U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Substance, Style, and Cold War Liberalism

Kevin Mattson’s reply to my provocations (I and II) was fantastic. I concede to Mattson on several points. For instance, I agree about the centrality of McCarthyism to postwar conservatism, which is particularly apropos given that Irving Kristol, the “father of neoconservatism,” made a halfhearted defense of McCarthy on the grounds that liberals could not be trusted to wage the Cold War. 

Yet, I stand by many of my original arguments, especially over the centrality of neoconservatism to the culture wars. This argument rests on my belief that the sixties represent a significant break, that the New Left is crucial to understanding the later culture wars, and that neoconservatism took form precisely in opposition to the New Left. In their reaction to the New Left and in their full-throated attack on those intellectuals who comprised, in Lionel Trilling’s words, an “adversary culture,” neoconservatives helped draw up the very terms of the culture wars. But since I have made that argument on this blog several times and would like to save some of my material for my book, I will let this debate go for now.

The one point of contention that I would like to return to, however, is the ongoing discussion about style and substance. Bill Fine’s many comments on this topic, as well as LD Burnett’s posts (here and here), have inspired me to think through where I stand on the style-substance spectrum in relation to Cold War liberalism. Both Mattson and LD claim that the New Left and the New Right evinced similar styles, implying that this fact is more important to our historical understanding of these two ideological trajectories than any political differences they might have had. I disagree.


In Rebels All!, Mattson argues that American conservatives are the true heirs to sixties radicals. Conservatives are the ones who carried on their legacy of anti-establishment utopianism. In this elocution, style matters. Such rebellious sensibilities stood in marked contrast to the political style that Mattson holds dear, the style of Cold War liberalism. Mattson appreciates the insights offered by postwar liberalism: “That irony and humility are necessary guards against self-assured expansion of American power. That style, the way you hold your ideas and worldview, often guide the way you do things in the world.”

Similarly, in her recent post—“Common Ground for the Culture Wars”—LD contends that William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale and Tom Hayden’s “Port Huron Statement” evinced strikingly similar sensibilities, particularly in their notions about the moral and political centrality of the university. Both Buckley and Hayden believed the university was worth fighting for, and in this fight they both saw themselves as doing battle with a corrupt system otherwise known as Cold War liberalism. That their critiques arose from divergent political views is less important than understanding their shared sensibilities.

Mattson points out that perhaps our main difference is over politics. Mattson writes: “He appears much more of a leftist; I’m a liberal. Some of his criticisms seem less about the substance of my own argument and getting things wrong and more with my own political conclusions.” Mattson is half correct here. Indeed, we do disagree about politics. He correctly mentions that we have different takes on historian-activist Howard Zinn, which seems to be a Rorschach test for left-leaning historians these days. Fair enough. (If you want my opinion on this matter, see my reading of Michael Kazin, who is chief among Zinn’s left-leaning critics.)

But I would argue that Mattson and my political differences do not merely lead me to dislike the conclusions he draws from history. I think it leads him to get the history wrong. This is particularly the case with his conflation of the sixties left with the post-sixties right, which seems to stem from his defense of Cold War liberalism. In this, Mattson repeats the Cold War liberal move, made most famously by Schlesinger in The Vital Center: he concludes that political ideas to the left and right of liberalism are non-sensible. Whereas Schlesinger and the consensus thinkers of the 1950s misapplied psychoanalytic theory to argue that non-liberal political views were crazy, Mattson argues that the rebellious style, whether a fashion of the left or the right, is antithetical to the good democratic society.

As far as I can tell, LD’s analysis of postwar sensibilities does not originate from any such political passion. And yet, in her historiographic commitments, she prioritizes the wrong thing. The point that Buckley and Hayden both opposed aspects of the university establishment, and in doing so were part of a larger counter-zeitgeist, is banal. Given that the university was central to the Cold War liberal project, and given that Cold War liberalism was hegemonic (there’s a reason it was called the consensus), all critics, left or right, might seem like “rebels all.” They were rebelling against powerful institutions, undergirded by powerful ideas. But their differences are more important to our historical understanding.

