Modern liberalism in the United States

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Modern American liberalism is the dominant version of liberalism in the United States and most other Western countries. It combines liberal ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a mixed economy. The modern liberal philosophy strongly endorses government 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 same-sex marriage, and immigration reform.[1]

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.[2][3][4][5][6][7]

John F. Kennedy defined a liberal as follows:[8][9]

"...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."[10]

Keynesian economic theory has played an important role in the economic philosophy of modern American liberals.[11] 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.[11] They also value institutions that defend against economic inequality. In The Conscience of a Liberal Paul 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."[12] Liberals often point to the widespread prosperity enjoyed under a mixed economy in the years since World War II.[13][14] They believe liberty exists when access to necessities like health care and economic opportunity are available to all,[15] and they champion the protection of the environment.[16][17]

Modern American liberalism is typically associated with the Democratic Party, as modern American conservatism is typically associated with the Republican Party.[18]

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,[19] affirmative action for minority groups historically discriminated against,[20] multilateralism and support for international institutions,[21] support for individual rights over corporate interests,[22] 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.[23]

American versus European use of the term "liberalism"

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."[24] In Europe, liberalism usually means what is sometimes called classical liberalism, a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economics, and sometimes more closely corresponds to the American definition of libertarianism — itself a term which is used differently in Europe (in Europe the term "libertarianism" is often applied to left-libertarianism). This is not consistently the case, as with the Beveridge Group faction within the Liberal Democrats, Liberals (Sweden), Danish Social Liberal Party, the Democratic Movement (France), the Italian Republican Party or the Free Democratic Party of Germany, for example. Also, some distinguish between classical liberalism and libertarianism.[25]

Demographics of American liberals

In early 2016, Gallup Poll found that Liberalism trailed Conservatism and Moderate ideologies, but has slowly been gaining ground since 1992.[26] Gallup Poll found that identification with Conservative ideology leads in America, at 37%, while Moderate ideology is roughly tied, at 35%. Identification with Liberal ideology has been slowly gaining ground in America, but still trails, at 24%.[26]

As it pertains to social liberalism, however, a 2015 Gallup Poll found that Americans' socially liberal views have consistently been on the rise, since 1999.[27] As of 2015, socially liberal Americans and socially conservative Americans are now equally tied, at 31% of the American population, each, as the socially liberal trend continues to rise.[27]

A 2012 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.[28] 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.[29] 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.[30] 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.[31] As of 2009, 30% of the 18-29 cohort was liberal.[31] In 2011, this had changed to 28%, with moderates picking up the two percent.[32]

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.[33] 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."[34]

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."[24]

Some make the distinction between "American classical liberalism" and the "new liberalism."[35]

Progressive Era

The Progressive movement emerged in the 1890s and included intellectual reformers typified by sociologist Lester Frank Ward and economist Richard T. Ely.[36] 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.[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] In philosophy and education John Dewey was highly influential.[40]

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.[41] 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.[42]

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.[43]

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.[44] 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."[45] 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.[46]

Liberal Republicans

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,[47] and supported much of the New Deal. However they were intensely isolationist in foreign policy.[48] This element died out by the 1940s. Starting in the 1930s a number of mostly Northeastern Republicans took liberal positions regarding labor unions, spending and New Deal policies. They included Governor Harold Stassen of Minnesota,[49] Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, Governor Earl Warren of California,[50] 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.[51] The most notable of them all was Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York.[52]

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 moderate[53] Dwight D. Eisenhower over the conservative leader Robert A. Taft in 1952. They were often called the "Eastern Establishment" by conservatives such as Barry Goldwater[54] 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.[55] 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.[56]

The 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 liberal measures.[57] 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.’[58]

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,[59] 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.[60]

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.[61]

Relief, recovery, and reform

The New Deal consisted of three types of programs designed to produce "Relief, Recovery and Reform":[62]

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".[63]


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'[64] Blacks were hired by the WPA as supervisors in the North; however of 10,000 WPA supervisors in the South, only 11 were black.[65] 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.[66] Kinker and Smith argue that "even the most prominent racial liberals in the New Deal did not dare to criticize Jim Crow."[67] 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.[68][69]

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.[70][71]

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.[72] 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.[73]

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.[74]

Most prominent and constant among the positions of Cold War liberalism were:[74]

  • 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.[75]

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[76]

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.[77]

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.[78] Nonetheless, liberals opposed McCarthyism and were central to McCarthy's downfall.[79]

