A Lion Among the Liberals:

Senator William Edgar Borah and
the rise of New Deal Liberalism

[Page 5]

Kevin C. Murphy, Harvard University
(Copyright 1997-2013, All Rights Reserved)

I. Introduction
II. The Lion of Idaho: Borah's Intellectual Anatomy
III. The Lion Roars: Borah and the Early New Deal
IV. The Lion in Winter: Borah and the Later New Deal
V. Epilogue: A Critique of Borah's Public Philosophy


Epilogue: A Critique of Borah's Public Philosophy

The difference between the public philosophies of Borah and Roosevelt, in as much as the latter could be said to have a definitive philosophy, mirrors the discrepancy between civic republicanism and contemporary Keynesianism. "We do not want any money out of the Treasury of the United States," remarked the Senator in debate once. "We want communities. We want the States built up and the communities built up."1 While Roosevelt's brand of contemporary liberalism, borne of the 1937 recession and the WWII experience, attempted to solve problems through bureaucratically dispensed funds, Borah's civic republicanism emphasized instead the preservation of autonomous, free-thinking, and self-governing communities and citizens.

Yet, Borah never confused his desire to preserve an independent citizenry with the veiled Social Darwinism and devil-take-the-hindmost economic thinking that permeates contemporary conservative rhetoric -- Borah clearly saw the federal government actively preserving the political and economic prerequisites of citizenship through fragmenting monopolies, redistributing wealth, offering a modicum of financial security, and acting as the employer of last resort.

A good example of Borah's attitude towards federal government lies in his three attempts, in 1935, 37, and 39, to streamline bureaucracy and create a federal licensing system for corporations. This move suggests that the Idahoan disliked extraneous bureaucracy much more than he did federal power.2 As the Senator remarked in 1937, "I might not live to see it, but I am satisfied the day will come when the people will rise and tear up a number of these bureaus by the roots."3

Borah's contempt of Roosevelt bureaucracy is better explained by John Stuart Mill than by a Jeffersonian fear of the federal government. "A bureaucracy," remarks Mill, "always tends to become a pedantocracy. It requires [instead] a popular government to enable the conceptions of man of original genius to prevail over the obstructive spirit of trained mediocrity."4 In other words, the creation of an extraconstitutional bureaucracy would not only stymie the ability of Americans citizens to govern themselves on the state level, it would diminish individualism and thus impede the responsiveness of the national government.

Moreover, while Borah believed in the inviolability of the Constitution as the expressed will and social bond of the citizenry, FDR sometimes seemed to view the founding document as a paper that could be circumvented when possible. Where Roosevelt envisioned a paternalistic government for the people, Borah preferred a responsive government of the people. As FDR once noted, "the legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done but which they cannot do as well for themselves."5 Such a top-down approach would never accord with Borah's vision of the polity as a union of the people in and of themselves.

Indeed, as one contemporary biographer noted, "Borah loves the common man. It would never occur to him to refer to the 'forgotten man.' It would never occur to him for the simple reason that he never forgets him. The common man is the man as far as Borah is concerned. For the common man, governments were instituted among men and by all the rules of justice and humanity the common man should have a controlling voice in government."6 Nowhere is this more evident than in Borah's extreme dislike of Roosevelt's court-packing and executive reorganization bills.

Unfortunately, Borah lived to see Roosevelt liberalism prevail over his civic philosophy. As Michael Sandel remarks, after "Keynesian fiscal policy rose to prominence after World War II,
the civic strand of economic argument faded from American political discourse. Economic policy attended more to the size and distribution of the national product and less to the conditions of self-government. Americans increasingly viewed economic arrangements as instruments of consumption, not as schools of citizenship...[men such as Borah] had struggled to assert democratic mastery over economic power and cultivate in citizens the virtues that would suit them to self-government. Now Americans seemed ready to give up that struggle.7
Yet, despite its extinction at the hands of unprecedented economic growth, William Borah's form of civic republican liberalism deserves reappraisal. For one, it offers all the benefits with few of the costs of most republican theories. While placing emphasis on maintaining the average citizen's capacity for self-government, Borah refrains from completely endorsing the civic coercion implied by the theory of Rousseau. On the contrary, he shares J.S. Mill's belief in diversity and envisions the Constitution not only as an expression of the General Will but as the safeguard of individual rights from majoritarianism. So long as citizens share the tolerance and diversity of the Constitution in their conception of the good, they are otherwise free to choose their own ends.

In a sense, Borah's conception of American government mirrors the "communal democratic government" theorized by Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin, who also sees the constitution as an essential prerequisite to democracy, writes that, in order for the people to act communally and collectively, the government "must not dictate what its citizens think about matters of political or moral or ethical judgment, but must, on the contrary, provide circumstances that encourage citizens to arrive at beliefs on these matters through their own reflective and finally individual conviction."8 Under Borah's and Dworkin's conception of civic republicanism, a respect for individual autonomy is essential.

