Liberalism in the 19th century
As an ideology and in practice liberalism became the preeminent reform movement in Europe during the 19th century. Its fortunes, however, varied with the historical conditions in each country—the strength of the crown, the élan of the aristocracy, the pace of industrialization, and the circumstances of national unification. The national character of a liberal movement could even be affected by religion. Liberalism in Roman Catholic countries such as France, Italy, and Spain, for example, tended to acquire anticlerical overtones, and liberals in those countries tended to favour legislation restricting the civil authority and political power of the Catholic clergy.
In Great Britain the Whigs had evolved by the mid-19th century into the Liberal Party, whose reformist programs became the model for liberal political parties throughout Europe. Liberals propelled the long campaign that abolished Britain’s slave trade in 1807 and slavery itself throughout the British dominions in 1833. The liberal project of broadening the franchise in Britain bore fruit in the Reform Bills of 1832, 1867, and 1884–85. The sweeping reforms achieved by Liberal Party governments led by William Gladstone for 14 years between 1868 and 1894 marked the apex of British liberalism.
Liberalism in continental Europe often lacked the fortuitous combination of broad popular support and a powerful liberal party that it had in Britain. In France the Revolutionary and Napoleonic governments pursued liberal goals in their abolition of feudal privileges and their modernization of the decrepit institutions inherited from the ancien régime. After the Bourbon Restoration in 1815, however, French liberals were faced with the decades-long task of securing constitutional liberties and enlarging popular participation in government under a reestablished monarchy, goals not substantially achieved until the formation of the Third Republic in 1871.
Throughout Europe and in the Western Hemisphere, liberalism inspired nationalistic aspirations to the creation of unified, independent, constitutional states with their own parliaments and the rule of law. The most dramatic exponents of this liberal assault against authoritarian rule were the Founding Fathers of the United States, the statesman and revolutionary Simón Bolívar in South America, the leaders of the Risorgimento in Italy, and the nationalist reformer Lajos Kossuth in Hungary. But the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 highlighted the comparative weakness of liberalism on the Continent. Liberals’ inability to unify the German states in the mid-19th century was attributable in large part to the dominant role of a militarized Prussia and the reactionary influence of Austria. The liberal-inspired unification of Italy was delayed until the 1860s by the armies of Austria and of Napoleon III of France and by the opposition of the Vatican.
The United States presented a quite different situation, because there was neither a monarchy, an aristocracy, nor an established church against which liberalism could react. Indeed, liberalism was so well established in the United States’ constitutional structure, its political culture, and its jurisprudence that there was no distinct role for a liberal party to play, at least not until the 20th century.
In Europe, by contrast, liberalism was a transforming force throughout the 19th century. Industrialization and modernization, for which classical liberalism provided ideological justification, wrought great changes. The feudal system fell, a functionless aristocracy lost its privileges, and monarchs were challenged and curbed. Capitalism replaced the static economies of the Middle Ages, and the middle class was left free to employ its energies by expanding the means of production and vastly increasing the wealth of society. As liberals set about limiting the power of the monarchy, they converted the ideal of constitutional government, accountable to the people through the election of representatives, into a reality.
Problems of market economies
By the end of the 19th century, some unforeseen but serious consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America had produced a deepening disenchantment with the principal economic basis of classical liberalism—the ideal of a market economy. The main problem was that the profit system had concentrated vast wealth in the hands of a relatively small number of industrialists and financiers, with several adverse consequences. First, great masses of people failed to benefit from the wealth flowing from factories and lived in poverty in vast slums. Second, because the greatly expanded system of production created many goods and services that people often could not afford to buy, markets became glutted and the system periodically came to a near halt in periods of stagnation that came to be called depressions. Finally, those who owned or managed the means of production had acquired enormous economic power that they used to influence and control government, to manipulate an inchoate electorate, to limit competition, and to obstruct substantive social reform. In short, some of the same forces that had once released the productive energies of Western society now restrained them; some of the very energies that had demolished the power of despots now nourished a new despotism.
The modern liberal program
Such, at any rate, was the verdict reached by an increasing number of liberals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As noted above, modern liberals held that the point of government is to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of individual freedom. In this they followed the lead of thinkers and reformers such as the British political philosopher T.H. Green. According to Green, the excessive powers of government may have constituted the greatest obstacles to freedom in an earlier day, but by the middle of the 19th century these powers had been greatly reduced or mitigated. The time had come, therefore, to recognize hindrances of another kind—such as poverty, disease, discrimination, and ignorance—which individuals could overcome only with the positive assistance of government. The new liberal program was thus to enlist the powers of government in the cause of individual freedom. Society, acting through government, was to establish public schools and hospitals, aid the needy, and regulate working conditions to promote workers’ health and well-being, for only through public support could the poor and powerless members of society truly become free.
Although most liberals eventually adopted this new course, there were some dissenters, notably the influential social DarwinistsHerbert Spencer in England and William Graham Sumner in the United States. As the term Darwinists indicates, these writers thought of politics, economics, and society in general in evolutionary terms. Like Paine, they regarded government as at best a necessary evil—not, however, because it coerces but because it too often interferes with the struggle for survival that nature imposes on human beings as much as on other species (seenatural selection). Helping the poor and the weak, they argued, impedes individual freedom and retards social progress by holding back the strong and the fit. The social Darwinists concluded that the sole responsibility of government must be to protect the lives and property of the people—that is, to be nothing more than a “night watchman.”
