Liberalism in the United States
Liberalism in the United States is a broad political philosophy centered on what many see as the unalienable rights of the individual. The fundamental liberal ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion for all belief systems and the separation of church and state, right to due process and equality under the law are widely accepted as a common foundation across the spectrum of liberal thought.
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Modern liberalism in the United States includes issues such as same-sex marriage, reproductive and other women's rights, voting rights for all adult citizens, civil rights, environmental justice and government protection of freedom from want. National social services such as equal education opportunities, access to health care and transportation infrastructure are intended to meet the responsibility to promote the general welfare of all citizens as established by the Constitution. Some American liberals, who call themselves classical liberals, fiscal conservatives, or libertarians, support fundamental liberal ideals, but diverge from modern liberal thought, holding that economic freedom is more important than equality and that providing for the general welfare exceeds the legitimate role of government.
Since the 1930s, the term liberalism (without a qualifier) usually refers in the United States to social liberalism, also known as modern liberalism, a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and later Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. It is a form of social liberalism, whose accomplishments include the Works Progress Administration and the Social Security Act in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is also known as left liberalism in Germany, modern liberalism in the United States and new liberalism in the United Kingdom, which is a political ideology and a variety of liberalism that endorses a regulated market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights.
According to Louis Hartz, liberalism in the United States differs from liberalism elsewhere in the world because the United States never had a resident hereditary aristocracy and as such avoided much of the class warfare that swept Europe. According to Ian Adams, all American parties are "liberal and always have been. Essentially, they espouse classical liberalism—that is, a form of democratized Whig constitutionalism, plus the free market. The point of difference comes with the influence of social liberalism".
18th and 19th century liberalism
The origins of American liberalism lie in the political ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. The Constitution of the United States of 1787 set up the first modern republic, with sovereignty in the people (not in a monarch) and no hereditary ruling aristocracy. However, the Constitution limited liberty, in particular by accepting slavery. The Founding Fathers recognized the contradiction, but they believed they needed a nation strong enough to survive in the world.
In the late 18th and 19th centuries, the United States extended liberty to ever broader classes of people. The states abolished many restrictions on voting for white males in the early 19th century. The Constitution was amended in 1865 to abolish slavery and in 1870 to extend the vote to black men.
Liberalism in the Progressive Era
As the United States economy began shifting to manufacturing and services during the 19th century, liberals started to view corruption and monopolies (called trusts at the time) as threats to liberty. During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, laws were passed restricting monopolies and regulating railroad rates.
According to James Reichley, the term liberalism took on its current meaning in the United States during the 1920s. In the 19th century and the early 20th century, the term had usually described classical liberalism, which emphasizes limited government, religious freedom, and support for the free market. The term progressivism, meanwhile, had been used to describe individuals like Theodore Roosevelt, who favored a limited amount of government activism. During the 1920s, the term progressive became associated with politicians such as Robert M. La Follette, who called for government ownership of railroads and utilities in his 1924 third-party presidential bid. Progressivism thus gained an association with radicalism that advocates of more moderate reforms sought to avoid. The term was also unattractive to certain groups because of its longstanding association with the Republican Party and the Social Gospel movement. In the late 1920s and 1930s, political figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt increasingly adopted the term liberal to describe an individual who favored some government activism, but was opposed to more radical reforms.
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In the 1930s, liberalism came to describe a pragmatic ideology that called for a moderate amount of government regulation of the economy, progressive taxation, and increased power of the federal government in relation to the states. It also came to signify support for organized labor and a degree of hostility, or at least suspicion, of big business. Liberalism did retain some aspects of the term's usage prior to the 1930s, including support for civil liberties and secularism. These positions were contrasted with the far-left, who favored greater changes, and with conservatives, who opposed these changes.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to office in 1933, amid the economic calamity of the Great Depression, offering the nation a New Deal intended to alleviate economic want and unemployment, provide greater opportunities and restore prosperity. His presidency from 1933 to 1945, the longest in the United States history, was marked by an increased role for the federal government in addressing the nation's economic and other problems. Work relief programs provided jobs, ambitious projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority promoted economic development and a social-security system laid the groundwork for the nation's modern welfare system. The Great Depression dragged on through the 1930s despite the New Deal programs, which were met with mixed success in solving the nation's economic problems. Economic progress for minorities was hindered by discrimination, about which the Roosevelt administration did less than subsequent administrations, but more than had been done before. The New Deal provided direct relief for minorities in the 1930s through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other agencies and during World War II executive orders and the Fair Employment Practices Commission opened millions of new jobs to minorities and forbade discrimination in companies with government contracts. The 1.5 million black veterans in 1945 were fully entitled to generous veteran benefits from the GI Bill on the same basis as everyone else.