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.”[80]

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.[81] The Korean War made military spending the nation's priority.[82]

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.[83]


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."[84]

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".[85] 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.[86]

Liberal coalition

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.[87] 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,[88] the United Auto Workers (UAW),[89] union lobbyists, and the Committee on Political Education's (COPE),[90] 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.[91]

The main liberal organizations, out of hundreds, included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),[92] 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).[93]

Key liberal leaders in Congress included Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota,[94] Paul Douglas of Illinois,[95] Henry Jackson of Washington,[96] Walter Mondale of Minnesota,[97] and Claude Pepper of Florida in the Senate[98] Leaders in the House included Representatives Frank Thompson of New Jersey, Richard Bolling of Missouri, and other members of the Democratic Study Group.[99] 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.[100]


Intellectuals and writers were an important component of the coalition at this point.[101] 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.[102] Also active in the arena of ideas were literary critics[103] such as Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, economists[104] such as Alvin Hansen, John Kenneth Galbraith,[105] 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.[106] 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.[107] 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.[108]

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.[109] Other experts have traced the relative decline of intellectuals to their concern race, ethnicity, and gender,[110] and scholarly antiquarianism.[111]

Great Society: 1964-68

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.[112][113] 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."[114]

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,[115] 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."[115]

Nevertheless, Nixon largely continued the New Deal and Great Society programs he inherited;[116] conservative reaction would come with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.[117]

Liberals and civil rights

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.[118][119]

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,[citation needed] 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.[119]

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.[120] 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.[121]


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.[122] 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.[123]

Under attack from the 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".[124] This new element, says Kazin, worked to "topple the corrupted liberal order".[125] Indeed, as Maurice Isserman notes, the New Left "came to use the word 'liberal' as a political epithet".[126] Slack (2013) argues that the New Left was, more broadly speaking, the political component of a break with liberalism that took place across several academic fields: philosophy, psychology, and sociology. In philosophy, existentialism and Neo-Marxism rejected the instrumentalism of John Dewey; in psychology, Wilhelm Reich, Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse, and Norman O. Brown rejected Freud's teaching of repression and sublimation; in sociology, C. Wright Mills rejected the pragmatism of John Dewey for the teachings of Max Weber.[127]

The attack was not confined to the United States, as the New Left was a worldwide movement with strength in parts of Western Europe as well as Japan. Massive demonstrations in France, for example, denounced American imperialism and its "helpers" in Western European governments.[128][129]

The main activity of the New Left became Opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War as conducted by liberal President Lyndon Johnson. The anti-war movement escalated the rhetorical heat, as violence broke out on both sides. The climax came in sustained protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Liberals fought back, with Zbigniew Brzezinski, chief foreign policy advisor of the 1968 Humphrey campaign, saying the New Left "threatened American liberalism" in a manner reminiscent of McCarthyism.[130] While the New Left considered Humphrey a war criminal, Nixon attacked him as the New Left's enabler—a man with "a personal attitude of indulgence and permissiveness toward the lawless".[131] Beinart concludes that "with the country divided against itself, contempt for Hubert Humphrey was the one thing on which left and right could agree."[132]

After 1968, the New Left lost strength and the more serious attacks on liberalism came from the Right. Nevertheless, the liberal ideology lost its attractiveness. Liberal commentator E. J. Dionne contends that, "If liberal ideology began to crumble intellectually in the 1960s it did so in part because the New Left represented a highly articulate and able wrecking crew".[133]

Liberals and the Vietnam War

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 1972 Presidential candidate Senator 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.[134]

In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy was liberal in domestic policy but conservative on foreign policy, calling for a more aggressive stance against Communism than his opponent Richard Nixon.

Opposition to the war first emerged from the New Left and from black leaders such as Martin Luther King. By 1967, however, there was growing opposition from within liberal ranks, led in 1968 by Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson announced, in March 1968, that he would not run for reelection, Kennedy and McCarthy fought each other for the nomination, with Kennedy besting McCarthy in a series of Democratic primaries. Then assassination removed Kennedy from the race and Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention with the presidential nomination of a deeply divided party. Meanwhile, Alabama governor George Wallace announced his third-party run, and he pulled in many working-class whites in the rural South and big-city North, most of whom had been staunch Democrats. Liberals, led by the labor unions, focused their attacks on Wallace, while Richard Nixon led a unified Republican Party to victory.


