Theses and Antitheses

American liberals have long been troubled by a sinister force lurking in our society, namely conservatism. Albert O. Hirschman's motive in writing The Rhetoric of Reaction is to explain this phenomenon to his fellow liberals. He refrains from psychoanalyzing conservatism; instead, he argues that conservatives, regardless of personal quirks, are bound to certain forms of argument. Hirschman seeks to analyze those forms, not the contents of contemporary conservative argument. In doing so, he comes off as an old-fashioned liberal and seems to regard as one of the prime differences between right and left the latter's supposedly greater faith in humanity.

Following the lead of British sociologist T.H. Marshall, Hirschman suggests that citizenship in Western societies has developed in three stages. The first of these was the development of civil rights (e.g., freedom of speech and of religion and equality before the law), which he associates with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The second was the development of full-scale political democracy and universal suffrage. Finally, the concept of rights was extended to include social and economic rights in the 20th-century welfare state, which, as far as American society is concerned, he identifies with the Great Society reforms. Each of these three stages of triumph elicited a bitter reaction aimed at undoing its progress, and in countering all three phases...

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