Relief was the immediate effort to help the one-third of the population that was hardest hit by the depression. Roosevelt expanded Herbert Hoover's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) work relief program and added the CCC, the PWA and the WPA. In 1935, the Social Security Act and unemployment insurance programs were added. The Social Security Act provided retirement and disability income for Americans unable to work or unable to find jobs. Separate programs were set up for relief in rural areas, such as the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration.
Recovery programs sought to restore the economy to pre-depression levels. It involved deficit spending, dropping the gold standard, efforts to re-inflate farm prices that were too low and efforts to increase foreign trade. New Deal efforts to help the United States recuperate were chiefly channeled through a Hoover program, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).
Reform was based on the assumption that the depression was caused by the inherent market instability and that government intervention was necessary to rationalize and stabilize the economy and to balance the interests of farmers, business and labor. Reform measures included the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), regulation of Wall Street by the Securities Exchange Act (SEA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) for farm programs, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance for bank deposits enacted through the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, dealing with labor-management relations. Despite some New Dealers's urgings, there was no major antitrust program. Roosevelt opposed socialism (in the sense of state ownership of the means of production) and only one major program, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), involved government ownership of the means of production.
Roosevelt was president through most of World War II and, anticipating the post-war period, strongly supported proposals to create a United Nations organization as a means of encouraging mutual cooperation to solve problems on the international stage. His commitment to internationalist ideals was in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, architect of the failed League of Nations. His support led to the eventual establishment of the United Nations, with the proviso that the United States would have a veto power.
Liberalism during the Cold War
American liberalism in the Cold War-era was the immediate heir to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the slightly more distant heir to the progressives of the early 20th century. Sol Stern wrote that "Cold War liberalism deserves credit for the greatest American achievement since World War II—winning the Cold War".
The essential tenets of Cold War liberalism can be found in Roosevelt's Four Freedoms (1941). Of these, freedom of speech and of religion were classic liberal freedoms as was freedom from fear (freedom from tyrannical government), but freedom from want was another matter. Roosevelt proposed a notion of freedom that went beyond government non-interference in private lives. Freedom from want could justify positive government action to meet economic needs, an idea more associated with the concepts of Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party, Henry Clay's Whig Party and Alexander Hamilton's economic principles of government intervention and subsidy than the more radical socialism and social democracy of European thinkers, or with prior versions of classical liberalism as represented by Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party and Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both major American political parties included liberal and conservative factions. The Democratic Party had on one hand Northern and Western liberals and on the other generally conservative Southern whites. Difficult to classify were the Northern urban Democratic political machines. The urban machines had supported New Deal economic policies, but they slowly came apart over racial issues. Some historians have divided the Republican Party into liberal Wall Street and conservative Main Street factions while others have noted that the Republican Party's conservatives came from landlocked states (Robert Taft Jr. of Ohio and Barry Goldwater of Arizona) and the liberals tended to come from California (Earl Warren and Pete McCloskey), New York (Nelson Rockefeller) and other coastal states.
Opposing both Communism and conservatism, Cold War liberalism resembled earlier liberalisms in its views on many social issues and personal liberty, but its economic views were not those of free-market Jeffersonian liberalism nor those of European social democrats. They never endorsed state socialism, but they did call for spending on education, science and infrastructure, notably the expansion of NASA and the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Their progressive ideas continued the legacy of Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most prominent and constant among the positions of Cold War liberalism included the following:
- Support for a domestic economy built on a balance of power between labor (in the form of organized unions) and management (with a tendency to be more interested in large corporations than in small business).
