Liberalism in the United States

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Liberalism in the United States is a broad political philosophy centered on what many see as the unalienable rights of the individual. The fundamental liberal ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion for all belief systems and the separation of church and state, right to due process and equality under the law are widely accepted as a common foundation across the spectrum of liberal thought.

Political philosophy sub-discipline of philosophy and political science

Political philosophy, also known as political theory, is the study of topics such as politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority: what they are, if they are needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government, if any, and when it may be legitimately overthrown, if ever.

Individual person or a specific object

An individual is that which exists as a distinct entity. Individuality is the state or quality of being an individual; particularly of being a person separate from other people and possessing their own needs or goals, rights and responsibilities. The exact definition of an individual is important in the fields of biology, law, and philosophy.

Liberalism is a political and moral philosophy based on liberty and equal rights. Liberals espouse a wide array of views depending on their understanding of these principles, but they generally support limited government, individual rights, capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion.


Modern liberalism in the United States includes issues such as same-sex marriage, reproductive and other women's rights, voting rights for all adult citizens, civil rights, environmental justice and government protection of freedom from want. [1] National social services such as equal education opportunities, access to health care and transportation infrastructure are intended to meet the responsibility to promote the general welfare of all citizens as established by the Constitution. Some American liberals, who call themselves classical liberals, fiscal conservatives, or libertarians, support fundamental liberal ideals, but diverge from modern liberal thought, holding that economic freedom is more important than equality and that providing for the general welfare exceeds the legitimate role of government. [2]

Modern liberalism in the United States is the dominant version of liberalism in the United States. It combines ideas of civil liberty and equality with support for social justice and a mixed economy. According to Ian Adams, all American parties are "liberal and always have been. Essentially, they espouse classical liberalism—that is, a form of democratized Whig constitutionalism, plus the free market. The point of difference comes with the influence of social liberalism". Economically, modern American liberalism opposes cuts to the social safety net and supports a role for government in reducing inequality, providing education, ensuring access to healthcare, regulating economic activity and protecting the natural environment. This form of liberalism took shape in the 20th century United States as the franchise and other civil rights were extended to a larger class of citizens. Major examples include 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.

Same-sex marriage in the United States expanded from one state in 2004 to all fifty states in 2015 through various state court rulings, state legislation, direct popular votes, and federal court rulings. Same-sex marriage is also referred to as gay marriage, while the political status in which the marriages of same-sex couples and the marriages of opposite-sex couples are recognized as equal by the law is referred to as marriage equality. The fifty states each have separate marriage laws, which must adhere to rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States that recognize marriage as a fundamental right that is guaranteed by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as first established in the 1967 landmark civil rights case of Loving v. Virginia.

Reproductive rights are legal rights and freedoms relating to reproduction and reproductive health that vary amongst countries around the world. The World Health Organization defines reproductive rights as follows:

Reproductive rights rest on the recognition of the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. They also include the right of all to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

Since the 1930s, the term liberalism (without a qualifier) usually refers in the United States to modern liberalism, a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and later Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. It is a form of social liberalism, whose accomplishments include the Works Progress Administration and the Social Security Act in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Franklin D. Roosevelt 32nd president of the United States

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often referred to by his initials FDR, was an American statesman and political leader who served as the 32nd president of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. A Democrat, he won a record four presidential elections and became a central figure in world events during the first half of the 20th century. Roosevelt directed the federal government during most of the Great Depression, implementing his New Deal domestic agenda in response to the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. As a dominant leader of his party, he built the New Deal Coalition, which realigned American politics into the Fifth Party System and defined American liberalism throughout the middle third of the 20th century. His third and fourth terms were dominated by World War II. Roosevelt is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in American history, as well as among the most influential figures of the 20th century. Though he has also been subject to much criticism, he is generally rated by scholars as one of the three greatest U.S. presidents, along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

New Deal Economic programs of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt

The New Deal was a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms, and regulations enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States between 1933 and 1936. It responded to needs for relief, reform, and recovery from the Great Depression. Major federal programs included the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Farm Security Administration (FSA), the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 (NIRA) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). They provided support for farmers, the unemployed, youth and the elderly. The New Deal included new constraints and safeguards on the banking industry and efforts to re-inflate the economy after prices had fallen sharply. New Deal programs included both laws passed by Congress as well as presidential executive orders during the first term of the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Lyndon B. Johnson 36th president of the United States

Lyndon Baines Johnson, often referred to as LBJ, was an American politician who served as the 36th president of the United States from 1963 to 1969. Formerly the 37th vice president of the United States from 1961 to 1963, he assumed the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A Democrat from Texas, Johnson also served as a United States Representative and as the Majority Leader in the United States Senate. Johnson is one of only four people who have served in all four federal elected positions.

