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Liberalism in the United States is a broad political and philosophical mindset favoring individual liberty. According to Louis Hartz, it differs from liberalism in the rest of the world, because America never had a hereditary aristocracy and therefore never turned to socialism, as many European liberals did, as a reaction against a system that enshrined the privileges of the upper class.The main focus of modern liberalism in the United States is voting rights for all adult citizens, equal rights, separation of church and state, protection of the environment, and the provision by the government of social services, such as education, health care, and highways, and also food for the hungry and housing for the homeless. Some American liberals, who call themselves classical liberals, neoliberals, or libertarians, support the liberal ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and separation of church and state, but also believe that economic freedom is important, and that for the government to provide social welfare provision exceeds the legitimate role of government.

The term liberalism, without a qualifier, in the United States today usually refers to modern liberalism, a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It is a form of social liberalism, whose accomplishments include the WPA and the Social Security Act in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Community Reinvestment Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Liberals share a belief in individual rights, representative democracy, and the rule of law. In this sense, almost all Americans accept liberal ideals, so much so that it is easy to forget how revolutionary these ideals were when the American Constitution was written.

History

The origins of American liberalism lie in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, but the liberalism of the early United States was flawed by a Constitution that accepted slavery. The Founding Fathers recognized the contradiction, but many were slave-owners themselves.

From the time of the American Civil War to the present day, American liberalism has extended freedom to ever broader classes of people. These extensions of liberty usually came through action of the federal government and were often strongly resisted by individual states. The constitution was amended in 1865 to abolish slavery, in 1870 to extend the vote to Black men, in 1920 to extend the vote to women, in 1964 to abolish the poll tax used in many Southern states to deny the vote to Blacks, and in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18, that age at which Americans were subject to the military draft.

Modern liberalism in the United States started to develop in the late 19th Century in response to three major problems with the market economy of the Jacksonian era. First, there was a boom and bust cycle, resulting in periodic depressions. Second, wealth became increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, while the great majority of Americans lived in extreme poverty. Third, the upper class used their wealth to control government, limit competition, and create a new despotism based on social class. To counteract these trends, modern liberals supported a vast increase in the power of the federal government, especially to control monopolies and to protect the rights of organized labor.

A reaction against modern American liberalism began with the Reagan era, in the 1970s. The intellectual foundations of this conservative resurgence were mostly the works of Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, arguing against central economic planning and Keynesian economics. Ronald Reagan successfully implemented deregulation and welfare reform, and he was followed in this by subsequent Republican presidents, while Democratic presidents pushed to extend modern liberal ideals, especially in the areas of health care and environmental protection.

Varieties of liberalism

Liberalism in the United States takes several distinct forms. Modern liberalism, which favors government intervention in some cases, takes a different approach to economics from classical liberalism, which favors a pure free market.

Classical liberalism

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 concept of a welfare state and government restriction on individual liberty.

Modern liberalism

Herbert Croly (1869 – 1930), philosopher and political theorist, was the first to effectively combine classical liberal theory with progressive philosophy to form what would come to be known as "American" liberalism; Maury Maverick was to summarize the combination as "freedom plus groceries." Croly presented the case for a mixed economy, increased spending on education, and the creation of a society based on the "brotherhood of mankind." Croly founded the periodical The New Republic to present his ideas.

His ideas influenced the political views of both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. 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) he argued against both dogmatic individualism and dogmatic socialism.

Demographics of Liberals

Liberalism remains most popular among those in academia and liberals commonly tend to be highly educated and relatively affluent. According to recent surveys, between 19 and 26 percent of the American electorate self-identify as liberal, versus moderate or conservative. A 2004 study by the Pew Research Center identified 19 percent of Americans as liberal. According to the study, liberals were the most affluent and educated ideological demographic. Of those who identified as liberal, 49 percent were college graduates and 41 percent had household incomes exceeding $75,000, compared to 27 and 28 percent at the national average, respectively. Liberalism also remains the dominant political ideology in academia, with 72% of full-time faculty identifying as liberal in a 2004 study. The social sciences and humanities were most liberal, whereas, business and engineering departments were the most conservative. In the 2000, 2004 and 2006 elections, the vast majority of liberals voted in favor of the Democrats, though liberals may also show support for the Greens.