- A foreign policy focused on containing the Soviet Union and its allies, one factor leading to its dissolution at the end of 1991.
- The continuation and expansion of New Deal social welfare programs (in the broad sense of welfare, including programs such as Social Security).
- An embrace of Keynesian economics. By way of compromise with political groupings to their right, this often became in practice military Keynesianism.
At first, liberals generally did not see Franklin D. Roosevelt's successor Harry S. Truman as one of their own, viewing him as a Democratic Party hack. However, liberal politicians and liberal organizations such as the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) sided with Truman in opposing Communism both at home and abroad, sometimes at the sacrifice of civil liberties. For example, Hubert Humphrey put before the Senate in 1950 a bill to establish detention centers where those declared subversive by the President could be held without trial, but it did not pass.
Liberals were united in their opposition to McCarthyism.
By 1950, the liberal ideology was so intellectually dominant that the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition, [...] there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation".
For almost two decades, Cold War liberalism remained the dominant paradigm in American politics, peaking with the landslide victory of Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson had been a New Deal Democrat in the 1930s and by the 1950s had decided that the Democratic Party had to break from its segregationist past and endorse racial liberalism as well as economic liberalism.
Liberals and civil rights
Cold War liberalism emerged at a time when most African-Americans were politically and economically disenfranchised. Beginning with To Secure These Rights, an official report issued by the Truman White House in 1947, self-proclaimed liberals increasingly embraced the civil rights movement. In 1948, President Truman desegregated the armed forces and the Democrats inserted a strong civil-rights plank in the party platform even though delegates from the Deep South walked out and nominated a third-party ticket, the Dixiecrats, headed by Strom Thurmond. Truman abolished discrimination in the armed forces, leading to the integration of military units in the early 1950s. However, no civil rights legislation was passed until a weak bill in 1957.
During the 1960s, relations between white liberals and the civil rights movement became increasingly strained as civil-rights leaders accused liberal politicians of temporizing and procrastinating, although they realized they needed the support of Northern whites to pass any legislation over Southern obstructionism. Many white liberals believed the grassroots movement for civil rights would only anger many Southern whites and make it even more difficult to pass civil rights laws through Congress. In response to that concern, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to tone down the March on Washington in 1963. President John F. Kennedy finally endorsed the March on Washington and proposed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he could not get it passed during his lifetime. Lyndon B. Johnson, who took the presidential office in November 1963 following Kennedy's assassination, used the image of Kennedy's martyrdom to mobilize Northern support, along with the black-leadership community, to pass major civil-rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result was an end to legalized segregation and an end to restrictions on black voting. However, it was followed by a wave of black riots in the inner cities which made for "long hot summers" in every major city from 1964 through 1970. The riots alienated much of the white working-class that had been the base of the labor-union element in the civil-rights coalition.
The civil-rights movement itself was becoming fractured. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X stated he was going to organize a black-nationalist organization that would try to "heighten the political consciousness" of African-Americans. By 1966, a Black Power movement had emerged. Black Power advocates accused white liberals of trying to control the civil-rights agenda. Proponents of Black Power wanted African-Americans to follow an "ethnic model" for obtaining power, not unlike that of Democratic political machines in large cities. This put them on a collision course with urban machine politicians and on its edges the Black Power movement contained racial separatists who wanted to give up on integration altogether—a program that could not be endorsed by American liberals of any race. The mere existence of such individuals (who always got more media attention than their actual numbers might have warranted) contributed to "white backlash" against liberals and civil rights activists.
Liberals and Vietnam
While the civil rights movement isolated liberals from the working class and Southern Democrats, the Vietnam War threw another wedge into the liberal ranks, dividing pro-war "hawks" such as Senator Henry M. Jackson from "doves" such as Senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. As the war became the leading political issue of the day, agreement on domestic matters was not enough to hold the liberal consensus together.
