Donald J. Fraser’s clearly written work proposes that a “great flip” in U.S. politics has seen liberals and conservatives switch positions on activist versus hands-off government.
Here, the two main roles go to “liberal” Thomas Jefferson and “conservative” Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson’s egalitarian vision required the economy to remain largely agricultural and the government mostly inactive. Hamilton saw inequality as inevitable and active government as essential to prodding the country past the small-farming stage to the industrial capacity which would place it on the world stage.
Fraser then follows how particularly dynamic presidents interpreted and sometimes synthesized these different approaches. Lincoln, for one, embraced and expanded Jefferson’s goal of political equality through Hamilton’s strategy of aggressive government action. Yet Lincoln’s synthesis of the two founders’ philosophies overlooked an essential part of Jefferson’s message: that political equality and unchecked economic inequality would prove incompatible. This warning was borne out in the labor violence and political inertia of the Gilded Age after the Civil War. Eventually Progressivism arose, “in some important ways, a conservative movement” that sought to rationalize but not upend American capitalism.
Fraser discusses Republican Teddy Roosevelt, who flamboyantly tried to make “an old party progressive” once more, and others up through FDR, Ronald Reagan and beyond — and also examines the 2008 financial meltdown that shook Reagan’s capitalist triumphalism, creating our still-unsettled political moment.
Fraser’s argument perhaps makes too much use of the labels “conservative” and “liberal,” without fully demonstrating their applicability to different eras in politics. History buffs will appreciate that the author unfailingly backs up his facts with citations but at times quotes his secondary sources too generously, blocking his own voice from emerging. That said, Fraser’s use of research is mostly inspired, refreshing readers’ faded recollections of long-ago history lessons with surprising facts, such as the theoretically anti-interventionist Confederacy’s quasi-socialist economic policy.
Anyone interested in gaining perspective on America’s current, apparently impassable political impasse should find food for thought in Fraser’s original approach.