The chaos of 1968, a bitterly divided Democratic Party, and bad blood between the new Left and the liberals, gave Nixon the presidency. Nixon rhetorically attacked liberals, but in practice he enacted many liberal policies and represented the more liberal wing of the GOP. Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order, expanded the national endowments for the arts and the humanities, began affirmative action policies, opened diplomatic relations with Communist China, starting the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to reduce ballistic missile availability, and turned the war over to South Vietnam. He withdrew all American combat troops by 1972, signed a peace treaty in 1973, and ended the draft.[135] Regardless of his policies, liberals hated Nixon and rejoiced when the Watergate scandal forced his resignation in 1974.

While the differences between Nixon and the liberals are obvious—the liberal wing of his own party favored politicians such as 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, New Left leader Noam Chomsky (himself on Nixon's enemies list) has called Nixon, "in many respects the last liberal president."[136]

The political dominance of the liberal consensus even into the Nixon years can best be seen in policies such as the successful establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency or his 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 China 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 Court appointments, effectively ended a decades-long expansion 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.

Labor unions

Labor unions were central components of liberalism, operating through the New Deal Coalition.[137] The unions gave strong support to the Vietnam War, thereby breaking with the blacks and with the intellectual and student wings of liberalism. From time to time dissident groups such as Progressive Alliance, the Citizen-Labor Energy Coalition, and the National Labor Committee broke from the dominant AFL-CIO, which they saw as too conservative. In 1995 the liberals managed to take control of the AFL-CIO, under the leadership of John Sweeney of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Union membership in the private sector has fallen from 33% to 7%, with a resulting decline in political weight. In 2005 the SEIU, now led by Andy Stern broke away from the AFL-CIO to form its own coalition, the Change to Win Federation, to support liberalism, including the Obama agenda, especially health care reform. Stern retired in 2010.[138] Regardless of the loss of numbers, unions have a long tradition and deep experience in organizing, and continue at the state and national level to mobilize forces for a liberal agenda, especially regarding votes for Democrats, taxes, spending, union representation, and the threat to American jobs from foreign trade.[139] Offsetting the decline in the private sector, is a growth of unionization in the public sector. The membership of unions in the public sector, such as teachers, police, and city workers, continues to rise, now covering 42% of local government workers.[140] The financial crisis that hit American states during the recession of 2008-2011 focused increasing attention on pension systems for government employees, with conservatives trying to reduce the pensions.[141]


A new, unexpected political discourse emerged in the 1970s centered on the environment.[142] The debates did not fall neatly into a left-right dimension, for everyone proclaimed their support for the environment. Environmentalism appealed to the well-educated middle class, but aroused fears among lumbermen, farmers, ranchers, blue collar workers, automobile companies and oil companies whose economic interests were threatened by new regulations.[143] Conservatives therefore tended to oppose environmentalism while liberals endorsed new measures to protect the environment.[144] Liberals supported the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, and were sometimes successful in blocking efforts by lumber companies and oil drillers to expand operations. Environmental legislation limited the use of DDT, reduced acid rain, and protected numerous animal and plant species. Within the environmental movement, there was a small radical element that favored direct action rather than legislation.[145] By the 21st century debates over taking major action to reverse global warming by and dealing with carbon emissions were high on the agenda. The environmental movement in the United States has given little support to third parties, unlike Europe, where Green parties play a growing role in politics.[146]

End of the liberal consensus

During the Nixon years (and through the 1970s), the liberal consensus began to come apart with the election of Ronald Reagan marking the election of the first non-Keynsian administration and the first application of supply-side economics. 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. A tide of conservatism rose in response to perceived failures of liberal policies.[147] Organized labor, long a bulwark of the liberal consensus, was past the peak of its power in the US and many unions had remained in favor of the Vietnam War even as liberal politicians increasingly turned against it.

In 1980 the leading liberal was Senator Ted Kennedy; he challenged incumbent President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic Party presidential nomination because Carter's failures had disenchanted liberals. Kennedy was decisively defeated, and in turn Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan.

