “centralism” and other components of the New Deal; even while he was president his endorsement of New Deal programs tended to be pragmatic. Ike’s letter to his brother, Edgar often quoted about anyone who didn’t endorse the New Deal been voted out of office is misinterpreted frequently. [For a recent example of this misinterpretation see here.] As the Eisenhower scholar Robert Griffith has written, Eisenhower’s support for the New Deal order was “sharply limited.” [Robert Griffith, “Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Corporate Commonwealth,” American Historical Review, 87:1 (Feb 1982), 87-122. Quotation 102.] To the extent that these figures endorsed the New Deal it was because they reckoned with its overwhelming popularity. Anti-tax thinking similarly dates back farther than O’Connor suggests. The “tax revolt” of 1978 was not the first time that phrase was used. The condemnation of public spending and the taxation that supported it has long been the essence of anti-New Dealism. Indeed, the campaign against public spending was central to the conservative condemnation of New Deal liberalism. As Eisenhower claimed in 1958, “The proper relation of government to the growth and rigor of such an economy must necessarily be to stimulate private production and employment, not to substitute public spending for private spending, nor to extend public domination over private activity.” [“Eisenhower’s Letter,” New York Herald Tribune, Mar 9, 1958: 22.]

O’Connor emphasizes that his approach to intellectual history stresses “a deep excavation of the assumptions that motivated politicians and thinkers” (p. 7). Describing a conservative “move from the intellectual arena to the political one,” he appears to assume that the former preceded the latter (p. 210) and approvingly cites George Will’s description of the “bookish origins of the conservative movement” (p. 203) in thinkers like Hayek and Friedman. Sometimes, however, we can find those origins not in books but in the actions and words of business lobbyists, politicians, ministers, and others who did not write tomes on political economy but gave after-dinner speeches and sermons, and influenced the general public in other ways. Attending to these actions and words prompts a backdating of the rise of elements that eventually came together in the conservative movement. For often, the popular version appeared before the academic, telling a story that intellectual historians are apt to overlook. For example, in a discussion of Henry Wallace’s 1945 critique of “some people” who “tell us that we cannot have full employment without inviting or forcing government to…control our economy,” O’Connor speculates that Wallace was “perhaps referencing Friedrich Hayek.” (p 158). But critiques like the one Wallace mentioned had been made since the onset of the New Deal. Wallace had doubtless heard this critique from Republican legislators, ministers, business leaders, and lobbying groups like the US Chamber of Commerce long before Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published in England in 1944. O’Connor calls The Road to Serfdom “the most influential early statement of conservative economic concerns” and observes that it “came from England,” which suggests that influential critiques of the New Deal came only toward the end of FDR’s life and that they were imported (p. 204). It may be true that “few major positions regarding the interplay between the government and the economy were not prefigured in The Road to Serfdom” (p. 206). It is also true that many of Hayek’s ideas were prefigured in popular anti-New Deal discourse dating back to the 1930s.

It may also be true that “prominent thinkers” did not have much to say about taxation until the 1970s, but the critique of taxes and public spending was an essential aspect of the political critique of the New Deal. Finally, while it is true that many of these critics did not accept the label conservative, it is equally true that Hayek and Friedman famously rejected it as well. Hayek went so far as to write an essay, “Why I am Not a Conservative” and Friedman called himself a neoliberal for a while before finally settling rather late in his career on the conservative label.

The keywords of the book, democracy and capitalism, are employed in what the author calls “broad, nontechnical senses” (p. 8). They are, thus, left undefined. They also disappear for long stretches of the case studies, so that their connection is often implicit rather than explicit. Perhaps O’Connor assumes more consensus about the meaning of the terms than is warranted by the historical evidence: for example, have Americans really had always had a “fervent desire to ensure the integrity of markets and to protect private property” (p. 9)?

None of these remarks is meant to take away from the remarkable achievements of A Commercial Republic. Rather they seek to encourage broad debate about methods and sources in intellectual history more generally. O’Connor’s book offers a deeply-informed historical overview of some key debates about the meaning and possibilities of democratic capitalism. No debate seems more relevant and important. I hope and trust that O’Connor’s capacious, generous, and learned analyses will set off further exploration of these and related topics.

About the Reviewer

Lawrence B. Glickman is the Stephen and Evelyn Milman Professor in American Studies in the Department of History at Cornell University. He is the author or editor of four books: A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (1997); Consumer Society in American History: A Reader (1999); The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present, and Future (2008); and Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (2009). His book, The Free Enterprise System: An American History is forthcoming in 2019 from Yale University Press. Some of his recent online writing includes “Everyone Was a Liberal,” and “The Conservative Con that Gave Us Trumpcare,” and “Forgotten Men: The Long Road from FDR to Trump.”

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  1. Almost twenty years ago, while researching Edmund Burke’s political milieu, I came across William Warburton’s quip: “Orthodoxy is my doxy, heterodoxy is another man’s doxy.” The spirit of that quote seems to apply here: as I’m tempted to declare that liberalism is my political belief system while neoliberalism is the other side’s contrary heterodoxy (which invokes the ideal of liberty to promote the liberation of plutocrats from social responsibility). But I don’t see getting hung-up on semantics (I don’t care if Hayek wants to be called a liberal instead of a conservative; I’m more concerned that citizens become aware of the consequences of his ideology). Yes, it matters that conservatives are prouder of their label than liberals are (I’m old enough to remember when George McGovern was defended by supporters who pointed out that he was merely a committed liberal rather than the closet socialist his critics accused him of being! So I was surprised and amused when, forty years later in a supposedly more conservative era, Bernie Sanders found it safer to use the S-word than the L-word.) But here’s the thing: Both the Left and the Right have always housed libertarian and communitarian views simultaneously; what sets them apart is the areas of human behavior to which those alternative views are applied. Currently, liberals (or “progressives,” if I must follow the semantic vogue) are libertarian on social issues and communitarian on economic and environmental matters; conservatives are the opposite (their “neoliberalism” does not extend to abortion rights or baking cakes for gay weddings). Most voters see neoliberalism as conservative; in fact, they probably aren’t even familiar with the heterodox label that intellectuals use. Language might be indicative of the relative levels of political confidence, but there is a more important point to be made here:

    Economic conservatism, characterized by hostility to taxes, government spending, regulation of business, support for organized labor, and social welfare programs, has always been with us in America. It was evident—as this post suggests—before Goldwater; but it goes back even farther. The fact worth noting is that while it has always existed (and has been well-funded as a potential movement) it was unable to win out over liberalism from the 1930s to the early 1970s. There are organizational, demographic, institutional, technological, and international, as well as clearly intellectual reasons for this (I’d also suggest biographical reasons). The bottom line is that the middle ground of public opinion (“swing thinkers,” let’s call them) chose to consistently—albeit not exclusively—align with economic liberalism for almost a half century before becoming receptive to economic conservatism; the transition was never completed, but it went far enough that resistance to (what we’re now calling) neoliberalism was/is no longer effective. It must be recognized HISTORICALLY that this process has always been fluid and filled with contingency (and subject to pure chance); furthermore, its outcome was not inevitable nor is its continuation assured. Economic liberalism will have to address the structural and methodological factors that contributed to its intellectual and political decline, and devise the necessary responses to restore its ideas to broad-based orthodoxy. Convention might impel me to add the standard disclaimer that “this is easier said than done”; but I would submit—after studying this topic for many years—that while it is politically impotent at the moment, economic liberalism is nowhere near as marginalized from mainstream thought today as economic conservatism was when the New Deal order persisted for decades.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.