Limited intervention in the market
Because they appreciated the real achievements of the market system, modern liberals sought to modify and control the system rather than to abolish it. They saw no reason for a fixed line eternally dividing the private and public sectors of the economy; the division, they contended, must be made by reference to what works. The spectre of regimentation in centrally planned economies and the dangers of bureaucracy even in mixed economies deterred them from jettisoning the market and substituting a putatively omnicompetent state. On the other hand—and this is a basic difference between classical and modern liberalism—most liberals came to recognize that the operation of the market needed to be supplemented and corrected. The new liberals asserted, first, that the rewards dispensed by the market were too crude a measure of the contribution most people made to society and, second, that the market ignored the needs of those who lacked opportunity or who were economically exploited. They contended that the enormous social costs incurred in production were not reflected in market prices and that resources were often used wastefully. Not least, liberals perceived that the market biased the allocation of human and physical resources toward the satisfaction of consumer appetites—e.g., for automobiles, home appliances, or fashionable clothing—while basic needs—for schools, housing, public transit, and sewage systems, among other things—went unmet. Finally, although liberals believed that prices, wages, and profits should continue to be subject to negotiation among the interested parties and responsive to conventional market pressures, they insisted that price-wage-profit decisions affecting the economy as a whole must be reconciled with public policy.
Greater equality of wealth and income
To achieve what they took to be a more just distribution of wealth and income, liberals relied on two major strategies. First, they promoted the organization of workers into trade unions in order to improve their power to bargain with employers. Such a redistribution of power had political as well as economic consequences, making possible a multiparty system in which at least one party was responsive to the interests of wage earners.
Second, with the political support of the economically deprived, liberals introduced a variety of government-funded social services. Beginning with free public education and workmen’s accident insurance, these services later came to include programs of old-age, unemployment, and health insurance; minimum-wage laws; and support for the physically and mentally handicapped (see alsosocial insurance; social welfare program). Meeting these objectives required a redistribution of wealth that was to be achieved by a graduated income tax and inheritance tax, which affected the wealthy more than they did the poor. Social welfare measures such as these were first enacted by the decidely nonliberal government of Otto von Bismarck in Germany in the late 19th century, but liberal governments soon adopted them in other countries of northern and western Europe. In the United States such measures were not adopted at the federal level until passage of the Social Security Act of 1935.
World War I and the Great Depression
The further development of liberalism in Europe was brutally interrupted in 1914–18 by the prolonged slaughter of World War I. The war overturned four of Europe’s great imperial dynasties—Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey—and thus at first appeared to give added impetus to liberal democracy. Europe was reshaped by the Treaty of Versailles on the principle of national self-determination, which in practice meant the breakup of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires into nationally homogeneous states. The League of Nations was created in the hope that negotiation would replace war as a means of settling international disputes.
But the trauma of the war had created widespread disillusionment about the entire liberal view of progress toward a more humane world. The harsh peace terms imposed by the victorious Allies, together with the misery created by the Great Depression, beginning in 1929, enfeebled Germany’s newly established Weimar Republic and set the stage for the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. In Italy, meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the peace settlement led directly to the takeover by the Fascist Party in 1922. Liberalism was also threatened by Soviet communism, which seemed to many to have inherited the hopes for progress earlier associated with liberalism itself.
While liberalism came under political attack in the interwar period, the Great Depression threatened the very survival of the market economy. The boom-and-bust character of the business cycle had long been a major defect of market economies, but the Great Depression, with its seemingly endless downturn in business activity and its soaring levels of unemployment, confounded classical economists and produced real pessimism about the viability of capitalism.
The wrenching hardships inflicted by the Great Depression eventually convinced Western governments that complex modern societies needed some measure of rational economic planning. The New Deal (1933–39), the domestic program undertaken by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt to lift the United States out of the Great Depression, typified modern liberalism in its vast expansion of the scope of governmental activities and its increased regulation of business. Among the measures that New Deal legislation provided were emergency assistance and temporary jobs to the unemployed, restrictions on banking and financial industries, more power for trade unions to organize and bargain with employers, and establishment of the Social Security program of retirement benefits and unemployment and disability insurance. In his influential work The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (1936), the liberal British economist John Maynard Keynes introduced an economic theory that argued that government management of the economy could smooth out the highs and lows of the business cycle to produce more or less consistent growth with minimal unemployment.
Postwar liberalism to the 1960s
Liberalism, in strategic alliance with Soviet communism, ultimately triumphed over fascism in World War II, and liberal democracy was reestablished in West Germany, Italy, and Japan. As western Europe, North America, and Japan entered a period of steady economic growth and unprecedented prosperity after the war, attention shifted to the institutional factors that prevented such economies from fully realizing their productive potential, especially during periods of mass unemployment and depression. Great Britain, the United States, and other Western industrialized nations committed their national governments to promoting full employment, the maximum use of their industrial capacity, and the maximum purchasing power of their citizenry. The old rhetoric about “sharing the wealth” gave way to a concentration on growth rates, as liberals—inspired by Keynes—used the government’s power to borrow, tax, and spend not merely to counter contractions of the business cycle but to encourage expansion of the economy. Here, clearly, was a program less disruptive of class harmony and the basic consensus essential to a democracy than the old Robin Hood method of taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
A further and final expansion of social welfare programs occurred in the liberal democracies during the postwar decades. Notable measures were undertaken in Britain by the Labour government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee and in the United States by the Democratic administration of Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his Great Society program of national reforms. These measures created the modern welfare state, which provided not only the usual forms of social insurance but also pensions, unemployment benefits, subsidized medical care, family allowances, and government-funded higher education. By the 1960s social welfare was thus provided “from the cradle to the grave” throughout much of western Europe—particularly in the Scandinavian countries—and in Japan and Canada and to a lesser extent in the United States.
