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Title page for ETD etd-08242016-105421

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Jacobs, Alexander Isaac
URN etd-08242016-105421
Title Progress and Pessimism: Left Conservatism in Modern American Political Thought
Degree PhD
Department History
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Gary Gerstle Committee Co-Chair
Sarah Igo Committee Co-Chair
Emily Nacol Committee Member
Howard Brick Committee Member
Thomas Schwartz Committee Member
  • United States
  • political thought
  • liberalism
  • conservatism
Date of Defense 2016-08-15
Availability unrestricted
This dissertation traces the intellectual history of Tory Socialism, an overlooked tradition of modern American political thought and social criticism. Combining the politics that Americans usually identify as liberal with a characteristically conservative rejection of the Enlightenment, Tory Socialism flourished during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Drawing on the published and unpublished writings of journalists, historians, theologians, political theorists, and philosophers, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Carl Becker, and Irving Kristol, among others, I demonstrate that Tory Socialism functioned as a means for intellectuals to rethink the democratic welfare state as well as American civil religion. The ultimate failure of Tory Socialist thinkers to transform American elite culture, I conclude, is one of the most significant yet least understood features of modern American intellectual history.

This study assists us, first, in understanding Tory Socialism’s chief ideological rival, liberalism. Foregrounding Tory Socialism, an ideology that shared much of modern liberalism’s politics but rejected its ethos, allows us to clarify liberalism’s character and its role in twentieth-century American thought and politics. Second, the concept of Tory Socialism helps us better make sense of the midcentury “New Deal Order.” In this study, this period appears not as an era of liberal triumph, but as a time when many centrist intellectuals experimented with novel political identities, and American political thought and practice seemed poised to move beyond liberalism. Third, Tory Socialism can enrich our understanding of American conservatism and free us from the tendency to reduce right-wing thought and politics in the US to the story of the Conservative Movement. Finally, this study helps to reframe the question of why socialism failed in the United States. We have imagined that socialism must be a radical challenge to the status quo. Tory Socialism, however, was a conservative tendency within the political establishment. Despite Tory Socialists’ prominence, their ideas did not become a permanent feature of political life. Their failure deprived the United States of a variety of conservatism that proved instrumental in creating the more robust welfare states of Europe.

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