John McGowan: American Liberalism

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McGowan, John. American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

McGowan opens his introduction with the words "Democracy ain't worth a damn if it's not liberal. And liberalism isn't worth much if it isn't democratic," (p. 1) explicitly noting our Founders' liberalism. He explains later that:

By calling the founders "liberal," I mean to direct attention to their suspicion of concentrated governmental power, their fierce attachment to liberty, and their emergent commitment to equality. Their "republicanism" was both antidemocratic and not yet full liberalism to the extent that they focused on the "general welfare" and not the prosperity of isolated individuals as government's responsibility. (p. 13)

He lumps "leftist" extremists together--as distinct from mainstream liberals--and identifies Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, and Irving Kristol as "three variants of American conservatism:"

To anticipate: traditional conservatism is primarily concerned with liberal permissiveness as a threat to social order, laissez-faire conservatism insists that every attempt to increase equality must come at the cost of liberty, and neoconservatism claims that liberals are "soft" and unrealistic about the threats other states and terrorist organizations pose to American security. (p. 102)

McGowan's support for this tri-partite taxonomy--and the light it sheds on his analyses of liberalism--is the centerpiece of the book. The following example is my Quote of the Day:

Conservatism, at times of stress, will insist that you must obey, no questions asked. Not surprisingly, traditional conservatives especially are fond of the velvet glove; thus, they will wax sentimental about the traditional family or small village, consistently revealing a sublime blindness to how tyrannical such settings can be to underlings and nonconformists. (pp. 109-10)

McGowan's endnotes are excellent, and could serve as a model for other writers. His notes often expand into paragraph-length explications, and are thus exponentially more useful than a simple citation; the note for the common (and erroneous) attribution of "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" to Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. McGowan uses the information at Bartleby to cite Wendell Phillips as the likely originator, indicating a depth of research that is becoming increasingly uncommon even when it is--perversely--easier than ever to achieve.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on December 22, 2007 3:14 PM.

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