The liberal democratic model was adopted in Asia and Africa by most of the new nations that emerged from the dissolution of the British and French colonial empires in the 1950s and early ’60s. The new nations almost invariably adopted constitutions and established parliamentary governments, believing that these institutions would lead to the same freedom and prosperity that had been achieved in Europe. The results, however, were mixed, with genuine parliamentary democracy taking root in some countries but succumbing in many others to military or socialistdictatorships.
The revival of classical liberalism
The three decades of unprecedented general prosperity that the Western world experienced after World War II marked the high tide of modern liberalism. But the slowing of economic growth that gripped most Western countries beginning in the mid-1970s presented a serious challenge to modern liberalism. By the end of that decade economic stagnation, combined with the cost of maintaining the social benefits of the welfare state, pushed governments increasingly toward politically untenable levels of taxation and mounting debt. Equally troubling was the fact that the Keynesian economics practiced by many governments seemed to lose its effectiveness. Governments continued to spend money on programs aimed at stimulating economic growth, but the result too often was increased inflation and ever-smaller declines in unemployment rates.
As modern liberals struggled to meet the challenge of stagnating living standards in mature industrial economies, others saw an opportunity for a revival of classical liberalism. The intellectual foundations of this revival were primarily the work of the Austrian-born British economist Friedrich von Hayek and the American economist Milton Friedman. One of Hayek’s greatest achievements was to demonstrate, on purely logical grounds, that a centrally planned economy is impossible. He also famously argued, in The Road to Serfdom (1944), that interventionist measures aimed at the redistribution of wealth lead inevitably to totalitarianism. Friedman, as one of the founders of the modern monetarist school of economics, held that the business cycle is determined mainly by the supply of money and by interest rates, rather than by government fiscal policy—contrary to the long-prevailing view of Keynes and his followers. These arguments were enthusiastically embraced by the major conservative political parties in Britain and the United States, which had never abandoned the classical liberal conviction that the market, for all its faults, guides economic policy better than governments do. Revitalized conservatives achieved power with the lengthy administrations of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1979–90) in Britain and Pres. Ronald Reagan (1981–89) in the United States. Their ideology and policies, which properly belong to the history of conservatism rather than liberalism, became increasingly influential, as illustrated by the British Labour Party’s official abandonment of its commitment to the “common ownership of the means of production” in 1995 and by the cautiously pragmatic policies of Pres. Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The clearest sign, however, of the importance of this “neoclassical” version of liberalism was the emergence of libertarianism as a political force—as evidenced by the increasing prominence of the Libertarian Party in the United States and by the creation of assorted think tanks in various countries, which sought to promote the libertarian ideal of markets and sharply limited governments.
Civil rights and social issues
Contemporary liberalism remains deeply concerned with reducing economic inequalities and helping the poor, but it also has tried to extend individual rights in new directions. With the exception of the utilitarians, liberals have always invoked the concept of rights to argue against tyranny and oppression; but in the later 20th century claims to rights became the most common way of articulating struggles for social justice. The prototypical mass movement in this regard was the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, which resulted in legislation forbidding most forms of discrimination against a large African American minority and which fundamentally altered the climate of race relations in the United States. In the 1970s there arose similar movements struggling for equal rights for women, gays and lesbians, the physically or mentally disabled, and other minorities or disadvantaged social groups. Thus, liberalism historically has sought to foster a plurality of different ways of life, or different conceptions of the “good life,” by protecting the rights and interests of first the middle class and religious minorities, then the working class and the poor, and finally racial minorities, women, gays and lesbians, and the physically or mentally disabled.
Liberalism has influenced the changing character of Western society in other ways as well, though its contribution in this regard has not always been distinguishable from the effects of modernization, technological change, and rising standards of living. For example, the relaxation in most developed countries of long-standing restrictions on contraception, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality was inspired in part by the traditional liberal insistence on individual choice. In similar fashion, the liberal emphasis on the right to freedom of speech led to the loosening of inherited restrictions on sexual content and expression in works of art and culture (seecensorship).
This article discusses liberalism as the term has been used in the United States since the 20th century. For the development of American liberalism, see Liberalism in the United States. For the origin and worldwide use of the term liberalism, see Liberalism.
Modern American liberalism is the dominant version of liberalism in the United States. It is characterized by social liberalism, and combines ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a mixed economy. The term "modern liberalism" in this article refers only to the United States. In a global context, this philosophy is usually referred to as social liberalism.
The American modern liberal philosophy strongly endorses public spending on programs such as education, health care, and welfare. Important social issues today include addressing inequality, voting rights for minorities, reproductive and other women's rights, support for LGBT rights, and immigration reform.
Modern liberalism took shape during the twentieth century, with roots in Theodore Roosevelt's New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Harry S. Truman's Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. American liberals oppose conservatives on most issues, but not all. Modern liberalism is historically related to social liberalism and progressivism, though the current relationship between liberal and progressive viewpoints is debated.