Historians often use 1979-80 to date a philosophical realignment within the American electorate away from Democratic liberalism and toward Reagan Era conservatism.[148][149] However, some liberals hold a minority view that there was no real shift and that Kennedy's defeat was merely by historical accident caused by his poor campaign, international crises and Carter's use of the incumbency.[150]

Abrams (2006) argues that the eclipse of liberalism was caused by a grass-roots populist revolt, often with a Fundamentalist and anti-modern theme, abetted by corporations eager to weaken labor unions and the regulatory regime of the New Deal. The success of liberalism in the first place, he argues, came from efforts of a liberal elite that had entrenched itself in key social, political, and especially judicial positions. These elites, Abrams contends, imposed their brand of liberalism from within some of the least democratic and most insulated institutions, especially the universities, foundations, independent regulatory agencies, and the Supreme Court. With only a weak popular base, liberalism was vulnerable to a populist counterrevolution by the nation's democratic or majoritarian forces.[151]

Clinton Administration and the Third Way

The term Third Way refers to various political positions which try to reconcile right-wing and left-wing politics by advocating a varying synthesis of right-wing economic and left-wing social policies.[152] Third Way was created as a serious re-evaluation of political policies within various center-left progressive movements in response to the ramifications of the collapse of international belief in the economic viability of the state economic interventionist policies that had previously been popularized by Keynesianism; and the corresponding rise of popularity for neoliberalism and the New Right.[153] It supports the pursuit of greater egalitarianism in society through action to increase the distribution of skills, capacities, and productive endowments, while rejecting income redistribution as the means to achieve this.[154] It emphasizes commitment to: balanced budgets, providing equal opportunity combined with an emphasis on personal responsibility, decentralization of government power to the lowest level possible, encouragement of public-private partnerships, improving labor supply, investment in human development, protection of social capital, and protection of the environment.[155]

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, adherents of the Third Way

In the United States, Third Way adherents embrace fiscal conservatism to a greater extent than traditional social liberals, and advocate some replacement of welfare with workfare, and sometimes have a stronger preference for market solutions to traditional problems (as in pollution markets), while rejecting pure laissez-faire economics and other libertarian positions. The Third Way style of governing was firmly adopted and partly redefined during the administration of President Bill Clinton.[156] With respect to U.S. presidents, the term "Third Way" was introduced by political scientist Stephen Skowronek, who wrote The Politics Presidents Make (1993, 1997;ISBN 0-674-68937-2)[157][158] Third Way presidents "undermine the opposition by borrowing policies from it in an effort to seize the middle and with it to achieve political dominance. Think of Nixon's economic policies, which were a continuation of Johnson's "Great Society"; Clinton's welfare reform and support of capital punishment; and Obama's pragmatic centrism, reflected in his embrace, albeit very recent, of entitlements reform.[159]

After Tony Blair came to power in the UK, Clinton, Blair and other leading Third Way adherents organized conferences to promote the Third Way philosophy in 1997 at Chequers in England.[160][161] The Third Way think tank and the Democratic Leadership Council are adherents of Third Way politics.[162] In 2004, several veteran U.S. Democrats founded a new think tank in Washington, D.C., called Third Way, which bills itself as a "strategy center for progressives".[163]

The Third Way has been heavily criticized by many social democrats, democratic socialists and communists in particular as a betrayal of left-wing values. The Democratic Leadership Council shut down in 2011. Commenting on the DLC's waning influence, Politico characterized it as "the iconic centrist organization of the Clinton years" that "had long been fading from its mid-'90s political relevance, tarred by the left as a symbol of 'triangulation' at a moment when there's little appetite for intra-party warfare on the center-right".[164]

Specific definitions of third way policies may differ between Europe and America.[165]

Return of protest politics

Republican and staunch mainstream conservative George W. Bush won the 2000 United States president election in a tightly contested race that included multiple recounts in the state of Florida.[166] The outcome was tied up in courts for a month until reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.[167] On December 9, in a controversial ruling[168] the Bush v. Gore case the Court reversed a Florida Supreme Court decision ordering a third recount, essentially ending the dispute and resulting in Bush winning the presidency by electoral vote even though he lost the popular vote to Democrat and incumbent Vice President Al Gore.[169]

Bush's policies were deeply unpopular amongst American liberals, particularly his launching of the Iraq War, which led to the return of massive protest politics in the form of Opposition to the War in Iraq. Bush's approval rating went below the 50% mark in AP-Ipsos polling in December 2004.[170] Thereafter, his approval ratings and approval of his handling of domestic and foreign policy issues steadily dropped. Bush received heavy criticism for his handling of the Iraq War, his response to Hurricane Katrina and to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse, NSA warrantless surveillance, the Plame affair, and Guantanamo Bay detention camp controversies.[171] Polls conducted in 2006 showed an average of 37% approval ratings for Bush,[172] which contributed to what Bush called the "thumping" of the Republican Party in the 2006 midterm elections.[173]

