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Coolidge or Hoover, and Why It Matters with Gordon Lloyd (Real Clear Books) December 12, 2013

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

It’s no coincidence that, even as Tea Party and Republican Party leaders battle over the nature of conservatism in the Age of Obama, three new books debate the origin of modern American conservatism.  The old conventional wisdom–that modern American conservatism was born in the 1950’s with Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley and National Review–is giving way to the notion that we must reach further back into our history.  The question is how far back:  to Herbert Hoover and the New Deal in the 1930’s, or to Calvin Coolidge in the 1920’s?  Our conclusion is that the Tea Party is stuck in the less relevant era of Coolidge, whereas the real heart of modern American conservatism is located in the New Deal and Herbert Hoover’s penetrating critique of it.

Amity Shlaes’ interesting book, Coolidge, revived a “Coolidge is cool” movement among conservatives.  Ronald Reagan may have started the revival when he replaced Harry Truman’s portrait with one of Coolidge in the Cabinet Room.  Michele Bachmann reflected a Tea Party sensibility about Coolidge when she proposed adding his visage to Mount Rushmore.  What conservatives like about Coolidge, whom they see as the last of the non-progressive presidents, is his personal and political sense of self-restraint:  Shlaes refers to him as “the great refrainer.”   They also like his tax-cutting and expense-reducing policies that accompanied the robust economic growth of the roaring 20’s.

But to read Coolidge is to recognize that, in most respects, he is pre-modern and not highly relevant to the debates of the 21st century.  His view of government debt, for example, is that it is morally wrong and creates too much burden on average people.  Perhaps that was true 100 years ago, but today federal debt is more nearly viewed as a tool of monetary and fiscal policy than a question of personal morality.  No one really believes the debt will ever be repaid, and growing or shrinking it is more a tool of economics than of personal thrift.  Similar are his views on the centrality of religion to the role of government, now a bit dated in a highly pluralistic society, or the role of state governments in taking the weight off an overburdened Washington bureaucracy.  Coolidge’s conservatism, while admirable, is pre-New Deal and too simple and personal for the challenges of the day.

Two other new books place the origin of modern American conservatism in the 1930’s with the New Deal and Herbert Hoover’s prophetic attack on its excesses.  Indeed, we argue in The New Deal and Modern American Conservatism: A Defining Rivalry that, just as Edmund Burke defined modern conservatism in his response to the French Revolution, the New Deal is our French Revolution and Herbert Hoover is the early prophet speaking against it.  The New Deal is still the paradigm for American domestic and economic policy today, 80 years later and going strong.  And the arguments Hoover made about the growth of government, its role in central planning, and the corresponding loss of personal liberty all ring true today.  Indeed, Hoover’s chief biographer, George Nash, has recently found Hoover’s “lost” manuscript about his fruitful post-presidency called “The Crusade Years” which will be released shortly and confirms this thesis.

Modern American conservatism is fundamentally a response to the New Deal.  And conservatives should continue in the spirit of Hoover’s critique to crusade against it.  When President Obama campaigns for income equality, he seeks to extend Franklin Roosevelt’s battle for increased taxation of the rich.  When Democrats pass Obamacare, they are adding to the entitlement network begun by Roosevelt.  When government grows to peace-time highs in regulation and spending, and takes over more aspects of our lives, it builds on the New Deal.

Oliver Holmes said he would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but would give his life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.  While Coolidge’s self-restraint was admirable, and a tempting model for Tea Party simplicity, conservatism must deal with the complexities of today’s New Deal-style government.  For this project, Herbert Hoover has pointed the way.

Link to Real Clear Books:  http://www.realclearbooks.com/printpage/?url=http://www.realclearbooks.com/articles/2013/12/12/coolidge_or_hoover_and_why_it_matters_73.html

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