John F. Kennedy defined a liberal as follows:
"...someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'Liberal', then I'm proud to say I'm a 'Liberal'."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 defined a liberal party as one,
"which believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them. The liberal party insists that the Government has the definite duty to use all its power and resources to meet new social problems with new social controls—to ensure to the average person the right to his own economic and political life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Keynesian economic theory has played an important role in the economic philosophy of modern American liberals. Modern American liberals generally believe that national prosperity requires government management of the macroeconomy, in order to keep unemployment low, inflation in check, and growth high. They also value institutions that defend against economic inequality. In The Conscience of a LiberalPaul Krugman writes: "I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law. That makes me a liberal, and I'm proud of it." Liberals often point to the widespread prosperity enjoyed under a mixed economy in the years since World War II. They believe liberty exists when access to necessities like health care and economic opportunity are available to all, and they champion the protection of the environment.
Modern American liberalism is typically associated with the Democratic Party, as modern American conservatism is typically associated with the Republican Party.
21st century issues
In early 21st century political discourse in the United States, liberalism has come to include support for reproductive rights for women, including abortion, affirmative action for minority groups historically discriminated against,multilateralism and support for international institutions, support for individual rights over corporate interests, support for universal health care for Americans (with a "single payer" option), support for gay rights and marriage equality, and opposition to tax cuts for the rich.
American versus European use of the term "liberalism"
Main articles: Liberalism and Liberalism worldwide
Today the word "liberalism" is used differently in different countries. One of the greatest contrasts is between the usage in the United States and usage in Europe. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (writing in 1956), "Liberalism in the American usage has little in common with the word as used in the politics of any European country, save possibly Britain." In Europe, liberalism, usually means what is sometimes called classical liberalism, a commitment to limited government, laissez-faire economics, and unalienable individual rights. This classical liberalism sometimes more closely corresponds to the American definition of libertarianism, although some may distinguish between classical liberalism and libertarianism.
In the United States, the general term 'liberalism' will amost always refer to modern liberalism, a more social variant of classical liberalism. In Europe, this social liberalism is advocated by some liberal parties as well, as with the Beveridge Group faction within the Liberal Democrats (United Kingdom), Liberals (Sweden), Danish Social Liberal Party, the Democratic Movement (France), the Italian Republican Party or the Free Democratic Party of Germany, for example.
Demographics of American liberals
In early 2016, Gallup found that more Americans identified as ideologically conservative (37%) or moderate (35%) rather than liberal (24%), but that liberalism has slowly been gaining ground since 1992, standing at a 24-year high.
A 2015 Gallup poll found that socially liberal views have consistently been on the rise in America since 1999. As of 2015, there is a rough equal number of socially liberal Americans and socially conservative Americans (31% each), and the socially liberal trend continues to rise.
A 2005 Pew Research Center study found that liberals were the most educated ideological demographic and were tied with the conservative sub-group the "enterprisers" for the most affluent group. Of those who identified as liberal, 49% were college graduates and 41% had household incomes exceeding $75,000, compared to 27% and 28% as the national average, respectively. Liberalism has become the dominant political ideology in academia, with 44-62% identifying as liberal, depending on the exact wording of the survey. This compares with 40-46% liberal identification in surveys from 1969 to 1984. The social sciences and humanities were most liberal, whereas business and engineering departments were the least liberal, though even in the business departments, liberals outnumbered conservatives by two to one. This feeds the common question whether liberals, on average, are more educated than their political counterparts––conservatives. Two Zogby surveys from 2008 and 2010 indeed affirm that self-identified liberals tend to go to college more than self-identified conservatives. Polls have found that young Americans are considerably more liberal than the general population. As of 2009, 30% of the 18-29 cohort was liberal. In 2011, this had changed to 28%, with moderates picking up the two percent.
History of modern liberalism in the United States
Historian and advocate of liberalism Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had explored in depth the heritage of Jacksonian Democracy in its influence on Franklin Roosevelt.Robert V. Remini, the biographer of Andrew Jackson said:
- "Jacksonian Democracy, then, stretches the concept of democracy about as far as it can go and still remain workable....As such it has inspired much of the dynamic and dramatic events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in American history—Populism, Progressivism, the New and Fair Deals, and the programs of the New Frontier and Great Society to mention the most obvious."
In 1956, Schlesinger said that liberalism in the United States includes both a "laissez-faire" form and a "government intervention" form. He holds that liberalism in the United States is aimed toward achieving "equality of opportunity for all" but it is the means of achieving this that changes depending on the circumstances. He says that the "process of redefining liberalism in terms of the social needs of the 20th century was conducted by Theodore Roosevelt and his New Nationalism, Woodrow Wilson and his New Freedom, and Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. Out of these three reform periods there emerged the conception of a social welfare state, in which the national government had the express obligation to maintain high levels of employment in the economy, to supervise standards of life and labor, to regulate the methods of business competition, and to establish comprehensive patterns of social security."
Some make the distinction between "American classical liberalism" and the "new liberalism."
Main article: Progressive era
The Progressive movement emerged in the 1890s and included intellectual reformers typified by sociologist Lester Frank Ward and economist Richard T. Ely. They transformed Victorian liberalism, retaining its commitment to civil liberties and individual rights while casting off its advocacy of laissez-faire economics. Ward helped define what would become the modern welfare state after 1933. These often supported the growing working-class labor unions, and sometimes even the socialists to their left. The Social Gospel movement was a Protestant intellectual movement that helped shape liberalism especially from the 1890s to the 1920s. It applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.Lyndon B. Johnson's parents were active in the Social Gospel and he had a lifetime commitment to it, for he sought to transform social problems into moral problems. This helps explain his longtime commitment to social justice, as exemplified by the Great Society and his commitment to racial equality. The Social Gospel explicitly inspired his foreign-policy approach to a sort of Christian internationalism and nation building. In philosophy and education John Dewey was highly influential.