When the financial system verged on total collapse during the 2008 financial crisis, Bush pushed through large-scale rescue packages for banks and auto companies that some conservatives in Congress did not support and led some conservative commentators to criticize Bush for enacting legislation they saw as "not conservative" and more reminiscent of New Deal liberal ideology.[174][175][176]

In part due to backlash against the Bush administration, Barack Obama, seen by some as a liberal and progressive,[177] was elected to the presidency, the first African-American to hold the office. With a clear Democratic majority in both houses of Congress, Obama managed to pass a $814 billion stimulus spending program, new regulations on investment firms, and a law to expand health insurance coverage.[178] However, led by the Tea Party movement, the Republicans won back control of one of the two houses of Congress in the 2010 elections.[179]

In reaction to ongoing financial crisis that began in 2008, protest politics continued into the Obama administration, most notably in the form of Occupy Wall Street.[180] The main issues at the time were social and economic inequality, greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations on government—particularly from the financial services sector. The OWS slogan, "We are the 99%", addressed the growing income inequality and wealth distribution in the U.S. between the wealthiest 1% and the rest of the population. Although some of these were cited by liberal activists and Democrats, this information did not fully become a center of national attention until it was used as one of the ideas behind the OWS movement.[181] A survey by Fordham University Department of Political Science found the protester's political affiliations to be overwhelmingly left-leaning: 25% Democrat, 2% Republican, 11% Socialist, 11% Green Party, 12% Other, and 39% independent.[182] While the survey also found that 80% of the protestors self-identified as slightly to extremely liberal,[182] Occupy Wall Street, and the broader Occupy movement, was variously classified as a "liberation from liberalism" and even as having principles that "arise from scholarship on anarchy".[180][183]

During a news conference on October 6, 2011, President Obama said, "I think it expresses the frustrations the American people feel, that we had the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, huge collateral damage all throughout the country...and yet you're still seeing some of the same folks who acted irresponsibly trying to fight efforts to crack down on the abusive practices that got us into this in the first place."[184][185] Some of the protests were seen as an attempt to address the Obama administration's "double standard" in dealing with Wall Street.[186]

The "Great Awokening"

Obama was re-elected president in November 2012, defeating Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and was sworn in for a second term on January 20, 2013. During his second term, Obama promoted domestic policies related to gun control in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and called for full equality for LGBT Americans, while his administration filed briefs which urged the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 and California's Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.

The shooting of Michael Brown and death of Eric Garner led to widespread protests (particularly in Ferguson where Brown was shot) against perceived police militarization more generally and alleged police brutality against African-Americans more specifically.[187][188][189]

"Liberal" as a derogatory epithet

Since the 1970s, there has been a concerted effort from both the left and right to color the word "liberal" with negative connotations. As those efforts succeeded more and more, Liberals increasingly: cells "progressives" and their opponents took advantage of the negative meaning to great effect. In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George H.W. Bush joked about his opponent's refusal to own up to the “L-word label.” When Michael Dukakis finally did declare himself a liberal, the Boston Globe headlined the story, “Dukakis Uses L-Word."[190]

Conservative activists since the 1970s have employed "liberal" as an epithet, giving it an ominous or sinister connotation, while invoking phrases like "free enterprise", "individual rights", "patriotic", and "the American way" to describe opponents of liberalism.[191] Historian John Lukacs noted in 2004 that then-President George W. Bush, confident that many Americans regarded "liberal" as a pejorative term, used it to label his political opponents during campaign speeches, while his opponents subsequently avoided identifying themselves as liberal.[192]

Ronald Reagan's ridicule of liberalism is credited with transforming "liberal" into a derogatory epithet that any politician seeking national office would avoid.[192][193] His speechwriters repeatedly contrasted "liberals" and "real Americans". For example, Reagan's then-Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt said "I never use the words Republicans and Democrats. It's liberals and Americans." Reagan warned the United States of modern secularists who condoned abortion, excused teenage sexuality, opposed school prayer, and attenuated traditional American values. His conviction that there existed a single proper personal behavior, religious worldview, economic system, and proper attitude toward nations and peoples not supporting U.S. interests worldwide, is credited by comparative literature scholar Betty Jean Craige with polarizing America. Reagan persuaded a large portion of the public to dismiss any sincere analyses of his administration's policies as politically motivated criticisms put forth by what he labeled a "liberal" media.[193]