Changes in liberalism in the United States

The New Deal

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945), 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 joblessness, provide greater opportunities, and restore prosperity. His presidency 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 other 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 Great Depression dragged on through the 1930s, however, despite the New Deal programs, which 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 Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and other agencies); and, during World War II, executive orders and the FEPC 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.

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 areas, 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" (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 corporate America were chiefly channelled through a Hoover program, 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, 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 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.

In international affairs, Roosevelt's presidency was dominated by the outbreak of World War II and American entry into the war in 1941. 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, architect of the failed League of Nations [417732], and led to his support for the establishment of the United Nations and several other such institutions, something that was presided over by his successor, Harry S. Truman.

Liberalism during the Cold War

U.S. liberalism of the Cold War era was the immediate heir to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the slightly more distant heir to the Progressives of the early 20th century.

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, a concept more associated with the concepts of Lincoln's Republican party, Clay's Whig Party, and 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 Jefferson's Republican and Jackson's Democratic party.

Defining itself against 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; instead, they constituted ideas of American progressive thought rooted in Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt which resembled a mild form of European styled social democracy.

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 Unionmarker 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, U.S. liberals never endorsed nationalization of industry but regulation for public benefit.

In the 1950s and '60s, 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 urban Democratic "political machines". The urban machines had supported New Deal economic policies, but would slowly come apart over racial issues. Some historians have divided the Republican Party into liberal Wall Streetmarker and conservative Main Street factions; others have noted that the GOP's conservatives came from landlocked states (Robert Taft of Ohio and Barry Goldwater of Arizona) and the liberals tended to come from California (Earl Warren and Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey), New York (see Nelson Rockefeller), and other coastal states.

In the late 1940s, 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 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, 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.

The liberal consensus

By 1950, the liberal ideology was so intellectually dominant that the literary critic Lionel Trilling could write that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition... there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation..." [Lapham 2004]

For almost two decades, Cold War liberalism remained the dominant paradigm in U.S. politics, peaking with the landslide victory of Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Lyndon 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. In the face of the disastrous defeat of Goldwater, the Republicans accepted more than a few of Johnson's ideas as their own, so to a very real extent, the policies of President Johnson became the policies of the Republican administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.

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" (paragraph) in the party platform. Legislatively, the civil rights movement would culminate in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

During the 1960s, relations between white liberals and the civil rights movement became increasingly strained; civil rights leaders accused liberal politicians of temporizing and procrastinating. The 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. Thereafter, in response to that concern, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed to tone down the March on Washington in 1963. Although President Kennedy had sent federal troops to compel the University of Mississippimarker to admit African American James Meredith, intervened when Alabamamarker Governor George Wallace blocked two African Americans' Vivian Malone and James Hood from enrolling at the University of Alabamamarker and proposed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 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. By that time, the civil rights movement itself was becoming fractured. On 8 March 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.

Paleoliberalism

As the civil rights and anti-war protesters of the late 1960s and early 1970s began to organize into a recognizable school of thought known as the New Left, many "anti-Sovietmarker liberals and social democrats in the tradition of Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey and Henry Jackson… preferred to call themselves 'paleoliberals'", according to historian Michael Lind.

Lind also notes that some of these people became neoconservatives. , although paleoliberals such as Peter Beinart exist to this day.

Liberals and Vietnam

While the civil rights movement isolated liberals from their erstwhile allies, the Vietnam War threw a 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. In the 1960 presidential campaign, the liberal Kennedy was more hawkish on Southeast Asia than the conservative Richard Nixon. Although it can be argued that the war expanded only under the less liberal Johnson, there was much continuity of their cabinets.