Vietnam was part of the strategy of containment of Soviet Communism which began in earnest after World War II with the descent of the so-called Iron Curtain. In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy was more "hawkish" on Southeast Asia than Richard Nixon. Although it can be argued that the war expanded only under Johnson, there was much continuity of their cabinets.
A large portion of the growing opposition to the war came from within liberal ranks. After Johnson refused to run again, assassination removed Robert F. Kennedy from contention and noted liberal Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention with the presidential nomination of a deeply divided party. Much of the party's right-wing had left to support Governor of Alabama George Wallace. The result was a narrow victory for Republican Richard Nixon, a man who was largely regarded as from the old Northeast Republican establishment despite his being a California native. Nixon enacted many liberal policies, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, normalizing relations with Communist China and starting the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to reduce the availability of ballistic missiles.
Richard Nixon and the liberal consensus
Liberals criticized Nixon for reasons going back to his attacks on Alger Hiss, whom Nixon accused of being a spy for the Soviets. Criticism on Nixon continued during the Vietnam War. Yet as President, Nixon had many policy positions that can only be described as liberal. Before Nixon was elected, the liberal wing of his own party favored politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton while in the 1968 presidential election Nixon appealed to a "silent majority" of conservatives, disgusted and frightened by soaring crime rates and widespread race riots. Nixon's Enemies List was composed largely of liberals despite his pursuing many liberal policies, often through executive orders. Examples include the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency which he achieved without a vote in Congress and the increase in funding for liberal programs like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. One of his top advisers, liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said that "Nixon mostly opted for liberal policies, merely clothing them [...] in conservative rhetoric". Nixon's conservative rhetoric rallied his base, but in addition to support for such liberal causes as the arts and the environment he supported liberalization of laws against recreational drugs and even—to the astonishment of conservatives—imposed wage and price controls to counteract inflation. Noam Chomsky, who often attacks liberalism from the far-left, has called Nixon "in many respects the last liberal president". Historians increasingly emphasize the liberalism of his administration's policies while not attributing them to Nixon personally.
The 1965–1974 period was a major liberal activist era in Congress, with the Democratic-led Congresses during the presidency of Richard Nixon continuing to produce liberal domestic policies. They organized themselves internally to round up votes, track legislation, mobilize interests and produce bills without direct assistance from the White House. A wide range of progressive measures were carried out, such as in social security (with a 20% benefit increase and linkage to automatic cost-of-living increases in 1972), public welfare (with expansion of unemployment compensation, food stamps and supplemental security income additions to social security), workplace rules (with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970), urban aid (with the addition of mass transit subsidies to highway construction enactments), environmentalism (with the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 and the Clean Air Act of 1970), aid to education (including Title IX in 1972), civil rights (with the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1970) and nutrition (with the establishment of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in 1972).
The political dominance of the liberal consensus even into the Nixon years can best be seen in policies like the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency or in Nixon's failed proposal to replace the welfare system with a guaranteed annual income by way of a negative income tax. Affirmative action in its most quota-oriented form was a Nixon administration policy. Even the Nixon "War on Drugs" allocated two-thirds of its funds for treatment, a far higher ratio than was to be the case under any subsequent President, Republican or Democrat. Additionally, Nixon's normalization of diplomatic relations with Communist China and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union were likely more popular with liberals than with his conservative base. Nixon also successfully supported a cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients.
An opposing view offered by Cass R. Sunstein in The Second Bill of Rights (Basic Books, 2004, ISBN 0-465-08332-3) argues that through his Supreme Court appointments Nixon effectively ended a decades-long expansion under United States law of economic rights along the lines of those put forward in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly.
Liberalism since the 1970s
During the Nixon years and through the 1970s, the liberal consensus began to come apart. The alliance with white Southern Democrats had been lost in the Civil Rights era. While the steady enfranchisement of African Americans expanded the electorate to include many new voters sympathetic to liberal views, it was not quite enough to make up for the loss of some Southern Democrats. Organized labor, long a bulwark of the liberal consensus, was past the peak of its power in the United States and many unions had remained in favor of the Vietnam War even as liberal politicians increasingly turned against it. Within the Democratic Party leadership, there was a turn toward moderation on racial themes after the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972.
