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American politics
07.23.04
Politics and Economy:
Defining Liberals
More on This Story:
The Landscape of American Political Discourse

Since the 1930s, the landscape of American political discourse has been framed by the words liberal versus conservative. In this era, U.S. commentators first began to speak of American politics in terms of the spectrum of left, right and center, words previously used chiefly to describe foreign politics or the factions of radical movements.
— Geoffrey Nunberg, "The Liberal Label," THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, September 2003

To many, the term "liberal" is merely the contrast to "conservative" in modern political face-offs. Frequently, the terms are used in place of "Democrat" and "Republican" in the general lexicon. But how did those words come to be nearly synonomous? And how has their connotation changed over American political history? Read on to learn more about Defining Liberals and The Roots of Conservatism.

What is Liberalism?

The American liberal tradition is rooted in the 17th and 18th century English political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. A collective reading of their works would yield the following two major principles defining free-market liberalism:

  • The state exists primarily to preserve private property.
  • Markets, left alone, function with optimum allocative efficiency.

Today, this kind of thinking is generally thought of as "classical" or "laissez-faire" liberalism and has little to do with the values associated with modern liberals. In part, this has to do with a paradigm shift during the Progressive Era, roughly 1900-1920. According to the OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY, government emerged at this time as the "benevolent guardian of individual liberties against laissez-faire capitalism run amok." Such thinking brought about reform at the state level in child labor laws and shielded small businesses from unfair monopolies.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal furthered the evolution of liberalism during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Bringing focus away from individual property rights, The New Deal instead emphasized governance on behalf of the public good. THE OXFORD COMPANION explains, "Throughout his presidency, Roosevelt stressed liberalism's secondary dictionary definitions: generous support for those in need and a broad-minded tolerance for diversity, in stark contrast to the rise of totalitarianism elsewhere."

Roosevelt saw liberalism and conservatism as the "two general schools of political belief," a characterization that only solidified further as liberals continued to champion the state as an active agent for the promotion of individual well-being and social equality.

During the 1960s, Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society initiative further distanced liberalism from its Lockean roots. The initiative used new programs in welfare, Medicare and Medicaid, consumer protection, and civil rights, to extend the benefits of economic growth more evenly to all citizens. But as the public became divided over issues like the Vietnam War and Watergate in the years that followed, it began to lose confidence as government actions seemed inconsistent with liberal ideals.

By the 1980s and 1990s, liberalism had lost favor, and left-leaning politicians reacted by avoiding the term; in recent years, the term "liberal" has become a disparaging label. A CBS/NEW YORK TIMES poll cited by Nunberg showed that "just 22 percent of respondents were willing to describe themselves as liberals, against 35 percent who described themselves as conservatives." But when placed side by side with surveys outlining their political stance, Nunberg concludes, "a lot of people who call themselves moderates hold what most would describe as liberal views."

Politicians on the Democratic left often dodge the word. In his interview with David Brancaccio, George Lakoff explains that he more often uses the word "progressive" since "liberal" has been "branded by the other side." Jim Peron, executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values in Johannesburg, South Africa wrote in a 2002 article for THE FREEMAN: IDEAS ON LIBERTY, a publication of the Foundation for Economic Education:

Liberals have it tough. I mean the real liberals. Not the modern watered-down socialists who call themselves liberals, but real honest classical liberals. There is so much confusion over the term "liberal," and real ones have allowed fake ones to get away with this subtle destruction of the language.

Despite the competing meanings of the term, liberalism remains, according to the OXFORD COMPANION, "a focal point of Americans' efforts to balance the benefits of capitalism with larger moral and ethical priorities."

Contrast the principles of liberalism with modern-day conservatism.

Sources: THE OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY; THE FREEMAN; THE AMERICAN PROSPECT; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy; The Columbia Encyclopedia; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language


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