In 1900–1920 liberals called themselves "progressives." They rallied behind Republicans led by Theodore Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette, as well as Democrats led by William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson to fight corruption, waste and big trusts (big corporations). They stressed ideals of social justice and the use of government to solve social and economic problems. Settlement workers such as Jane Addams were leaders of the liberal tradition. There was a tension between sympathy with labor unions and the goal to apply scientific expertise by disinterested experts. When liberals became anti-Communist in the 1940s they purged leftists from the liberal movement.
Political writer Herbert Croly (1869–1930) helped to define the new liberalism through the New Republic magazine (1914–present), and numerous influential books. Croly presented the case for a planned economy, increased spending on education, and the creation of a society based on the "brotherhood of mankind". His highly influential 1909 book The Promise of American Life proposed to raise the general standard of living by means of economic planning; Croly opposed aggressive unionization. In The Techniques of Democracy (1915) he argued against both dogmatic individualism and dogmatic socialism.
The historian Vernon Louis Parrington in 1928 won the Pulitzer Prize for Main Currents in American Thought. It was a highly influential intellectual history of America from the colonial era to the early 20th century. It was well written and passionate about the value of Jeffersonian democracy and helped identify and honor liberal heroes and their ideas and causes. Parrington argued in 1930 that, "For upwards of half a century creative political thinking in America was largely western agrarian, and from this source came those democratic ideas that were to provide the staple of a later liberalism." In 1945, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued in The Age of Jackson that liberalism also emerged from Jacksonian democracy and the labor radicalism of the Eastern cities, thereby linking it to the urban dimension of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Abraham Lincoln's presidency, with its emphasis on a strong federal government over claims of state's rights, on widespread entrepreneurship, and on individual freedom against the property rights of slave owners, laid much of the ground work for future liberal Republican governance. The Republican Party's liberal element in the early 20th century was typified by Theodore Roosevelt in the 1907–1912 period (Roosevelt was more conservative at other points). Other liberal Republicans included Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and his sons in Wisconsin (from about 1900 to 1946), and western leaders such as Senator Hiram Johnson in California, Senator George W. Norris in Nebraska, Senator Bronson M. Cutting in New Mexico, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin in Montana, and Senator William Borah in Idaho, from about 1900 to about 1940. They were generally liberal in domestic policy, supported unions, and supported much of the New Deal. However they were intensely isolationist in foreign policy. This element died out by the 1940s. Starting in the 1930s a number of mostly Northeastern Republicans took modern liberal positions regarding labor unions, spending and New Deal policies. They included Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, Governor Earl Warren of California, Senator Clifford P. Case of New Jersey, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., of Massachusetts, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut (father of George H. W. Bush), Senator Jacob K. Javits of New York, Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and Governor George Romney of Michigan. The most notable of them all was Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York.
While the media often called them "Rockefeller Republicans", the liberal Republicans never formed an organized movement or caucus, and lacked a recognized leader. They promoted economic growth and high state and federal spending, while accepting high taxes and much liberal legislation, with the proviso they could administer it more efficiently. They opposed the Democratic big city machines while welcoming support from labor unions and big business alike. Religion and social issues were not high on their agenda. In foreign policy they were internationalists, throwing their support to the moderateDwight D. Eisenhower over the conservative leader Robert A. Taft in 1952. They were often called the "Eastern Establishment" by conservatives such as Barry Goldwater The Goldwater conservatives fought this establishment, defeated Rockefeller in the 1964 primaries, and eventually retired most of its members, although some became Democrats like Senator Charles Goodell and Mayor John Lindsay in New York. As President, Richard Nixon adopted many of the liberals' positions regarding the environment, welfare, and the arts. After Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois bolted the party in 1980 and ran as an independent against Reagan, the liberal GOP element faded away. Their old strongholds in the Northeast are now mostly held by Democrats.
The New Deal
Main article: New Deal
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 desperation and joblessness, provide greater opportunities, and restore prosperity. His presidency (which lasted from 1933 to 1945, the longest in U.S. history) was marked by an increased role for the federal government in addressing the nation's economic and social problems. Work relief programs provided jobs, ambitious projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority were created to promote economic development, and a social security system was established. The Roosevelt Administration was assisted in its endeavors by progressives in Congress, with the congressional midterm elections of 1934 returning a more radical House of Representatives that was prepared to support progressive, "new liberal" measures. As noted by J. Richard Piper
‘As the “new” liberalism crystallized into its dominant form by 1935, both houses of Congress continued to provide large voting majorities for public policies that were generally dubbed “liberal”. Conservatives constituted a distinct congressional minority from 1933 to 1937 and appeared threatened with oblivion for a time.’