According to Louis Hartz, liberalism in the United States differs from liberalism elsewhere in the world because the United States never had a resident hereditary aristocracy [3] and as such avoided much of the class warfare that swept Europe. [4] According to Ian Adams, all American parties are "liberal and always have been. Essentially, they espouse classical liberalism—that is, a form of democratized Whig constitutionalism, plus the free market. The point of difference comes with the influence of social liberalism". [5]

Louis Hartz was an American political scientist and influential liberal proponent of the idea of American exceptionalism.

Aristocracy (class) person who either possess hereditary titles granted by a monarch or are related to such people

The aristocracy is a social class that a particular society considers its highest order. In many states, the aristocracy included the upper class of people (aristocrats) with hereditary rank and titles. In some—such as ancient Greece, Rome, and India—aristocratic status came from belonging to a military caste, although it has also been common, notably in African societies, for aristocrats to belong to priestly dynasties. Aristocratic status can involve feudal or legal privileges. They are usually below only the monarch of a country or nation in its social hierarchy. In modern European societies, the aristocracy has often coincided with the nobility, a specific class that arose in the Middle Ages, but the term "aristocracy" is sometimes also applied to other elites, and is used as a more generic term when describing earlier and non-European societies.

Class conflict tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests

Class conflict is the political tension and economic antagonism that exists in society consequent to socio-economic competition among the social classes. In the political philosophies of Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin]], class struggle is a central tenet and a practical means for effecting radical social and political changes for the social majority.


Prominent liberals in the United States include, from left to right and top to bottom: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Krugman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor Liberalism in the United States Collage.png
Prominent liberals in the United States include, from left to right and top to bottom: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Krugman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor

The origins of American liberalism lie in the political ideals of the Age of Enlightenment. [6] The Constitution of the United States of 1787 set up the first modern republic, with sovereignty in the people (not in a monarch) and no hereditary ruling aristocracy. However, the Constitution limited liberty, in particular by accepting slavery. The Founding Fathers recognized the contradiction, but they needed a nation strong enough to survive in the world. [7]

Age of Enlightenment European cultural movement of the 18th century

The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".

A republic is a form of government in which the country is considered a “public matter”, not the private concern or property of the rulers. The primary positions of power within a republic are not inherited, but are attained through democracy, oligarchy or autocracy. It is a form of government under which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch.

Slavery in the United States Form of slave labor which existed as a legal institution from the early years of the United States

Slavery in the United States was the legal institution of human chattel enslavement, primarily of Africans and African Americans, that existed in the United States of America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slavery had been practiced in British America from early colonial days, and was legal in all Thirteen Colonies at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It lasted in about half the states until 1865, when it was prohibited nationally by the Thirteenth Amendment. As an economic system, slavery was largely replaced by sharecropping.

From the time of the American Revolution to the present day, the United States has extended liberty to ever broader classes of people. The states abolished many restrictions on voting for white males in the early 19th century. The Constitution was amended in 1865 to abolish slavery, in 1870 to extend the vote to black men, in 1920 to extend the vote to women and in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18. The civil rights movement and new federal laws in 1964 and 1965 overthrew the Jim Crow system of the South that had relegated blacks to second-class citizenship since the 1890s. [8]

American Revolution Colonial revolt in which the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain

The American Revolution was a colonial revolt that took place between 1765 and 1783. The American Patriots in the Thirteen Colonies won independence from Great Britain, becoming the United States of America. They defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) in alliance with France and others.

