06 April 2011

Positive and Negative Liberalism: America's original party lines?

John L. Brooke's Columbia Rising describes the interrelated evolution of civil society and partisan politics in Columbia County, New York, from the Revolution through the presidency of native son Martin Van Buren. Densely detailed, it's full of fascinating anecdotal evidence and telling quotes from letters and early newspapers while spelling out the basics of political development. Who do we choose from in elections? How are candidates chosen, and how do we know about our choices? In part, Brooke argues that partisanship, including a partisan press, developed as a democratic alternative to aristocratic hegemony in a setting where a landed aristocracy remained after the Revolution. As party nominations supplanted a system of aristocratic patronage, a kind of ideological line was drawn, not distinguishing liberals from conservatives, but "positive liberalism" from "negative liberalism." In Brooke's account, the difference was over whose interests government had to take into account.
Positive and negative liberalism involved more than competing definitions of the role of government in society and economy. These opposed deliberative positions were embedded in different understandings of the problem of consent and coercion in civil life. Both were equally grounded in understandings inherited from a republican past. Negative liberalism flowed naturally from classical republican assumptions about a society and a polity shaped by sharply defined status boundaries, in which the explicit consent of the independent householder was the sole determinant of public action. Beyond this field of deliberative consent lay a wider field of assumed dependence and potential coercion: wives, children, servants and slaves were to tacitly accept that subordination as part of an immutable and essentially patriarchal order of things. The ethos of positive liberalism had its origins in efforts to understand and to reinforce this wider field of subordinate tacit consent. Early eighteenth-century thinkers located women's subordination in a weaker nervous system; sympathy for female sensibilities would reinforce their subordination. In the early American republic, and most importantly among the Congregational ministers of the New Divinity newly sealed throughout New England, a polity without a monarch required a virtuous people, and a virtue and a people broadly defined. Virtue might inhere in the independence of propertied men, but it was just as critical that the dependent be equally virtuous. In the virtue of dependence lay subordination and a tacit consent to the shape of society. (232-3)
This ideological divide doesn't perfectly match historical party lines because partisanship was in constant flux during the Early National Period. In simpler terms, the "positive liberals" (the Whig Party probably comes closest to the model) were willing to adopt policies of social investment in order to ensure a virtuously subordinate populace, while the "negative liberals" reserved the right to question the benefits so long as they alone paid the bills through property taxes and other exactions. To make the scenario seem more familiar, let's say that the negative liberals saw the welfare of the subordinates under their individual control as their business, not the state's. If the negative liberal wasn't burdened with subordinates or dependents, he remained jealous of his rights, seeing those like himself as the real, exclusive constituency of government. It's possible to see vestiges of this division in modern American politics. Negative liberalism can be construed as a kind of paradoxical elite populism in which a privileged class defines its members as the "real" citizens and insists on government's exclusive accountability to itself in shamelessly democratic terms. Meanwhile, positive liberalism, as defined by Brooke, is solicitous of the interests of subordinate groups in the interest of controlling them more effectively and peaceably. Depending on your own biases, you can see Republicans (or Tea Partiers) and Democrats playing these roles today. Brooke notes that positive liberalism was a tricky business 200 years ago, and on his terms it seems just as tricky today. It was grounded in "Sympathy itself, the recognition of a common humanity in a suffering and subordinate other," that could "undermine the ground of that subordination.
If one had the capacity for virtue, was it just to hold others in a subordination? Where would the boundaries hold, once one began to sympathize with the powerless and to develop a sensibility to the coercion of potentially autonomous individuals? And what was required of the individual, once such a sensibility had been achieved? (233)
According to Brooke, the early stages of sensibility led to positive liberal enactments funding schools and libraries, gradually abolishing slavery, and improving the legal standing of women, debtors and other subordinates. Whether that was all that was required is an enduring question. But if "positive" and "negative" are all the options "liberalism" offers, the ultimate answer may lay beyond the scope of liberalism, at least as we understand it now.

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