The Great Depression seemed over in 1936, but a relapse in 1937–38 produced continued long-term unemployment. Full employment was reached with the total mobilization of U.S. economic, social, and military resources in World War II. At that point the main relief programs such as WPA and CCC were ended. Arthur Herman argues that FDR restored prosperity after 1940 by cooperating closely with big business, although in 1939, when asked: "Do you think the attitude of the Roosevelt administration toward business is delaying business recovery?" the American people responded "yes" by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
The New Deal programs to relieve the Depression are generally regarded as a mixed success in ending unemployment. At the time many New Deal programs - especially CCC - were popular. Liberals hailed them for improving the life of the common citizen, and for providing jobs for the unemployed, legal protection for labor unionists, modern utilities for rural America, living wages for the working poor, and price stability for the family farmer. Economic progress for minorities, however, was hindered by discrimination, an issue often avoided by Roosevelt's administration.
Relief, recovery, and reform
The New Deal consisted of three types of programs designed to produce "Relief, Recovery and Reform":
Relief was the immediate effort to help the one-third of the population that was hardest hit by the depression. Roosevelt expanded Hoover's FERA work relief program, and added the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works Administration (PWA), and starting in 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1935 the Social Security Act (SSA) and unemployment insurance programs were added. Separate programs were set up for relief in rural America, such as the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration.
Recovery was the goal of restoring the economy to pre-Depression levels. It involved "pump priming" (greater spending of government funds in an effort to stimulate the economy, including deficit spending), dropping the gold standard, and efforts to increase farm prices and foreign trade by lowering tariffs. Many programs were funded through a Hoover program of loans and loan guarantees, overseen by the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).
Reform was based on the assumption that the depression was caused by the inherent instability of the market 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, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance for bank deposits enacted through the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933, and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (also known as the Wagner Act) dealing with labor-management relations. Despite urgings by some New Dealers, there was no major anti-trust 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 (that is power plants and electrical grids). The conservatives feared the New Deal meant socialism; Roosevelt noted privately in 1934 that the "old line press harps increasingly on state socialism and demands the return to the good old days".
The New Deal was racially segregated; blacks and whites rarely worked alongside each other in New Deal programs. The largest relief program by far was the WPA; it operated segregated units, as did its youth affiliate the NYA' Blacks were hired by the WPA as supervisors in the North; however of 10,000 WPA supervisors in the South, only 11 were black. In the first few weeks of operation, CCC camps in the North were integrated. By July 1935, however, all the camps in the United States were segregated, and blacks were strictly limited in the supervisory roles they were assigned. Kinker and Smith argue that "even the most prominent racial liberals in the New Deal did not dare to criticize Jim Crow." Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was one of the Roosevelt Administration's most prominent supporters of blacks and former president of the Chicago chapter of the NAACP. In 1937 when Senator Josiah Bailey, Democrat of North Carolina, accused him of trying to break down segregation laws, Ickes wrote him to deny it:
- I think it is up to the states to work out their social problems if possible, and while I have always been interested in seeing that the Negro has a square deal, I have never dissipated my strength against the particular stone wall of segregation. I believe that wall will crumble when the Negro has brought himself to a high educational and economic status…. Moreover, while there are no segregation laws in the North, there is segregation in fact and we might as well recognize this.
The New Deal's record came under attack by New Left historians in the 1960s for its pusillanimity in not attacking capitalism more vigorously, nor helping blacks achieve equality. The critics emphasize the absence of a philosophy of reform to explain the failure of New Dealers to attack fundamental social problems. They demonstrate the New Deal's commitment to save capitalism and its refusal to strip away private property. They detect a remoteness from the people and indifference to participatory democracy, and call instead for more emphasis on conflict and exploitation.
Foreign policies of FDR
In international affairs, Roosevelt's presidency until 1938 reflected the isolationism that dominated practically all of American politics at the time. After 1938 he moved toward interventionism as the world hurtled toward war. Liberals split on foreign policy: many followed Roosevelt, while others like John L. Lewis of the CIO, historian Charles A. Beard and the Kennedy Family opposed him. However, Roosevelt added new conservative supporters, such as Republicans Henry Stimson, who became his Secretary of War in 1940, and Wendell Willkie, who worked closely with FDR after losing to him in the 1940s election. Anticipating the post-war period, Roosevelt 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, except that FDR learned from Wilson's mistakes regarding the League of Nations; FDR included Republicans in shaping foreign policy, and insisted the U.S. have a veto at the UN.
Liberalism during the Cold War
American liberalism of the Cold War era was the immediate heir to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the somewhat more distant heir to the Progressives of the early 20th century. Rossinow (2008) argues that after 1945 the left-liberal alliance that operated during the New Deal years split apart for good over the issue of Communism. Anti-communist liberals, led by Walter Reuther and Hubert Humphrey expelled the far-left from labor unions and the New Deal Coalition, and committed the Democratic Party to a strong Cold War policy typified by NATO and the containment of Communism. Liberals became committed to a quantitative goal of economic growth that accepted large near-monopolies such as General Motors and AT&T, while rejecting the structural transformation dreamed of by earlier left-liberals. The far left had its last hurrah in Henry A. Wallace's 1948 third-party presidential campaign. Wallace supported further New Deal reforms and opposed the Cold War, but his campaign was taken over by the far left and Wallace retired from politics in disgust.
Most prominent and constant among the positions of Cold War liberalism were:
- 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.
- 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.
In some ways this resembled what in other countries was referred to as social democracy. However, unlike European social democrats, US liberals never widely endorsed nationalization of industry but favored regulation for public benefit.