George H. W. Bush employed the word "liberal" as a derogatory epithet during his 1988 presidential campaign.[194] Bush described himself as a patriot, and described his liberal opponents as unpatriotic. He referred to liberalism as "the L-word" and sought to demonize opposing presidential candidate Michael Dukakis by labeling Dukakis "the liberal governor" and by pigeonholing him as part of what Bush called "the L-crowd". Bush recognized that motivating voters to fear Dukakis as a risky, non-mainstream candidate generated political support for his own campaign. Bush's campaign also used issues of prayer to arouse suspicions that Dukakis was less devout in his religious convictions. Bush's running mate, vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle said to Christians at the 1988 Republican National Convention "It's always good to be with people who are real Americans".[193] Bill Clinton avoided association with "liberal" as a political label during his 1992 presidential campaign against George H. W. Bush by moving closer to the political center.[194]

Reactions to shift

Liberal Republicans have voiced disappointment over conservative attacks on liberalism. One example is former governor of Minnesota and founder of the Liberal Republican Club Elmer L. Andersen, who commented that it's "unfortunate today that 'liberal' is used as a derogatory term".[195] After the 1980s, fewer activists and politicians were willing to characterize themselves as liberals. Historian Kevin Boyle explains, "There was a time when liberalism was, in Arthur Schlesinger's words 'a fighting faith' ... Over the last three decades, though, liberalism has become an object of ridicule, condemned for its misplaced idealism, vilified for its tendency to equivocate and compromise, and mocked for its embrace of political correctness. Now even the most ardent reformers run from the label, fearing the damage it will inflict".[196] Republican political consultant Arthur J. Finkelstein was recognized by Democratic political consultants for having employed a formula of branding someone as a liberal and engaging in name-calling by using the word "liberal" in negative television commercials as frequently as possible, such as in a 1996 ad against U.S. Representative Jack Reed: "That's liberal. That's Jack Reed. That's wrong. Call liberal Jack Reed and tell him his record on welfare is just too liberal for you."[197]

Democratic candidates and political liberals have hidden from the word "liberal", in some cases identifying instead with terms such as "progressive" or "moderate".[198][199] George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney accused their opponents of liberal elitism, softness, and pro-terrorism in attempts to frighten voters.[200] Conservative political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh consistently used "liberal" as a pejorative label. When liberals shifted to the word "progressive" to describe their beliefs, conservative radio host Glenn Beck used "progressive" as an abusive label.[201] Historian Godfrey Hodgson notes "The word liberal itself has fallen into disrepute. Nothing is too bad for conservative bloggers and columnists—let alone radio hosts—to say about liberals. Democrats themselves run a mile from the 'L word' for fear of being seen as dangerously outside the mainstream. Conservative politicians and publicists, by dint of associating liberals with all manner of absurdity so that many sensible people hesitated to risk being tagged with the label of liberalism, succeeded in persuading the country that it was more conservative than it actually was."[202]

Labels vs. beliefs

Liberal historian Eric Alterman notes that barely 20% of Americans are willing to accept "liberal" as a political label, but that supermajorities of Americans actually favor "liberal" positions time and again. Alterman points out that resistance to the label "liberal" is not surprising due to billions of dollars worth of investment poured into the denigration of the term. A 2004 poll conducted by the National Election Study found only 35% of respondents questioned identifying as liberal compared to 55% identifying as conservative; a 2004 Pew poll found 19% of respondents identifying as liberal, and 39% identifying as conservative, with the balance identifying as moderate. A 2006 poll found that 19% identified as liberal, and 36% conservative. In 2005, self-identifying moderates polled by Louis Harris & Associates were found to share essentially the same political beliefs as self-identifying liberals, but rejected the world "liberal" because of the vilification heaped on the word itself by conservatives. Alterman acknowledges political scientist Drew Westen's observation that for most Americans, the word "liberal" now carries meanings such as "elite", "tax and spend", and "out of touch".[200]

Philosophy of modern liberalism

Free speech

American liberals describe themselves as open to change and receptive to new ideas.[203] For example, liberals typically accept scientific ideas that some conservatives reject, such as evolution and global warming.[204]

Liberals tend to oppose the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 that a corporation's first amendment right to free speech encompasses freedom to donate to any political party, politician or lobbyist as they see fit. President Obama called it "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans".[205]

