10 August 2011

Hoover in a dress: a new chapter in American individualism

Margaret Hoover is the great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover and a custodian of the 31st President's legacy as an overseer of the Hoover Institution. As a Republican activist and contributor to The O'Reilly Factor, she's defensive about her ancestor's legacy. This puts her in conflict not only with Democrats who blame President Hoover for inaction in the early stages of the Great Depression, but also with fringers like Glenn Beck, who denounces Hoover as a quasi-leftist "progressive." Margaret herself acknowledges that the elder Hoover made mistakes (including signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff bill), but insists that he's unfairly accused of inaction. Herbert Hoover did inherit some of the Progressive political tradition -- he was a kind of "czar" during World War I -- but his descendant offers him as a model for government that's "limited but energetic." Its energy, she argues, should lay with bringing people together to formulate policy through consultation rather than forcing top-down policies down their throat, which she sees as the style of present-day liberalism. President Hoover did not abhor government like so many modern Republicans seem to do, but he insisted throughout his long life that true initiative lies not with the state, but with individuals. He collected some of his thoughts along these lines into a treatise titled American Individualism. Margaret Hoover has appropriated that title for a new book with a twofold purpose. She wants to convince Republicans that they need to reach out to a new generation of "millennials" if they hope to remain competitive, and she wants to convince millennials that the Republican party, once some adjustments are made, is their natural political home.

The 21st century Hoover makes the stakes clear for Republicans. "I would not be surprised if millennials embraced a dynamic third-party candidate in a national election if they remained dissatisfied with the offerings of the two major parties," she writes on page 66, "A third-party candidate could easily present himself or herself as a better choice than the candidates of the major parties, drawing on the best of their respective political philosophies and casting aside the rest." Neither Republicans nor Democrats can take the millennials -- people born during the 1980s or 1990s who've come of age in the last decade -- for granted, but Hoover worries that Republicans face a special handicap. As long as the GOP is perceived as the party of "social conservatives," aka the Religous Right, millennials, whom Hoover describes as the most diverse and tolerant -- and possibly the most spoiled -- generation in American history, will remain suspicious of Republicans. Social conservatives will have to make "a painful, if not impossible, adjustment" if they want the GOP to have a future. For all intents and purposes they must capitulate once and for all on the gay-rights issue (Hoover is an advisor to GOProud, a gay Republican group) as well as on abortion if the Republican party is to present itself consistently as the party of individual liberty. It won't be enough in millennial eyes to champion economic liberty, though economic liberty is the primary reason why millennials should become Republican.

You can go a long way into Hoover's book before you can figure out why she doesn't just lead millennials into the Libertarian party, since that already-existing third party has what would seem to be the ideal millennial platform. You might suspect that Hoover holds out for a greater role for government than strict libertarians would allow, but real differences emerge only late in the story, when Hoover asserts that securing the border must be the first stage of immigration reform and insists that the U.S. remain in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from retaking power. Defeating the Taliban is an imperative, both because Hoover thinks another mass-murder attack on America more likely if they regain power, and because it would prove, to her at least, that the U.S. stands for equal individual liberty for everyone. Earlier in the book, she argued that American feminists should focus on the fight against "Islamic chauvinism" around the world instead of railing against an imaginary patriarchy.

It's worth noting, however, that joining the Libertarians never appears as an option in American Individualism, even if only to be dismissed. The possibility of a third-party, as Hoover's warning implies, is something to be averted rather than embraced. Why should this be? The answer is that Hoover practices a rhetorically mild form of lesser-evilism. Her overriding interest is in defeating liberalism, which she sees as a threat to individual liberty. That's because she defines liberalism as a top-down governing philosophy according to which the state insists on a single standard for every aspect of life. Liberals, she writes, assume that "the state must guide people's lives from cradle to grave." At the same time, they see government as "something you pay for with taxes and from which you can then extract the benefits, like some kind of bank. It's as if people are owed something by the government." Hoover quickly equivocates, admitting that "in one sense government does owe much to its citizens," but she clearly thinks that liberals expect too much "government largesse" and don't give enough weight to "the notions of personal sacrifice, initiative, and individual responsibility." Again, Hoover isn't an anti-government ideologue; she states that "government is a necessary player in our civic life," but "not the essential one." But as is so often the case in Republican propaganda, this essentialism is largely imaginary. Who actually asserts that everyone should depend on the state for their lives and livelihood? Can someone give me a quote that isn't actually a description of liberal beliefs in a conservative tome? I won't hold my breath while I wait.