In the 1950s and 1960s, both major U.S. political parties included liberal and conservative factions. The Democratic Party had two wings: on the one hand, Northern and Western liberals, on the other generally conservative Southern whites. Difficult to classify were the northern big city Democratic "political machines". The urban machines had supported New Deal economic policies, but faded with the coming of prosperity and the assimilation of ethnic groups; nearly all collapsed by the 1960s in the face of racial violence in the cities
The Republican Party included the moderate-to-liberal Wall Street and the moderate-to-conservative Main Street. The more liberal wing, strongest in the Northeast, was far more supportive of New Deal programs, labor unions, and an internationalist foreign policy.
Support for anti-Communism sometimes came at the expense of civil liberties. For example, ADA co-founder and archetypal Cold War liberal Hubert Humphrey unsuccessfully sponsored (in 1950) a Senate bill to establish detention centers where those declared subversive by the President could be held without trial. Nonetheless, liberals opposed McCarthyism and were central to McCarthy's downfall.
In domestic policy during the Fifth Party System (1932–66), liberals seldom had full control of government; for that matter, conservatives never had full control in that period. According to Jonathan Bernstein, from 1939 through 1957, neither liberals nor Democrats “controlled” the House of Representatives very often, although a 1958 landslide gave liberals real majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time in twenty years. However, Rules Committee reforms and others were carried out following this landslide, as liberals saw that House procedures “still prevented them from using that majority.” The Conservative Coalition was also important (if not dominant) from 1967 through 1974, although from 1985 to 1994 Congress had a liberal Democratic majority. As also noted by Bernstein,
“there have only been a handful of years (Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term, 1961-1966, Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the first two years of Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s presidencies) when there were clear, working liberal majorities in the House, the Senate and the White House.”
Truman's Fair Deal
Until he became president liberals generally did not see Harry S. Truman as one of their own, viewing him as a Democratic Party hack. However, liberal politicians and liberal organizations such as the unions and Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) supported Truman's liberal Fair Deal proposals to continue and expand the New Deal. Alonzo Hamby argues that the Fair Deal reflected the "vital center" approach to liberalism which rejected totalitarianism, was suspicious of excessive concentrations of government power, and honored the New Deal as an effort to achieve a progressive capitalist system. Solidly based upon the New Deal tradition in its advocacy of wide-ranging social legislation, the Fair Deal differed enough to claim a separate identity. The depression did not return after the war and the Fair Deal faced prosperity and an optimistic future. The Fair Dealers thought in terms of abundance rather than depression scarcity. Economist Leon Keyserling argued that the liberal task was to spread the benefits of abundance throughout society by stimulating economic growth. Agriculture Secretary Charles F. Brannan wanted to unleash the benefits of agricultural abundance and to encourage the development of an urban-rural Democratic coalition. However the "Brannan Plan" was defeated his unrealistic confidence in the possibility uniting urban labor and farm owners who distrusted rural insurgency. The Conservative Coalition of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans in Congress effectively blocked the Fair Deal and nearly all liberal legislation from the late 1930s to 1960. The Korean War made military spending the nation's priority.
Stanford University historian Barton Bernstein, in the 1960s, repudiated Truman for failing to carry forward the New Deal agenda, and for excessive anti-Communism at home.
Combating conservatism was not high on the liberal agenda, for by 1950 the liberal ideology was so intellectually dominant that the literary critic Lionel Trilling could note that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition...there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation."
Most historians see liberalism in the doldrums in the 1950s, with the old spark of New Deal dreams overshadowed by the glitzy complacency and conservatism of the Eisenhower years. Adlai Stevenson lost in two landslides, and he presented few new liberal proposals apart from a suggestion for a worldwide ban on nuclear tests. As Barry Karl noted, Stevenson "has suffered more at hands of the admirers he failed than he ever did from the enemies who defeated him". Many liberals bemoan the willingness of Democratic leaders in Congress (Lyndon B. Johnson and Sam Rayburn) to collaborate with Eisenhower, and the commitment of the AFL-CIO unions and most liberal spokesmen such as Senators Hubert Humphrey and Paul Douglas to anti-Communism at home and abroad. They decry the weak attention most liberals paid to the nascent Civil Rights Movement.
Politically, starting in the late 1940s there was a powerful labor–liberal coalition with strong grassroots support, energetic well-funded organizations, and a cadre of supporters in Congress. On labor side was the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which merged into the AFL-CIO in 1955, the United Auto Workers (UAW), union lobbyists, and the Committee on Political Education's (COPE), which organized turnout campaigns and publicity at elections. Walter Reuther of the UAW was the leader of liberalism in the labor movement, and his autoworkers generously funded the cause.
The main liberal organizations, out of hundreds, included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Jewish Congress (AJC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the National Committee for an Effective Congress (NCEC), and the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA).
Key liberal leaders in Congress included Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota,Paul Douglas of Illinois,Henry Jackson of Washington,Walter Mondale of Minnesota, and Claude Pepper of Florida in the Senate Leaders in the House included Representatives Frank Thompson of New Jersey, Richard Bolling of Missouri, and other members of the Democratic Study Group. Although for years they had largely been frustrated by the Conservative Coalition, the liberal coalition suddenly came to power in 1963 and were ready with proposals that became central to the Great Society.