Opposition to state socialism

In general, liberalism opposes socialism when socialism is understood to mean an alternative to capitalism based on state ownership of the means of production. American liberals doubt that bases for political opposition and freedom can survive when all power is vested in the state, as it was under state-socialist regimes. In line with the general pragmatic, empirical basis of liberalism, American liberal philosophy embraces the idea that if substantial abundance and equality of opportunity can be achieved through a system of mixed ownership, then there is no need for a rigid and oppressive bureaucracy.[24] Some liberal public intellectuals have, since the 1950s, moved further toward the general position that free markets, when appropriately regulated, can provide better solutions than top-down economic planning. Economist Paul Krugman argued that in hitherto-state-dominated functions such as nation-scale energy distribution and telecommunications, marketizations can improve efficiency dramatically.[206] He also defended a monetary policy—inflation targeting—saying that it "most nearly approaches the usual goal of modern stabilization policy, which is to provide adequate demand in a clean, unobtrusive way that does not distort the allocation of resources". (These distortions are of a kind that war-time and post-war Keynesian economists had accepted as an inevitable byproduct of fiscal policies that selectively reduced certain consumer taxes and directed spending toward government-managed stimulus projects—even where these economists theorized at a contentious distance from some of Keynes's own, more hands-off, positions, which tended to emphasize stimulating of business investment.[207]) Thomas Friedman is a liberal journalist who, like Paul Krugman, generally defends free trade as more likely to improve the lot of both rich and poor countries.[208][209]

Role of the state

There is a fundamental split among liberals as to the role of the state. Historian H. W. Brands notes "the growth of the state is, by perhaps the most common definition, the essence of modern American liberalism".[210] But according to Paul Starr, "Liberal constitutions impose constraints on the power of any single public official or branch of government as well as the state as a whole."[211]


According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, liberal philosophy is based on five basic categories of morality. The first, the promotion of fairness, is generally described as an emphasis on empathy as a desirable trait. With this social contract based on the Golden Rule comes the rationale for many liberal positions. The second category is assistance to those who cannot assist themselves. A nurturing, philanthropic spirit is one that is considered good in liberal philosophy. This leads to the third category, the desire to protect those who cannot defend themselves. The fourth category is the importance of fulfilling one's life; allowing a person to experience all that they can. The fifth and final category is the importance of caring for oneself, since only thus can one act to help others.[212]

Modern liberal thinkers and leaders in the United States

See also


  1. Hugo Helco, in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, "In (the 1970s) the American government began telling Americans what they could and could not do with regard to abortions, capital punishment, and bilingual education. The 1970s also brought new and more sweeping national regulations to deal with environmental challenges, consumer protection, workplace safety, gender discrimination, the rights of those with disabilities, and political spending.", p. 58, Sidney M. Milkis & Jerome M. Mileur, editors, University of Massachusetts Press, 2005, ISBN 978-1-55849-493-0
  2. The Center for American Progress, "The Progressive Intellectual Tradition in America," [1]"
  3. Matthew Yglesias. "The Trouble With "Progressive"". The Atlantic.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Eric Rauchway, "What's The Difference Between Progressives And Liberals?" The New Republic, [2]
  5. Michael Lind, "Is it OK to be liberal again, instead of progressive?" Salon, [3]
  6. The New Republic. "Naming Names". The New Republic.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Thomas Nagel, "Progressive but Not Liberal", The New York Review of Books
  8. Eric Alterman, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America (2008) p. 32
  9. Authur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, John F. Kennedy in the White House, p. 99, Mariner Books, 2002, ISBN 978-0-618-21927-8.
  10. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1941). Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: F.D. Roosevelt, 1938, Volume 7. p. xxix.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 Kevin Boyle, The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (1998) p. 152
  12. Paul Krugman (2009). The Conscience of a Liberal. W. W. Norton. p. 267.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Moyra Grant, Key Ideas in Politics (Nelson Thornes, 2003) p 12.
  14. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction (Houndmills: Macmillan Press, 1998), 93.
  15. Larry E. Sullivan. The SAGE glossary of the social and behavioral sciences (2009) p 291, "This liberalism favors a generous welfare state and a greater measure of social and economic equality. Liberty thus exists when all citizens have access to basic necessities such as education, health care, and economic opportunities."
  16. John McGowan, American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (2007)
  17. Starr P. (March 1, 2007). "War and Liberalism." The New Republic.""Starr, P. (1 March 2007). "War and Liberalism". The New Republic". Retrieved August 2, 2007.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> "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."
  18. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "More Now See GOP as Very Conservative" Pew press release September 12, 2011, online
  19. Dawn E. Johnsen, "A Progressive Reproductive Rights Agenda for 2020," in J. M. Balkin, ed. The Constitution in 2020 (2009) pp. 255-66
  20. Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkis, American Government: Balancing Democracy and Rights (2008) p. 696; Thomas R. Hensley, The Rehnquist Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy (1986–2001) (2006) p. 311
  21. Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (2010) p. xx
  22. Stephen Brooks, Understanding American Politics (2009) p. 297
  23. Lawrence R. Jacobs and Theda Skocpol, Health Care Reform and American Politics (2010) p. 96
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  210. H. W. Brands, review, in Journal of American History March 2008, Vol. 94 Issue 4, p 1227
  211. Paul Starr, Freedom's Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism, Basic Books, 2008, ISBN 978-0-465-08187-5
  212. George Lakeoff, Moral Politics, 2002