Hoover poses the case between liberalism and individualism in mostly abstract terms, to such an extent that you could believe that she actually believes what she's writing. American Individualism is largely detached from real economic issues apart from some perfunctory prescriptions for tax and entitlement reform. The book seems detached from reality itself in its account of politics as a struggle between the individual and the state. Hoover has nothing whatsoever to say about labor and the workplace, for instance, even though labor issues long set the terms of debate between left and right. This may be because her millennials "do not take easily to base-level employment" and have (and worse, expect) little job security when they do. But it's mainly because Hoover refuses on principle to reduce individuals to class. This becomes most clear during her discussion of feminism. "I recognize that there are challenges unique to me as a woman," she writes on page 132, "but I never blamed an oppressive male patriarchy, as some professors no doubt hoped I would. I saw the challenges of being a woman as personal challenges, not social injustices." That last sentence sums up the difference between individualism and leftism pretty neatly. Marxists would insist on a closer relationship between Hoover's personal challenges and social injustice, arguing that social structure shapes the challenges facing everyone but the dominant class. Liberals would not see a social revolution as the necessary response to Hoover's challenges, but they would still acknowledge a linkage that Hoover denies, and that requires a political remedy. Individualists on the right insist that they are free no matter what their social circumstances, unless the state places obstacles in the way of their freedom. The rest of the social environment is taken as given, and freedom consists in not being prevented from doing what necessity dictates, within moral bounds. Both viewpoints actually see freedom as determined by environment, but the individualists on the right insist that freedom depends on refusing to question the environment -- unless they see the "artificial" presence of the state. The state appears as the only obstacle to individual freedom -- though Hoover might add the Religious Right to the list of obstacles.

American Individualism doesn't offer a blueprint for the millennial takeover of the Republican party. In part that's because the book's purpose is really to urge current Republicans to meet the millennials halfway. Hoover's implicit hope is that the social conservatives will also play the lesser-evil game and make concessions on moral issues in order to secure a stronger individual-liberty coalition. At the moment, however, that element is in no mood to compromise on anything. It's possible that millennials could simply swamp the Religious Right by registering en masse as Republicans and outvoting them at the primaries. Would social conservatives stand for the result? All of them doing so seems very unlikely. As a result, Hoover's dream coalition is just as unlikely. Her warning about third parties actually points both ways. If millennials may form or join a third party if Republicans won't accommodate them, the Religious Right might form or join a third party if the GOP goes too far in accommodating the millennials. The real story of Hoover's book isn't her appeal to a theoretical millennial ideology, but her challenge to the Republican party. It's still her impulse to take for granted that the GOP is the true home of individual liberty, but the challenge of the millennials may force Republicans to prove once and for all whether they really stand for individual liberty or not. Hoover already concedes that many Republicans do not. As Ronald Reagan might have asked: where's the rest of them?


Anonymous said...

I almost stopped reading this when I saw this quote: forcing top-down policies down their throat, which she sees as the style of present-day liberalism. It seems to me that that goes both ways. Any law, from her perspective, could be interpreted as forcing policies down our throats.

She can't think of herself as an intellectual, since I must insist that an intellectual would actual educate themselves on liberalism, socialism, etc., before trying to tear them down, rather than simply relying on the current right-wing populist ad hominem attacks.

It also seems, from your article, that she claims to be speaking for "the millennials", rather than for herself as a millenial. There is always a danger in assuming you speak for anyone other than yourself. I have met any number of leftists and liberals who were born in the 80s/90s and are coming of age in the early decades of the 21st century.

Samuel Wilson said...

In fact, Hoover states that millennials as a group don't share many Republicans' outright hostility to government. They have greater faith in governmental competence in spite of debacles like the response to Hurricane Katrina, which they blame on the specific incompetence of the Bush administration. Her point is that millennials acknowledge an important role for the state, but don't want it to dictate from the top down. A law or regulation is presumably not "forced down people's throats" when it's drafted with input from the interested parties. Given the usual context of such demands, however, Hoover seems to be insisting that the hens should not dictate to the foxes.

Most of her thinking on socialism seems to be based on Herbert Hoover's experiences in the early Soviet Union, where he arranged for food aid during the 1920s. Hoover took the often desperate conditions he saw as immediate proof of socialism's failure, the effects of world war and civil war notwithstanding. It's wrong to judge socialism by Bolshevism, but it's also typical, and the Bolsheviks themselves bear a share of the blame. In any event, and to some credit, Margaret Hoover doesn't play the "Obama's a socialist" game. To her, it's bad enough that he's a liberal, but she does realize that liberals and socialists are two different things.

Anonymous said...

I would have to say it was unfair of Hoover to judge Socialism by what he saw in Russia, period. Unless he had been to Russia and saw what things were like under the Czar, and, as you mention, after it's own revolution.

My point is that she seems to be trying to indicate that all millenials think like she does, when my own personal experience tells me there are many millenials who would disagree with her on some, many or all of her opinions. Not ALL millenials are "conservative" or "right-leaning".

Samuel Wilson said...

I actually got the impression that Hoover was uncomfortable with the "conservative" label. She notes its essential meaninglessness (what are we trying to conserve?) and the fact that the label covers several disparate "tribes." I think she'd really like to re-brand the GOP as the "individualist" rather than the "conservative" party to attract those millennials whose chief characteristic, in her view, isn't conservatism but individualism. Of course, if you can point to millennials who reject dogmatic individualism, you point would still hold.