Buckley saw the university as an anti-traditionalist, anti-religious, secularizing institution. As such, his critique nicely anticipated the Christian Right’s war for the soul of America that took on added valence in the 1970s and after. Hayden, in contrast, saw the university as the soulless representation of a technocratic capitalism. Both critiques were compelling. Both spoke to the various weaknesses of Cold War liberalism. And both had later consequences. But they were substantially different. 

That both left and right offered withering criticisms of Cold War liberalism might say a lot about Cold War liberalism. But only by analyzing the specific substance of the respective criticisms do we learn about left and right and, consequently, about the culture wars that resulted from the crumbling of Cold War liberalism.

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Gracious, Andrew. If my “banal” observations prompt this kind of response, I can hardly wait to see what happens when I advance a truly controversial idea. We should sell tickets.

    Unfortunately, the ideas that you are arguing against in this post are not ideas that I have advanced. You say that I am prioritizing “style” or “sensibilities” over “the specific substance” of political expressions, that I am emphasizing “the wrong thing” in my historiographic commitments. But I’m not the one who is arguing that sensibilities are a “thing,” a discrete object of analysis separate and separable from the myriad ways in which sensibilities find expression. You’re faulting me for reversing the order/priority of what you see as two distinct and separable objects, but you’re the one drawing the sharp distinction.

    What I don’t quite understand is exactly whose ox is being gored by (on?) my banal point about the shared sensibility of Buckley and Hayden. How does this observation jeopardize “our historical understanding”? What is the project that this insight, such as it is, threatens to undermine? I don’t see the danger here.

    As to your observation that my “analysis of postwar sensibilities does not originate from any…political passion” — I am very glad that you see that, and glad that you said it. Of course, Hayden White might argue that a politically dispassionate view of the past is in fact a political stance of sorts, and it’s a stance he doesn’t seem to care for. And, from what I can tell, you don’t care for it either. But you are nevertheless collegial and respectful in disagreement, and you do me the honor of openly engaging in dialog over our differences. For that I cannot thank you enough. Really. It’s an honor and a delight to be your sparring partner.

  2. It’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll wade in.

    I think your adviser is very wise. I think how one views continuity versus change may be more determinant than the investigator’s political leanings. Being more comfortable in the politics of the Early American republic, I am, perhaps, more open to an interpretation of modern American history such as Salvatore and Cowie’s “The Long Exception: Rethinking the Place of the New Deal in American History.”

    During this era, social democratic liberalism reigned in Europe, and New Deal Liberalism or Cold War liberalism reigned in the United States until the economic failures of the 1970s opened the way for global neoliberalism the “Vital Center” of the past three decades. The four themes in which they organized their essay dovetail nicely into all the cultural conflicts our nation has endured for over two hundred years.

    I, also tend to be suspicious of binary representations. Where do anti-imperialist libertarians fit in either your or Mattson’s formulations? Where do those who believe that every war and expansionary policy is driven by the needs of the miltiary-industrialist complex,or those who believe in the legalization of marijuana. How does one categorize those “Progressive democrats for Ron Paul”? How do you categorize the rise of environmental technological Malthusians who have argued that our modern industrial lifestyle is unsustainable? The modern day nativists may rail about immigrants, “the other,” and preserving the American identity, but they fight a losing battle with no victories. These loose ends and the persistence of regional mores lead me to doubt both the causation of the phenomena and the characterization.

    The question as to how neoliberalism replaced “vital center liberalism” as the dominant paradigm which determines which ideas are viable and which are nonsensical is the question I am searching. For all the heat over multiculturalism and other hot button issues, Barack Obama governs comfortably within the almost identical parameters as George W. Bush and Michelle Rhee considers herself a Democrat.

  3. Andrew,
    I wonder if you (or LD or Kevin Mattson) have read Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism? Brand doesn’t seem quite to be part of the New Left you’re likely interested in here, but Turner does trace a surprising line from at least some New Left-ish figures to folks like George Gilder–a transformation that seems to follow much the same lines as have been alluded to here.