Further reading

  • Abrams, Richard M. America Transformed: Sixty Years of Revolutionary Change, 1941–2001 (2006)
  • Alterman, Eric, and Kevin Mattson. The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (2012) biographical approach to general survey excerpt and text search
  • Battista, Andrew. The Revival of Labor Liberalism (2008) 268 pp. ISBN 978-0-252-03232-5
  • Bell, Jonathan and Timothy Stanley, eds. Making Sense of American Liberalism (2012) 272pp excerpt and text search, 10 historical essays by experts
  • Boyle, Kevin. The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism 1945–1968 (1995) on the UAW (auto workers)
  • Brands, H.W. The Strange Death of American Liberalism (2003); brief survey of all of American history.
  • Conn, Steven, ed. To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press; 2012) 233 pages;
  • Cronin, James, George Ross, and James Shoch, eds. What's Left of the Left: Democrats and Social Democrats in Challenging Times (Duke University Press; 2011); 413 pages; essays on how center-left political parties have fared in Europe and the U.S. since the 1970s.
  • Dionne, E.J. They Only Look Dead; Why Progressives will Dominate the Next Political Era (1996)
  • Feingold, Henry L. American Jewish Political Culture and the Liberal Persuasion (Syracuse University Press; 2014) 384 pages; traces the history, dominance, and motivations of liberalism in the American Jewish political culture, and look at concerns about Israel and memories of the Holocaust.
  • Hamby, Alonzo. Liberalism and Its Challengers: From F.D.R. to Bush (1992), by leading historian
  • Hamby, Alonzo L. "The Vital Center, the Fair Deal, and the Quest for a Liberal Political Economy." American Historical Review (1972): 653–678. in JSTOR
  • Hart, Gary. Restoration of the Republic: The Jeffersonian Ideal in 21st century America (2002) by a leading Democrat
  • Hayward, Steven F. The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964–1980 (2009), a conservative interpretation
  • Hays, Samuel P. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (1987)
  • Jumonville, Neil. Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present (1999); Professor Henry Steele Commager (1902–1998) was a prolific historian and commentator
  • Kazin, Michael. American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011)
  • Kramnick, Isaac and Theodore Lowi. American Political Thought (2006), textbook and reader
  • McKee, Guian A. The Problem of Jobs: Liberalism, Race, and Deindustrialization in Philadelphia (2008)
  • Matusow, Allen J. The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (1984), by leading historian.
  • Nevins, Paul L. The Politics of Selfishness: How John Locke's Legacy is Paralzying America. (Praeger, 2010)
  • Parker, Richard. John Kenneth Galbraith: His Life, His Politics, His Economics (2006); biography of a leading intellectual of 1940s-1960s
  • Rossinow, Doug. Visions of Progress: The Left-Liberal Tradition in America (2008)
  • Starr. Paul. Freedom's Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism (2007), by a leading liberal scholar
  • Stein, Herbert. Presidential Economics: The Making of Economic Policy From Roosevelt to Clinton (3rd ed. 1994)
  • Sugrue, Thomas J. Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2009)
  • Willard, Charles Arthur. Liberalism and the Problem of Knowledge: A New Rhetoric for Modern Democracy (1996); debunks liberalism, arguing that its exaggerated ideals of authenticity, unity, and community have deflected attention from the pervasive incompetence of "the rule of experts."
  • Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974–2008 (2008), by a leading liberal.

es:Liberalismo moderno en los Estados Unidos

fr:Libéralisme contemporain aux États-Unis it:Liberalismo negli Stati Uniti d'America no:Amerikansk liberalisme sv:Amerikansk liberalism