Moreover, Borah's conception of federalism is an intriguing one. Citizens can govern their own communities on the state and local level under the auspices of a responsive federal government that protects both the Founding Charter and the average standard of citizenship and is run by representatives committed to the public interest. In this manner, average citizens can rule themselves while duly elected delegates can "refine and enlarge" issues pertinent on the federal level.9 In Borah's mind, the national government holds sway in issues where state and federal conflict -- no self-respecting Republican born during the Civil War would argue otherwise. Yet, directives on the federal level should remain at a minimum so as to preserve the individual citizen's importance in self-government. Consequently, all citizens can benefit from the educative and virtue-building aspects of participatory democracy while the institutional restraints devised by James Madison still protect the nation from irresponsible majoritarianism.

As he put it himself in 1936, "I do not favor an amendment to the Constitution which would deprive the states of the power to deal with internal, economic, and social problems. The question is asked: If I favor amending the Constitution to deal with social problems national in scope. I am of the opinion we do not need an amendment if the problems are national in scope - that power already belongs to the national government."10

With regards to Borah's critique of capitalist excess, it has become highly unfashionable of late, given both the success of post-war economic growth in the First World and the tyrannical methods and ultimate failure of the nations of the Second World, to malign the free market in any way, shape, or form. Yet, democratic theorists have illustrated the tense relationship between democracy and "savage capitalism" time and time again.11 "The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed [at industrialism]," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840, "for if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered."12 More recently, theorist Benjamin Barber has commented that "capitalism seeks consumers susceptible to the shaping of their needs and the manipulation of their wants while democracy needs citizens autonomous in their thoughts and independent in their deliberative judgments."13 Clearly, Borah is not doing democracy a disservice by calling into question the contemporary liberal ambivalence toward industrial capitalism and redistributive policies.

Yet, many have argued that Borah's pet project, the dismantling of monopolies, is not only unwise, but impossible. For example, liberal historian Richard Hofstadter portrayed the anti-trust movement as "vaguely formulated and often hopelessly at odds with stubborn realities."14 Such is the prevailing view among scholars who have discounted Borah as "outdated." And, indeed, over the fifty-seven years since Borah's death, sprawling corporations have become even more completely entrenched in every facet of our lives. Nevertheless, in the American experiment we are citizens before we are consumers, and I would suggest, if we aim to continue as a functioning democracy into the next millennium, that we begin to debate ways of limiting the economic power of industries and corporate elites over citizens, communities, and our political system. Borah's civic arguments against economic concentration -- that it debauches citizenship and destroys communities -- provide a good starting point for such a debate.

Thus, rather than being consigned to the dustbin of History, the democratic theory of William E. Borah merits reevaluation by citizens discontented with our nation's current ideological drift. In our age, when conservatism dominates our political discourse and contemporary liberals find themselves either parroting or demonizing their political opponents rather than acting upon a progressive vision of the polity, Borah's democratic theory reinstating the importance of community while retaining respect for individual rights should be reconsidered. When the lack of a progressive critique of capitalist excess has resulted in the Supreme Court-sanctioned festering of private influences undermining the public interest, Borah's thinking seems more timely than ever.15 When the wasteful, bureaucratic, and dehumanizing nature of our social programs has allowed contemporary conservatives to deny the necessity of a safety net at all, Borah's emphasis on community self-government and the consolidation of extraneous bureaucracy provides an intriguing alternative to structure our public services. Moreover, in a time when less and less Americans take part in the political process and more and more nations mistake McDonalds and Nike for democratic institutions, a liberal thinker like Borah who saw democracy and capitalism as compatible but not synonymous certainly seems refreshing.

Certainly, William E. Borah, like most men, was a man of his time; nevertheless, the tenets of his civic republican-based liberalism deserve reappraisal by historians and modern progressives alike.

Return to "Introduction."

Return to Chapter III: "The Lion in Winter: Borah and the Later New Deal."

1. Congressional Record, March 28, 1933, 923.
2. McKenna, 317.
3. Mulder, 236.
4. Mill, John Stuart, Representative Government, J.M. Dent (Vermont: 1993), 266. 5. Quoted in Humphrey, Hubert, The Political Philosophy of the New Deal, Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge: 1970), x.
6. Johnson, 491.
7. Sandel, 274-275.
8. Dworkin, Ronald, "Constitutionalism and Democracy," in European Journal of Philosophy, 3:1, 10.
9. It is interesting to note here that William Borah never served on the state level. Had he done so, he might not have been so willing to let citizens run the states.
10. "Remarks: May 12, 1936," in Papers of William Borah.
11. The phrase is coined by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
12. de Tocqueville, Alexis, Democracy in America, Harper & Row (New York: 1966), 558.
13. Barber, Benjamin, Jihad vs. McWorld, Times Books (New York: 1995), 15.
14. Hofstadter, Richard, "What happened to the Antitrust Movement?" in The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Random House (New York: 1965), 228.
15. I refer here to the overwhelming impact of money on our political system. Where once the prevailing idea was one man, one vote, the modern era now sees one dollar, one vote (or less, in some states.)

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