- The Past Is A Foreign Country: The Neo-Conservative Romance with Victorian Liberalism
During the 1988 Presidential campaign, frustrated supporters of Michael Dukakis were heard to lament that “liberal” was becoming a dirty word. The results of that election seemed to confirm their prediction. Because it offended interlocutors in polite (and political) circles, this unsavory word was summarily dismissed by them from their exclusive company. “Liberal” was at times even all dressed up into “liberalism,” but it had no place to go. Eight years later, however, the “L” word has once more gained probationary admission to such elite gatherings, but only when attached to that most upright of companions—the adjective “Victorian.” Although many Democrats still fearfully retreat from its connotations, Newt Gingrich, for instance, has provocatively admitted that he is a sort of liberal, a “Victorian liberal.” Whether commending that ideology’s welfare policies or warmly recalling its social deployment of shame, the Speaker of the House has found a liberal he can love, even if it is himself. Meanwhile, William Bennett has recently made the bestseller list by emulating perhaps the most eminent Victorian liberal, Matthew Arnold. Taking Arnold at his word, Bennett has compiled two volumes of “touchstones,” The Book of Virtues and The Children’s Book of Virtues, which put into practice Arnold’s democratic vision of moral education through the study of humane letters. Mr. Bennett writes in the former volume’s introduction: “It is for everybody—all children, of all political and religious backgrounds, and it speaks to them on a more fundamental level than race, sex, and gender. It addresses them as human beings . . .” 1
Although one may safely assume that William Bennett has some personal knowledge of the central texts and personages of Victorian liberalism, it is clear that Mr. Gingrich’s recent romance can be traced to a series of books—and in particular the latest—on Victorian intellectual history written by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Indeed, Himmelfarb has become in recent years much like the Victorian sages she so admires, taking on the role of the “public intellectual” in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, a figure about whom she has written at length. Self-consciously celebrating cerebrating, Himmelfarb has [End Page 7] lately contributed op-eds to leading national newspapers, published in the past two years an expressly political book-length meditation on the past, present and future, and eagerly debated opponents in the mass-mediated public sphere. During 1995, in particular, Himmelfarb went public in her defense of the nineteenth-century fashion for orphanages, Victorian conceptions of welfare assistance and that era’s views on morality. 2
Himmelfarb’s intellectual influence on modern neo-conservative thought and, in turn, the policymakers stirred by it, has not been examined, despite the historian’s connection to the neo-conservative pundit, Irving Kristol, who is her husband, and her son, William Kristol. Kristol, former top advisor to Dan Quayle, and leading Republican Party strategist is, most recently, editor of the Weekly Standard. The Standard, by the way, seems to carry on the rational traditions of Party journalism, whose rise was not merely coincidental with Victorian liberalism. The paper’s editors are not shy about quoting Mill, Bagehot or other now-obscure Victorian liberals to authorize arguments of a neo-conservative turn.
The means, manner and significance of this resuscitation of Victorian liberalism are therefore more complicated than current popular debate has had time to consider. None the less, there are questions that seem pertinent to ask. Why, besides a paleo-liberal belief in a global market, have these “modern Victorian liberals” imported the English label rather than buying American? For such unabashed patriots, there should be available quality homemade brands of liberalism. And yet, it seems, for Himmelfarb, Bennett and Gingrich, it is a very good thing that the past is a foreign country. Perhaps more importantly, why does the current debate center primarily on morality, a realm some Victorian liberals would have considered of largely personal, ethical or religious concern, rather than on the more obvious political and economic terms of cross-historical similarity—laissez-faire political economy, for instance. In Himmelfarb’s recent and most politically influential contribution...