What FDR called “the conception of Americanism” is far more important than the conception of “conservatism” or “liberalism”—and it is this same conception that President Donald Trump carries into office with him now…
Conservatism, being a disposition rather than an ideology, has many shades of practical meaning. We find it sometimes in places least expected. Certainly Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not normally associated with it. Yet if we listen for a moment to President Roosevelt rather than to the liberals who idolize him as an opponent of all things conservative, or to the conservatives who blame him for being a proponent of all things not conservative, we may just understand both Roosevelt, and conservatism itself, more properly.
We may even come to see that what FDR called “the conception of Americanism” is far more important than the conception of “conservatism” or “liberalism”—and it is this same conception that President Donald Trump carries into office with him now. The conservative is merely the citizen who acts to preserve Americanism while the liberal acts to improve it. Democrats and Republicans who have fallen away from this conception in pursuit of abstract conservatism or liberalism have not been successful. In fact, since success is foundational to Americanism, any conservatism or liberalism which is not successful is likely not part and parcel of Americanism. As a general rule, Democrats of FDR’s time seemed to understand this better than Republicans; today the opposite is true.
President Roosevelt’s September 29th, 1936 address to the Democratic State Convention in New York, in which he places himself squarely in favor of realistic Americanism and opposed to all radical utopian departures from it, can be brushed off as nothing but election-year rhetoric. It could be argued that Roosevelt spoke there to dispel fears amongst voters with regard to the radicalism of the New Deal, to disarm opponents of their arguments by facing them head on. It could be said that the speech was a bit of prudent triangulation. No doubt, given the campaign settings and the unwritten rules of the game governing democratic elections, all such assertions are correct. Yet to say of political speech that it is merely rhetoric is to miss the point. Political speech is always necessarily rhetorical, but that is not to say it has nothing of enduring worth to teach us.
In his speech, Roosevelt attempts to teach us the virtue of political realism defined as Americanism in the face of political idealism bordering on ideology. Insofar as he was accused by his Republican opponents of being a Russian dupe leading the country towards communism, Roosevelt turns the tables on his accusers:
Communism is a manifestation of the social unrest which always comes with widespread economic maladjustment. We in the Democratic Party have not been content merely to denounce this menace. We have been realistic enough to face it.
Earlier in the speech, Roosevelt points to outlandish and unrealistic charges leveled against America’s greatest statesmen: Washington (accused of imperial ambitions), Jefferson (accused of bringing the terror of the French revolution to America), Jackson (accused of perpetuating mob rule), Lincoln (accused of Caesarism), Theodore Roosevelt (accused of destruction) and Wilson (accused of Messianic ambition). By juxtaposing his own Presidency with Republican and Democratic Presidents who—whatever their drawbacks—have advanced what FDR calls “Americanism,” he means to demonstrate that his own policies, while presently eliciting great emotions, will one day fall within the pantheon of American greatness. The concrete definition of Americanism that Roosevelt gives us in this speech is not a platform, nor a body of doctrine, but a solution to a specific problem: Communism.
Early in the campaign of 1932 I said: “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster. Reaction is no barrier to the radical, it is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.” We met the emergency with emergency action. But far more important than that, we went to the roots of the problem, and attacked the cause of the crisis. We were against revolution. Therefore, we waged war against those conditions which make revolutions—against the inequalities and resentments which breed them. In America in 1933 the people did not attempt to remedy wrongs by overthrowing their institutions. Americans were made to realize that wrongs could and would be set right within their institutions. We proved that democracy can work.
The argument that Roosevelt makes is not difficult to understand; it is an argument rooted in the political science of America’s founders for whom the political framework under which America was to be governed was far more crucial than the economic framework. Capitalism certainly resulted to a large extent from the political framework of the Constitution, but it was not enshrined therein. The economic system of private property and free exchange was merely a methodology towards securing the general welfare. Wherever and whenever that method proved fatal to its aims, the duty of America’s statesmen was not the preservation of the capitalist system as such—but of the Constitution as such. This is because “the conception of Americanism” as Roosevelt perceived it is rooted in realism:
The most dreadful failure of which any form of government can be guilty is simply to lose touch with reality, because out of this failure all imaginable forms of evil grow. Every empire that has crashed has come down primarily because its rulers did not know what was going on in the world and were incapable of learning.
American realism, to be clear, is not the “realism” often contrasted with “idealism” in contemporary foreign policy debates. American realism is idealistic in the best possible way: It measures its ideals on the basis of what is really possible to accomplish. There is little sense in holding ideals which require the absolute destruction of reality to execute, or ideals which are not made for any human reality. While the merits and demerits of the New Deal were and are debated amongst reasonable Americans—as are the merits and demerits of FDR’s presidency—it can be little doubted that the content of the speech analyzed herein is sound, whether or not it was merely rhetoric. This brings us to President Roosevelt’s ultimate definition of political conservatism and political liberalism:
The true conservative is the man who has a real concern for injustices and takes thought against the day of reckoning. The true conservative seeks to protect the system of private property and free enterprise by correcting such injustices and inequalities as arise from it. The most serious threat to our institutions comes from those who refuse to face the need for change. Liberalism becomes the protection for the far-sighted conservative…. I am that kind of conservative because I am that kind of liberal.
This leads us to question whether today’s self-professed progressives—heirs to a liberal tradition that they scant remember—really understand themselves as FDR did. President Roosevelt’s view of liberalism was an outgrowth of Wilsonian practice and Deweyian theory. John Dewey argued in Liberalism and Social Action that the definition of liberalism is the historical ambiguity of liberalism. Dewey embraced the contradictions of liberalism throughout the ages as a result of liberalism always being a direct assault against the concrete problems of a concrete age. The varying remedies offered by liberalism in varying times and places are never, according to Dewey, to be dogmatized into a timeless theorem. Instead, the only constant that liberalism can proclaim is the constant necessity to ascertain realistically political necessity and to act to remedy it with political justice to the extent possible. Certainly liberalism has been (and perhaps is still) guilty of presuming too readily to have identified political justice, to identify it wrongly or to protest that it cannot be identified at all. In this regard, liberalism often lacks both the prudence and the pessimism with regard to human nature that conservatism furnishes to all political discourse. American liberals, however, have long been rescued from this vice on account of American Christianity, which had been of paramount importance to all liberals up to at least Adlai Stevenson’s day. It may well be argued that Christianity is an indispensable component of what FDR called “the conception of Americanism.” The wholesale rejection of Christianity practiced by modern liberals may explain why they are in turn rejected by America at the ballot box.
In his very practical, pragmatic frame of mind, President Donald Trump understands that it is best not to assault the Christian component of Americanism any further. In this respect, as in many others, we would not be far amiss if we proclaimed that insofar as the political philosophy presented by President Roosevelt in his 1936 Address, as best as we have understood it here, is a political philosophy of liberalism—then it is President Trump today who embodies it. And perhaps of Donald Trump we might say, to paraphrase President Roosevelt, that “President Trump is that kind of liberal because he is that kind of conservative.”
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