Theorists Smith and Zuckert
Argue Nature of Liberal Tradition
Despite raising the possibility of “drawing some blood,”
renowned political theorists Rogers Smith, University of Pennsylvania,
and Michael Zuckert, University of Notre Dame, appeared to argue in agreement
for most of their April 10 talk, “Living Up to the Declaration of
Independence: Liberalism and the American Experience.”
Both agreed that the American political tradition is one of liberal democracy,
which affirms some basic principles of political rights:
• All human beings are created equal.
• Governments exist to secure the rights that all possess equally.
• Legitimate government rests on consent.
• Governors must be responsible in some way to the governed.
Both are, according to Zuckert, “apologists for liberalism”
and “multiple traditions kinds of guys,” agreeing that the
American experience has been shaped by multiple political traditions,
including liberal democracy. It was about the nature of the American liberal
tradition that the two disagreed.
Smith introduced his concept of “ascriptive hierarchy,” stating,
“For over 80 percent of U.S. history, its laws declared most of
the world’s population to be ineligible for full American citizenship,”
solely because of their race, original nationality, gender, or other “ascribed
“This is indeed a striking claim,” Zuckert declared, “taking
the wind out of the sails of traditional American claims to openness and
universalism.” Denial of female suffrage, slavery, virtual extermination
of a native population, and other “warts and blemishes” of
the American political experience, he agreed, are incongruities in a liberal
However, he did not entirely agree with the way Smith wanted to speak
of them, calling Smith’s “multiple traditions” definition
a “jumble version” or “grab-bag tradition.” The
exclusion of women from voting rights is quite a different matter, he
said, from race-based slavery or from religion-based discrimination.
Liberal democracy, both agreed, requires or implies that there be no ascriptive
treatment of persons at all. Whether it then follows that genuine liberal
societies are in principal open to all persons was another point of contention.
Zuckert claimed that ascriptively based communities, especially nation-states
with common language, culture, religion, cuisine, etc.—“precisely
the sort of preexisting ascriptive community that Smith declares illegitimate”—
can perfectly well satisfy the liberal criteria of legitimacy. “Different
nations have a right to form their own liberal democracies,” he
said, as long as they do not violate the basic human rights beyond their
Smith favored moving toward world confederations without independent nation-states.
“I could see, for example, a United States of North America,”
he said, but he thought that Zuckert “wouldn’t go that far.”
Zuckert claimed that he was not in principle opposed to a U.S.N.A., but
objected to the cosmopolitan state being the “default setting.”
“Ultracosmopolitanism is not the only legitimate liberal state model,”
The question-and-answer session united the two in agreement again, especially
on the dangers of the Patriot Act. “Clear principles of Anglo-American
law are being violated,” Zuckert said, “and we are not being
loud enough about it.” Smith declared, “It is a myth and shell
game that the Patriot Act applies only to aliens. I feel we are in an
historical moment when the U.S. government has the sovereign right to
disregard the rights of aliens and citizens alike, in the name of national
Rogers Smith with Alan Gibson,
who brought Smith and Zuckert to campus.
Smith has written more than 70 academic articles and four books, including
Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in United States History,
which received five “best book” awards and was a finalist
for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in history. Zuckert has published three books
in the last five years, including Natural Rights and the New Republicanism.
He is currently working on Completing the Constitution: The Post-Civil
War Amendments and is co-authoring a book about Machiavelli and Shakespeare.
The two constitutional scholars also spoke at a Friday forum titled “The
American Political Tradition and America in the World Today.”
Smith and Zuckert’s visit was sponsored by the Associated Students,
the political science department, the College of Behavioral and Social
Sciences, the Office of the Provost, Pi Sigma Alpha national political
science honor society, and the Notre Dame Club of Chico. Alan Gibson,
political science and a Notre Dame alumnus, was instrumental in bringing
the scholars to Chico. “To have only one of them would be an honor,”
Gibson said. “To have both is a triumph.”