A Usable Future


The Decline of American Liberalism
By Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.

Although originally published in 1955 and much engaged with the Cold War's chilling effects on civil liberties, Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.'s provocative The Decline of American Liberalism has perhaps never been more relevant. By stressing that, from the very start of American history, forces of centralized and decentralized power have been warring over the country, Ekirch makes a case for limited government and individual rights in a way that is extremely well-suited to the twilight years of the "American Century."

Ironically, for the past 50 years, Americans have often defined our country, our political system, and our identity in terms of opposition to our vanquished foe, the Soviet Union. As a grammar- school teacher once laid it out for me and my classmates during the detente years: "We are not them," meaning Communist Russia. "We have freedom of speech; they don't. We have freedom of religion; they don't." And on and on. With the demise of Communism, however, such reactionary definitions tell us less than ever. Divorced from the ready negative example of the USSR, just who are we?

This is a particularly pressing question for limited-government types. Because they want to reduce the scope of the state's power, they need a coherent historical narrative that makes sense of the American experience without placing the superpower struggle–which helped justify a huge expansion of government anyway–at the center of things. By recovering America's (classical) liberal tradition, The Decline of American Liberalism provides such a usable past.

Ekirch sketches the development of Enlightenment liberalism and how it came to inform the American Founding. Liberalism properly understood, he writes, "was in large part concerned with criticism of existing society and institutions….It sought to limit the authority of both church and state, and to protect certain fundamental individual rights from interference by the governing powers….Sympathetic to the rights of minority groups, liberals were suspicious of any effort to control or suppress freedom of thought and expression."

Such notions, of course, constitute in part the official catechism of the Founding. What is special to Ekirch's analysis is his recognition that such liberal principles have always been contested: "Since the time of the American Revolution, the major trend…has been in the direction of an ever- greater centralization and concentration of control–politically, economically, and socially….The liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment–and especially that of individual freedom–have slowly lost their primary importance in America life and thought."

Such a frame allows Ekirch to make a full accounting of American history in all its paradoxes and inconsistencies. Rather than searching for a momentous fall from grace–for example, the New Deal–he can tease out the ambivalences of important historical episodes. Hence his complex reading of the Civil War, which he celebrates for ending slavery–"the most direct challenge to American liberalism"–even as it helped conceive something approaching a total state. The "essential tragedy" of the Civil War, writes Ekirch, was " the failure of free society in the North to follow up on the liberal ends implied by its wartime goals of the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. In the aftermath of the fighting, both of these goals were diverted to crasser purposes. Thus, the saving of the Union made possible a degree of integral nationalism inconceivable in the older federalized United States."

In one sense, this is a profoundly depressing book. But it offers reasons for hope, too. Ekirch's implicit point that all historical moments are contested suggests that change for the better is always a possibility. Time has also tempered some of his more dour predictions. In a 1967 preface to a new edition, Ekirch worries, "Traditional liberties, in the sense of restrictions on the all- pervasive powers of centralized governments, are losing favor as compared with the freedoms or privileges that organized group pressure can persuade the welfare state to bestow upon the citizenry….I do not think many of the traditional freedoms will remain in any effective sense."

Thirty years later, there some indications that the state may be wilting, if not quite withering away. If contempt and mistrust of governments are prerequisites for its recission, we are at least baby-stepping–or preparing to do so–in that direction. Here is a paradox that Ekirch himself might enjoy: By grounding us in our classical liberal past, books such as The Decline of American Liberalism may help prove themselves wrong.