Intellectuals and writers were an important component of the coalition at this point. Many writers—especially historians—became prominent spokesmen for liberalism and were frequently called upon for public lectures and for popular essays on political topics by such magazines as The New Republic,Saturday Review,The Atlantic Monthly, and Harpers. Also active in the arena of ideas were literary critics such as Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, economists such as Alvin Hansen, John Kenneth Galbraith,James Tobin and Paul Samuelson, as well as political scientists such as Robert A. Dahl and Seymour Martin Lipset, and sociologists such as David Riesman and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Representative was the historian Henry Steele Commager, who felt a duty to teach his fellow citizens how liberalism was the foundation of American values. He believed that an educated public that understands American history would support liberal programs, especially internationalism and the New Deal. Commager was representative of a whole generation of like-minded historians who were widely read by the general public, including Allan Nevins, Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward. Perhaps the most prominent of all was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. whose books on Andrew Jackson and on Roosevelt and the Kennedy brothers—and his many essays and his work with liberal organizations and in the White House itself under Kennedy—emphasized the ideological history of American liberalism, especially as made concrete by a long tradition of powerful liberal presidents.
Commager's biographer Neil Jumonville has argued that this style of influential public history has been lost in the 21st century because political correctness has rejected Commager's open marketplace of tough ideas. Jumonville says history now comprises abstruse deconstruction by experts, with statistics instead of stories, and is now comprehensible only to the initiated, while ethnocentrism rules in place of common identity. Other experts have traced the relative decline of intellectuals to their concern race, ethnicity, and gender, and scholarly antiquarianism.
Great Society: 1964-68
Main article: Great Society
The climax of liberalism came in the mid-1960s with the success of President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69) in securing congressional passage of his Great Society programs, including civil rights, the end of segregation, Medicare, extension of welfare, federal aid to education at all levels, subsidies for the arts and humanities, environmental activism, and a series of programs designed to wipe out poverty. As recent historians have explained:
- "Gradually, liberal intellectuals crafted a new vision for achieving economic and social justice. The liberalism of the early 1960s contained no hint of radicalism, little disposition to revive new deal era crusades against concentrated economic power, and no intention to fan class passions or redistribute wealth or restructure existing institutions. Internationally it was strongly anti-Communist. It aimed to defend the free world, to encourage economic growth at home, and to ensure that the resulting plenty was fairly distributed. Their agenda-much influenced by Keynesian economic theory-envisioned massive public expenditure that would speed economic growth, thus providing the public resources to fund larger welfare, housing, health, and educational programs."
Johnson was rewarded with an electoral landslide in 1964 against conservative Barry Goldwater, which broke the decades-long control of Congress by the Conservative coalition. But the Republicans bounced back in 1966, and as the Democratic party splintered five ways, Republicans elected Richard Nixon in 1968. Faced with a generally liberal Democratic Congress during his presidency, Nixon used his power over executive agencies to obstruct the authorization of programs that he was opposed to. As noted by one observer, "He (Nixon) claimed the authority to “impound,” or withhold, money Congress appropriated to support them."
Nevertheless, Nixon largely continued the New Deal and Great Society programs he inherited; conservative reaction would come with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Liberals and civil rights
See also: Civil rights movement
Cold War liberalism emerged at a time when most African Americans, especially in the South, 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" (provision) in the Democratic party platform. Black activists, most prominently Martin Luther King, escalated the bearer agitation throughout the South, especially in Birmingham, Alabama, where brutal police tactics outraged national television audiences. The civil rights movement climaxed in the "March on Washington" in August 1963, where King gave his dramatic "I Have a Dream" speech. The activism put civil rights at the very top of the liberal political agenda and facilitated passage of the decisive Civil Rights Act of 1964, which permanently ended segregation in the United States, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote, with strong enforcement provisions throughout the South handled by the federal Department of Justice.
During the mid-1960s, relations between white liberals and the civil rights movement became increasingly strained; civil rights leaders accused liberal politicians of temporizing and procrastinating. Although President Kennedy sent federal troops to compel the University of Mississippi to admit African American James Meredith in 1962, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. toned down the March on Washington (1963) at Kennedy's behest, the failure to seat the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention indicated a growing rift. President Johnson could not understand why the rather impressive civil rights laws passed under his leadership had failed to immunize Northern and Western cities from rioting. At the same time, the civil rights movement itself was becoming fractured. 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 most extreme 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 were latecomers to the movement for equal rights for women. Generally, they agreed with Eleanor Roosevelt, that women needed special protections, especially regarding hours of work, night work, and physically heavy work. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) had first been proposed in the 1920s by Alice Paul, and appealed primarily to middle-class career women. At the Democratic National Convention in 1960, a proposal to endorse the ERA was rejected after it met explicit opposition from liberal groups including labor unions, AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), American Federation of Teachers, American Nurses Association, the Women's Division of the Methodist Church, and the National Councils of Jewish, Catholic, and Negro Women.
Some liberals moved to the right and became "neoconservatives" in the 1970s. Many were animated by foreign policy, taking a strong anti-Soviet and pro-Israel position, as typified by Commentary, a Jewish magazine. Many had been supporters of Senator Henry ("Scoop") Jackson, who was noted for his strong positions in favor of labor and against communism. Many Neoconservatives joined the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and attacked liberalism vocally in both the popular media and scholarly publications.
Under attack from the New Left
See also: New Left
Liberalism came under attack from both the New Left in the early 1960s and the Right in the late 1960s. Kazin (1998) says, "The liberals who anxiously turned back the assault of the postwar Right were confronted in the 1960s by a very different adversary: a radical movement led, in the main, by their own children, the white "New Left". This new element, says Kazin, worked to "topple the corrupted liberal order".