08 April 2013

Herbert Hoover: from liberal to conservative

For a while after leaving the White House, Herbert Hoover resented being called a "conservative." To him, the word was a smear. He preferred to think of himself as a "historical liberal." He considered the qualifier necessary because he believed that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal had corrupted the meaning of "liberalism." In Hoover's view, the New Deal was "the negation of all that the word means except in its minor dictionary connotation of giving away other people's money." He was reluctant to leave FDR with the "liberal" label. "There are acts and policies of the New Deal," he told the journalist William Allen White, "that are neither reactionary, conservative, liberal or radical. They are just crazy." In 1939 Hoover denounced the use of political labels at a college commencement speech. "We use these terms politically mostly for slogans and oratory," he said, "They are used for eulogy and defamation. if you do not like somebody you consign him to the complexion most hated by your listener. These terms are used as refuges from ignorance or intellectual dishonesty. They are set up as pigeon-holes for men and groups to imply they are righteous, stingy, public-spirited, opposed to public interest, or generally sinful. They are dumdum words to assassinate men and then to plant bitter onions on their graves." He urged the graduates not to bother with such words as "liberal," "conservative," "radical" or "reactionary." In the summation of Hoover's biographer, Gary Dean Best, "Where defense of [liberty] required them to be liberal or conservative or reactionary or radical, they should not hesitate to be whatever was required."

During the FDR presidency, Hoover's was a voice of embattled pragmatism, convinced that Roosevelt's measures were not working and could not work. Ideas like deficit spending to stimulate demand simply made no sense to him. As a beaten rival of Roosevelt, he never shook the suspicion, widespread when FDR first took office, that he might become a dictator as some Americans had hoped. Hoover opposed American intervention in World War II before Pearl Harbor in part because he feared, as did some observers on the left, that Roosevelt would use war as a means and excuse to consolidate more power in his own hands. Hoover was driven more by personal antipathy toward Roosevelt than by ideology as we recognize it today. Until the war, Hoover always seemed aware that there were dangerous elements to his right as well as to his left. When he warned fellow Republicans against allying with conservative "Jeffersonian" Democrats, the implication was that those allies would drag Republicanism in a more reactionary direction. He worried about Wall Street's influence over the party. He was not a laissez-faire capitalist if laissez-faire meant no government intervention in the economy at all. He believed that government's role was rightly limited, but he also believed that its role extended to redistributing wealth through taxation. In Best's words, Hoover believed that "Taxing powers should be utilized by the government to ensure that no group received either too much or too little of the abundance produced." If Democrats today accuse Republicans of wanting to take the country back to Hoover's time, they do a disservice to Hoover.

By 1945, however, Hoover had accepted the "conservative" label and saw it as a rallying point. Even then, he remained almost apologetic about the word.

The American people need and have a right to organized expression of conservative thought. Being a conservative is not a sin. It is not 'fascism' or 'reaction.' It means today the conservation of representative government, of intellectual freedom and of economic freedom within the limits of what does not harm fellow men. It means the conservation of natural resources, of national health, education and employment. A conservative is not allergic to new ideas. He wants to try them slowly without destroying what is good.

Even then, when the old man's attitudes had hardened after a dozen years of FDR in power, his more aggressively stated conservatism was still a far cry from what usually goes under that name today, his idea of "harm" probably more expansive, his concern for conservation probably too intrusive by 21st century ideological standards. Hoover saw the country on a slippery slope to totalitarianism. A decade earlier, he was at least as likely to warn against the New Deal turning into fascism as he was to warn about it turning into communism. He saw little difference between two bad options, both embodying a dark tendency toward that "regimentation" he saw as a mortal threat to the "individual initiative" upon which all progress depends. To the end -- he lived to be 90 and saw the followers of Barry Goldwater take over his party -- Hoover struggled to maintain the distinction between the regulation that was government's proper work and the regimentation that took government past its proper bounds. Today's Republicans hardly seem to notice a difference. Reading Best's account of Hoover inspires me to learn more about the Republican party's evolution -- or devolution. Best himself adopts Hoover's viewpoint so uncritically that it's hard to tell whether you're getting an objective account of Hoover's rivals in both parties, the Great Depression, or even the man himself. But even a sympathetic account based as Best's is on the words Hoover wrote and spoke exposes a reader to ideas that don't fit the current partisan paradigms. In recent times we've seen Herbert Hoover denounced as one of those sinister Progressives by the likes of Glenn Beck and idolized as a great American individualist by his great-granddaughter. The truth is not so readily labeled, as Hoover himself would probably appreciate.

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