Racism, Sexism, AND Liberalism?
Rogers Smith’s Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America

The U.S. has a tortured history of slavery, systematic discrimination, and pervasive racism and sexism. So, how can we call the United States a liberal nation, when liberalism should focus on the idea that all people have God-ordained rights like life, liberty, and property, and that humans can conceptualize a common good. 

According to Rogers Smith’s Beyond Tocqueville, Myrdal, and Hartz: The Multiple Traditions in America, liberalism can be viewed as working and interacting in tandem with other inconsistent ideologies that explain the United States’ history of inequality. Smith’s multiple traditions thesis states that the United States has historically had several different, yet parallel ideologies working and interacting with each other, embedding in our institutions and social structures. The main ideologies Smith focused on are liberalism and ascriptive hierarchies, which he defines as a separate, but existing ideology that focuses on the social structure in our institutions that are themselves based on ascriptive characteristics like gender and race.

For example, in W.E.B. DuBois’s Of Our Spiritual Strivings, DuBois’ personal account of his experience as an African American in America describes a feeling of double consciousness -- the two-ness he experiences as he grapples with both the Negro and American part of himself. His account demonstrates how Smith’s theory of multiple, parallel, inconsistent, and conflicting ideologies of liberalism and ascriptivism underlying our institutions leads to such social tensions and conflicts that Dubois is feeling.

Another example of sexism in the midst of liberalism is described in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Solitude of Self, in which she describes her experience attempting to integrate herself into the conception of liberalism back then, in which women were confined to their ascriptive hierarchies as useful only within the private sphere. Ironically, she ascribed to those very liberal ideals of individualism, rights, and the common good to somehow justify her integration into the full liberalist rights and into the public sphere as well. From her account, it can be seen that, back then, liberalism and ascriptivism were parallel ideologies that interacted with each other and facilitated the justification of sexism and racism in society by allocating certain groups and people to their hierarchies and place in society and then applying liberalism are those deemed worthy and necessary.

In such ways, this can explain how people back then did not come to perceive racism and sexism as anti-liberal. However, it is worth pointing out that ideologies, pure liberalism and ascriptivism, along with racism and sexism, are contradictory. But, as Smith puts it and as seen in Dubois and Stanton’s account, when ascriptivism and liberalism work in tandem and in parallel, they can help us understand the pervasive inequities that underlie what many deem as a “liberal nation.”