Walter Russell Mead recently argued that we are seeing a revival of the first debate in our nation’s history: does strengthening the federal government protect or imperil freedom? This different answers to this question underpinned the debate about the ratification of the Constitution and then defined the Federalist party, led by Alexander Hamilton and his allies, and the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and his allies. The basic breakdown is to what extent the federal government, in alliance with elite decision-makers, could manage the economy and direct society in a beneficial way. Hamiltonians of the 18th and 19th centuries are often portrayed as conservatives, from Hamilton and his Federalists to Henry Clay and his Whigs, but Mead argues that they are the forebears of modern progressive liberalism. As Mead (see this post) and others have pointed out, the Federalists had their base of support in New England, one of today’s most important bases of progressivism. Mead believes that Hamilton’s belief that “the best educated and most widely experienced people in the United States constituted a natural aristocracy and should play the leading role in our politics” is reflected in progressive liberalism’s reliance on experts to craft policy. The 20th century saw the triumph of Hamiltonianism:
The blue social model, the progressive American system of the 20th century, was the love child of Hamiltonian liberal theory and social democratic aspirations rooted in the Industrial Revolution and the class struggle it spawned. It used a capitalist state, and capital markets, to advance both classic Hamiltonian objectives and the social goals of the urban working class. For a good chunk of the twentieth century, the American party system reflected this division: Rockefeller Republicans stressed the liberal and Hamiltonian roots of the system, liberal Democrats stressed the social democratic aspects of its agenda.
It’s impossible to understand modern American conservatism — especially its skepticism of the mainstream media, academia, and the federal government, which were all part of this consensus by the 1960s and 1970s — without understanding the triumph of what Mead calls Hamiltonianism in American political culture. Read Mead’s post for his analysis of the current situation.
It’s a good analysis, I think, with one weakness. The dichotomy between the two isn’t as helpful in recognizing the continuum between these positions and the real difference in federal power between the late 18th and 19th centuries and today. Someone might have supported government-financed internal transportation improvements in 1830, but that same person would be astonished if you described the Great Society programs. Doubtless, there are connections that can be drawn between Henry Clay’s American System and the Great Society, but there has been a paradigm shift about the federal government’s responsibilities that makes those connections complicated.