As opposition to the war grew, a large portion of that opposition came from within liberal ranks. In 1968, the Dump Johnson movement forced Democratic President Johnson out of the race for his own party's nomination for the presidency. Assassination removed Robert Kennedy from contention and Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention with the presidential nomination of a deeply divided party. The party's right wing had seceded to run Alabamamarker governor George Wallace, and some on the left chose to sit out the election rather than vote for a man so closely associated with the Johnson administration (and with Chicagomarker mayor Richard J. Daley). The result was a narrow victory for Republican Richard Nixon, a man who, although a Californiamarker native, was largely regarded as from the old Northeast Republican Establishment, and quite liberal in many areas. Nixon enacted many liberal policies, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, normalizing relations with Communist Chinamarker, and starting the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to reduce the availability of ballistic missiles.

Nixon and the liberal consensus

While the differences between Nixon and the liberals are obvious – the liberal wing of his own party favored politicians like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton, and Nixon overtly placed an emphasis on "law and order" over civil liberties, and Nixon's Enemies List was composed largely of liberals – in some ways the continuity of many of Nixon's policies with those of the Kennedy-Johnson years is more remarkable than the differences. Pointing at this continuity, Noam Chomsky has called Nixon, "in many respects the last liberal president." [417733]

Although liberals turned increasingly against the Vietnam War, to the point of running the very dovish George McGovern for President in 1972, the war had, as noted above, been of largely liberal origin. Similarly, while many liberals condemned actions such as the Nixon administrations support for the 1973 Chilean coup, it was not entirely dissimilar to the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 or the marine landing in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

The political dominance of the liberal consensus, even into the Nixon years, can best be seen in policies such as 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 the People's Republic of Chinamarker and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union were probably more popular with liberals than with his conservative base.

An opposing view, offered by Cass R. Sunstein, in The Second Bill of Rights (Basic Books, 2004, ISBN 0-465-08332-3) argues that Nixon, through his Supreme Courtmarker appointments, effectively ended a decades-long expansion under U.S. 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.

Liberal consensus, 1970 to the present day

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 U.S. 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 of moderation after the defeat of arch-liberal George McGovern in 1972.

Meanwhile, in the Republican ranks, a new wing of the party emerged. The libertarian Goldwater Republicans laid the groundwork for, and partially fed in to the Reagan Republicans. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was the Republican party's Presidential nominee. More centrist groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) were on equal footing with liberals for control of the Democratic Party in this time. The centrist-liberal alliance of the federal level Democrats lasted through the 1980s, but declined in the 1990s when more conservative political figures sided with the Republican party.
Map of the 2004 U.S. presidential election showing popular votes by county as a color scale from (Red) Republican to (Blue) Democrat


Map of the 2004 U.S. presidential election showing popular votes by county, in which the sizes of counties have been rescaled according to their population.


The voting maps to the right show the outcome of the 2004 presidential election, before and after the population of each county is taken into account.

Quotations by some of the prominent advocates of classical liberalism in early United States of America

Thomas Paine wrote,
"Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil."


John Adams wrote,
"Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right... and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers."


Samuel Adams wrote,
"Driven from every other corner of the earth, freedom of thought and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum."


Patrick Henry wrote,
"That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence,; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.


Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"Were it left to me to have a government with no newspapers, or newspapers with no government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
"Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term... to the general prey of the rich upon the poor."
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."


Some positions associated with liberalism in the United States

  • freedom of speech and the press
  • separation of church and state
  • equal opportunity for all
  • the importance of the working class


In addition to the common ground cited above, some but not all modern American liberals also support one or more of the following:

  • universal health care
  • the welfare state
  • progressive taxation
  • environmentalism
  • moderation in the use of military force
  • support of stricter gun control measures
  • expansion of diplomacy
  • a woman's right to have an abortion
  • legal recognition of same-sex marriage
  • decriminalization of marijuana (and less commonly all illicit substances)
  • reduced military spending


Liberal thinkers and leaders in the United States

Some notable figures in the history of both modern and classical liberalism in the United States include:

Some notable figures in the history of modern liberalism in the United States include:



See also



References

  • Lewis H. Lapham, "Tentacles of Rage" in Harper's, September 2004, p. 31-41.



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