  4. I really respect all of the scholars on this, one of my favorite websites. Yet I must repeat what I have stated in an earlier post that the reason for the confusion concerning who is Left, RIght, or solidly Liberal is the 1960s centrism of the histories on offer here. I think the 1970s is the key, a missing link, if you will. The 1970s was a profound transformation of human subjectivity in the west away from the political and towards individual consciousness. The causes of this should be explored, but it is at least in part a shift from practical economics to a renewed interest in meaning and values. Once this change was underway when people turned to politics they did politics in a rather un-political way (in Schlesinger and Arendt’s formulation of what should be considered properly political) Thus, identities and symbols become more important than infrastructural transformations. The biggest loser in this was and is liberalism because Liberalism is an anti-passional politics, making it alien to both far left (Marxist or anarchist, say) and the far Right (theological centerdness, and market fundamentalism) Though my account is hopelessly idealistic in its rejection of material forces, so be it. But I say you have to follow the 1970s and spend a little less time on Port Huron and Buckley and more time on Esalen, Watergate and, Werner Erhard. liberalism loses not because it is weak or wrong but only profoundly out of tune with times that are suspicious of moderation. (Witness the hysterical output of radical holistic accounts like Adam Curtis’ The Trap for example and witness partisan gridlock more generally).

  5. Andrew–
    I’m puzzled by your continuous invocation of a sharp distinction (and an invidious one at that!) between something you call “style,” and something else you call “substance”. This seems like the Aristotelian distinction between substance and qualities, with all the metaphysical jumping through hoops that involves; once you strip off all the accidental “qualities,” what of the substance remains? It looks like, feels like, smells like, tastes like bread, but it’s really the body of Christ! The trick you perform here is to rely on a generalized popular cultural distinction between “style” (associated with fluff, immateriality, superficiality, lacking in seriousness and gravitas, a matter of mere appearance) and “substance” (important, serious, profound, solid, real) that is used to dismiss a whole range of expression as not worth taking seriously. But that’s not an analytical tool that can bear any examination. The problem for you, I think, is not that others, such as LD and Bill Fine, prioritize style over substance, it’s that they reject the distinction entirely. They recognize that the “what” is bound up with the “how” of expression and representation, that form and content are inseparable and should be analyzed in relation to one another. You seem committed to the idea that the historian’s job is to demystify the past by showing the reality that lies behind mere appearance; I suspect that this ultimately devolves into questions of whose interest is being promoted by a particular ideological stance, instead of questions of to the coercive power of ways of thinking. Tell me I’m wrong!

  6. Dan: I don’t make or even imply any grandiose claims “that the historian’s job is to demystify the past by showing the reality that lies behind mere appearance…” I am fine with those who argue that the style-substance binary is false. Elocution and argument sometimes seem inseparable, sure. I’ve read my Dewey. Even Foucault!

    But you might not be wrong that I insist the focus on sensibility is a red herring when seeking to understand left and right responses to Cold War liberalism. Like I wrote in the post, such common sensibilities might tell us something about Cold War liberalism, which was hegemonic, but they reveal very little about the very important distinctions between left and right. The more I think about it, the more I conclude that this is my biggest complaint with Dan Rodgers’s “Age of Fracture.” Although I love the book–the fact that I am still thinking about it is a testament to its powerful analytical model–I think the way it subsumes political difference under a zeitgeist of fracture misses out on the importance of political difference. In this way, like I’ve told you before, I’m hopelessly old fashioned in my Marxist epistemological commitments. Don’t hold it against me too much.

  7. Andrew: You seem to be suggesting that Cold War liberalism was a monolithic as opposed to contested persuasion, am I wrong? At least you seem to be collapsing the differences that separated a Schlesinger, a Dulles, a Hofstadter, a MacDonald, and so on (not to mention a Mattson, whose WHEN AMERICA WAS GREAT does a fine job of showing how Cold War liberalism was at least a creative and dynamic enterprise). And, if it wasn’t monolithic, how could it be hegemonic?