Meanwhile, in the Republican ranks, a new wing of the party emerged. The anti-establishment conservatives who had been aroused by Barry Goldwater in 1964 challenged the more liberal leadership in 1976 and took control of the party under Ronald Reagan in 1980. Liberal Republicans faded away even in their Northeastern strongholds. Reagan successfully lowered marginal tax rates, most notably for those at the top of the income distribution while his Social Security reforms raised taxes on the middle and bottom of the income distribution, leaving their total tax burden unchanged.
More centrist groups, like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), supported Bill Clinton and challenged liberals for control of the Democratic Party. Clinton portrayed himself as a centrist New Democrat. Thus, he distanced himself from New Deal Democrats. With help from the Southern-dominated DLC, Clinton claimed the center of national politics. Clinton worked with conservatives and against strong liberal opposition to end some of the main welfare programs and to implement NAFTA, linking the economies of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Clinton pushed to extend liberal ideals in the areas of health care (where he failed) and environmental protection (where he had more success). On the whole, he came under fierce attack from the left and from many liberals who charged that he betrayed the New Deal traditions of activist government, especially regarding welfare and his collaboration with business.
On January 1, 2013, President Barack Obama succeeded in raising taxes on the rich while keeping them steady on the middle class. On January 21, 2013, Obama delivered his second inaugural address that championed numerous liberal causes.
The United States was the first country to be founded on the liberal ideas of John Locke and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, with no monarchy and no hereditary aristocracy, and while individual states had established religions, the federal government was kept from establishing religion by the First Amendment. The United States Bill of Rights guarantees every citizen the freedoms advocated by the liberal philosophers, namely equality under the law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to gather in peaceful assembly, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances and the right to bear arms, among other freedoms and rights. In this sense, virtually all Americans are liberals. However, both before and after the country was founded legal questions concerning the scope of these rights and freedoms arose. In the Dred Scott decision of 1856–1857, the Supreme Court ruled that these rights only applied to white men and that blacks had no rights whatsoever that any white man was obliged to respect. Several constitutional amendments after the Dred Scott decision extended the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to larger classes of citizens, to all citizens in 1868, then specifically to blacks in 1870, to women in 1919 and to people unable to afford a poll tax in 1964.
Classical liberalism in the United States, also called laissez-faire liberalism, is the belief that a free-market economy is the most productive. It may be represented by Henry David Thoreau's statement "that government is best which governs least". Classical liberalism is a philosophy of individualism and self-responsibility. Classical liberals in the United States believe that if the economy is left to the natural forces of supply and demand, free of government intervention, the result is the most abundant satisfaction of human wants. Modern classical liberals oppose the concepts of social democracy and the welfare state.
In 1883, Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913) published Dynamic Sociology: Or Applied Social Science, as Based Upon Statical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences and laid out the basic tenets of modern American liberalism while at the same time attacking the laissez-faire policies advocated by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. Ward was a passionate advocate for a sociology that would intelligently and scientifically direct the development of society.
Another influential thinker in the Progressive Era was Herbert Croly (1869–1930). He effectively combined classical liberal theory with progressive philosophy and founded the periodical The New Republic to present his ideas. Croly presented the case for a mixed economy, increased spending on education and the creation of a society based on the "brotherhood of mankind". In 1909, Croly published The Promise of American Life in which he proposed raising the general standard of living by means of economic planning, though he opposed aggressive unionization. In The Techniques of Democracy (1915), Croly argued against both dogmatic individualism and dogmatic socialism. As editor of The New Republic, he had the forum to reach the intellectual community.
According to Paul Starr, sociologist at Princeton University:
Liberalism wagers that a state [...] can be strong but constrained—strong because constrained. [...] Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance the opportunity and personal dignity of minorities and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society.— Paul Starr, The New Republic, March 2007
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