    • Mark: I use the concept hegemonic in the Gramscian sense, which means that I would expect the hegemonic ideology to be contested and not monolithic. So long as there was consensus over first principles. Politically, cold War liberals were committed to the cold war and to the New Deal. In elite circles and beyond, these two commitments were widely shared even if there was disagreement over details. The New Left arose partly in opposition to the first; the New Right partly in opposition to the second. All I’ve been saying all along is that these differences matter more than the common language or style they deployed in their respective resistances.

      There was also a Cold War liberalism that, though not quite as hegemonic, was quite influential to intellectual life. Irony, pluralism, consensus, detachment, etc… Both leftists and conservatives organized new ways of thinking in opposition to these intellectual commitments. And again, in their opposition, they sometimes shared a style, which was paradoxically both anti-ironic and anti-authoritarian. But I still go back to the differences as the historical hinge; as the stuff of the culture wars.

    • Ok, thanks for the clarification. Personally, I think the notion of a hegemonic Cold War liberalism is destined to fade away as more investigations of the 1950s are willing to challenge the “conformity” motif. Liberals disagreed substantially on first principles–Mattson’s distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” liberals is one case in point; the 1950s Southern liberalism i’m currently investigating another case. As you say, “these differences matter.” Then again, David Ekbladh’s GREAT AMERICAN MISSION would suggest that liberals all most shared a domestic/foreign policy commitment to “modernization,” so I could be wrong.

  8. Okay, the ox is lumbering into view. So your basic gripe with my historiographic commitments is that they don’t provide sufficient support for your political commitments? How is this a problem with my methodology?

    • LD: I’m not sure how you interpreted our differences as arising from my political commitments. I am trying to understand what happened in the 60s and after to cause the culture wars. This is an historical problem not necessarily a political problem. If I point to my Marxist epistemology, it’s me pointing to how I make sense of things, not my desire for a dictatorship of the proletariat.

  9. Andrew, the distinction between left and right in the Cold War era strikes me as obvious, and has been made much of by historians, especially New Left ones, who in their blinkered way have been only able to see the difference. Insisting that the most important feature of political thought in the Cold War era were the different ideological commitments of left and right simply reproduces the Left’s own view of itself, and doesn’t give us any larger historical reflection on the era that comes from being outside of it. If Cold War liberalism was indeed “hegemonic,” I would expect that it defined the forms and limits within which protest from both left and right was possible, and focusing on the common ground of perception and conception across the political spectrum gives us some insight into that. But perhaps you mean something else by “hegemonic”. If you are to persuade those of us who aren’t committed to what you call your “old fashioned” Marxist epistemology, I don’t think falling back on saying “these are my commitments, don’t hold them against me” is going to do the job. You wanted to challenge those who disagreed with your assessment, but your argument seems to come down to saying that you think political distinctions are more important than intellectual commonalities. But you haven’t really given us a reason why we should evaluate the degree of importance in the way you have. This is what I mean by saying that you think there are mere appearances (common sensibilities) and the reality that lies behind them (political differences), and you do seem committed to exposing the “false consensus” in favor of the “real difference”. Those of us on the other side of this (or at least me!) don’t deny the ideological differences between the New Left and the Buckleyite Conservative Movement–I just don’t think those differences are the whole or the most important thing to observe about political ideology and modes of thought during that era.

  10. Your challenges have made it clear to me that my argument is confusing because I am trying to deal with at least two issues that might not be as related as I originally thought. My main purpose all along has been to grapple with Mattson’s analysis of conservatism as presented in “Rebels All!”

    In this, I now realize, I should not have included a critique of LD’s argument that common sensibilities shaped Buckley’s “God and Man” and Hayden’s “Port Huron.” I say this because the historical study of sensibilities in general is not the ox I intended to gore. Although it’s not my cup of tea, I can see why so many intellectual historians find it compelling. It certainly adds a richness to our methodologies.

    That said, I would like to pose one question about the history of sensibilities, and I don’t mean this to sound like a rhetorical question. Dan implies that perhaps my gravest sin is my apparent commitment “to the idea that the historian’s job is to demystify the past by showing the reality that lies behind mere appearance.” In a sense, isn’t this the move being made in the study of sensibilities? Forget how Buckley and Hayden intended their arguments. Forget their politics. Forget, dare I say it, their agency. Instead, let’s focus on how they unknowingly speak the same language.

  11. Putting the theoretical debate aside for the moment, I am very skeptical of the premise that the New Left and the New Right shared a style or sensibility. That both adopted an outsider stance toward consensus liberalism is a superficial similarity that tells us only that they had a common target. As Andrew rightly notes, that comparison only makes sense from the perspective of a vital center liberalism that views all “radical” positions as resulting from the same kind of irrationality.

    Dan Geary

  12. Andrew–
    We’re back to the dualist problem once again. No one said “forget how Buckley and Hayden intended their arguments. Forget their politics. ” You’re the one who keeps insisting that their has to be one level of “reality” and another level of “superficiality” to be stripped away. You attribute to me an inversion of your own argument, while I am trying to argue that an analysis of sensibilities is a broader way to include both sameness and difference, not a way to evaluate the relative importance of levels or kinds of reality. It is perfectly coherent to say that Buckley and Hayden had different political commitments and ideologies _and_ that they shared a set of orientations and modes of perception. These are not opposed modes of analysis. My claim is that by focusing on the singular important of the political/ideological differences, while ignoring the common ground of conception, your view is too narrow and reproduces the Left’s version of itself.

    On Dan Geary’s point: if the argument was only that the New Left and the New Right had a common enemy or that the common sensibility involved a commitment to irrationality, you would have some reason for this claim, but that’s not what I understand LD to be claiming . LD can, of course, speak for herself, but her claim that right and left juxtaposed the alienation of mass society with the authentic bonds of community in their thinking strikes me as the most important thing. Saying that Carlyle and Marx in the 19th c. shared a common critical assessment of the destabilizing force of capitalism is not denying the difference in their political outlooks, but providing a broader and more historically synthetic account.

  13. Dan: As usual, you’re incredibly convincing. I don’t disagree with a word you wrote in the above comment. But I am beginning to think the argument that people of similar historical contexts had common grounds of conception is a bit of a truism. Sure, someone probably had to come along and state the obvious in such terms. Just as social historians had to come along and point out that slaves, women, immigrants, and workers, being humans, behaved like humans. Sometimes the obvious is only obvious after it is stated. But after it is stated, for me, it loses its luster as a compelling form of analysis.

  14. I think an important transitional figure between the older conservatism and neoconservatism is Kevin Phillips. Phillips, early on, was an *economic* populist which went hand-in-hand with his cultural populism. He was pro-New Deal and his populism had a pro-labor flavor (anti-Harvard and pro-“South Boston, Idaho, and Georgia” working class). So perhaps the early Nixon-era culture wars had a certain amount of economic substance to go along with the hard-edged style on cultural matters.

    This TNR profile is a must read on the subject Phillips and economic populism. Phillips at first is an enthusiastic participant in the conservative movement, but according to this piece, his disillusionment came when Reagan takes on what he sees as a shallow movement style while jettisoning economic populism–according to Phillips “hitching his political future to the fiscal theories of Calvin Coolidge’s and Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary Andrew Mellon.”

    It’s worth noting that Irving Kristol started out with a similar pro-labor style, writing essays railing against Milton Friedman, but dropped this economic populism when the rest of the conservative movement did. And of course Nixon was an important figure for him. Diana Trilling dates the birth of Neoconservatism to an ad placed in the Times by Kristol and others saying they supported Nixon. Finally, look up *The Emerging Republican Majority,* pp 88-89. As I said before, it sounds a lot like Kristol’s New Class before Kristol had sanded off Phillips’ anti-northeast regionalism and civil rights backlash and added his own anti-tax rhetoric…

  15. Andrew, you’ll be pleased to know that your response to the history of sensibilities is perfectly normal. Just came across that good news this morning, in William James’s 6th lecture on Pragmatism:

    I fully expect to see the pragmatist view of truth run through the classic stages of a theory’s career. First, you know, a new theory is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.

    So onward, then, to stage 3! 😉

Comments are closed.