Civil rights movement Social movement in the United States during the 20th century

The civil rights movement in the United States was a decades-long struggle with the goal of enforcing constitutional and legal rights for African Americans that other Americans already enjoyed. With roots that dated back to the Reconstruction era during the late 19th century, the movement achieved its largest legislative gains in the mid-1960s, after years of direct actions and grassroots protests that were organized from the mid-1950s until 1968. Encompassing strategies, various groups, and organized social movements to accomplish the goals of ending legalized racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and discrimination in the United States, the movement, using major nonviolent campaigns, eventually secured new recognition in federal law and federal protection for all Americans.

Thomas Jefferson believed that the United States should remain a nation of small farmers. [9] As the United States economy began shifting to manufacturing and services, liberals started to view corruption and monopolies (called trusts at the time) as threats to liberty. [10] [11] During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, laws were passed restricting monopolies and regulating railroad rates. [12] [13] According to James Reichley, it was during this era that the term liberal took on its current meaning. [14] Prior to the early 1900s, the term had usually described classical liberalism, which emphasizes limited government and the free market. [14] During the 1920s, the term progressive became associated with politicians such as Robert M. La Follette, who called for government ownership of railroads and utilities in his 1924 third-party presidential bid; [14] and Theodore Roosevelt, who came out of retirement to run again for president under a third party called Progressive Party. Political figures such as Franklin D. Roosevelt later adopted the term liberal to describe an individual in favor of some government activism, but opposed to more radical reforms. [14]

After 1933, modern liberals used the New Deal to provide jobs during the Great Depression. The Social Security Act of 1935 provided retirement and disability income for Americans unable to work or unable to find jobs. [15] In the Social Security Act of 1965, this was extended to provide benefits for Americans unable to work due to illness.

A reaction against modern American liberalism began with Barry Goldwater in the 1960s. Deregulation began in the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan successfully lowered marginal tax rates, most notably for those at the top of the income distribution while his Social Security reforms raised taxes on the middle and bottom of the income distribution, leaving their total tax burden unchanged. [16] [17] Democratic President Bill Clinton (1993–2001) worked with conservatives and against strong liberal opposition to end some of the main welfare programs and to implement NAFTA, linking the economies of the United States, Canada and Mexico.[ relevant? ] Clinton pushed to extend liberal ideals in the areas of health care (where he failed) and environmental protection (where he had more success). On the whole, he came under fierce attack from the left and from many liberals who charged that he betrayed the New Deal traditions of activist government, especially regarding welfare and his collaboration with business. [18]


Early liberalism

The United States was the first country to be founded on the liberal ideas of John Locke and other philosophers of the Enlightenment, with no monarchy, no hereditary aristocracy and no established religion. The United States Bill of Rights guarantees every citizen the freedoms advocated by the liberal philosophers, namely equality under the law, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to gather in peaceful assembly, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances and the right to bear arms, among other freedoms and rights. In this sense, virtually all Americans are liberals. However, both before and after the country was founded legal questions concerning the scope of these rights and freedoms arose. In the Dred Scott decision of 1856–1857, the Supreme Court ruled that these rights only applied to white men and that blacks had no rights whatsoever that any white man was obliged to respect. Several constitutional amendments after the Dred Scott decision extended the guarantees of the Bill of Rights to larger classes of citizens, to all citizens in 1868, then specifically to blacks in 1870, to women in 1919 and to people unable to afford a poll tax in 1964.

Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism in the United States (also called laissez-faire liberalism) [19] is the belief that a free-market economy is the most productive.[ dubious ] It may be represented by Henry David Thoreau's statement "that government is best which governs least".[ why? ] Classical liberalism is a philosophy of individualism and self-responsibility. Classical liberals in the United States believe that if the economy is left to the natural forces of supply and demand, free of government intervention, the result is the most abundant satisfaction of human wants. Modern classical liberals oppose the concepts of social democracy and the welfare state.

Modern liberalism

In 1883, Lester Frank Ward (1841–1913) published Dynamic Sociology: Or Applied Social Science, as Based Upon Statical Sociology and the Less Complex Sciences and laid out the basic tenets of modern American liberalism while at the same time attacking the laissez-faire policies advocated by Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner. [20] Ward was a passionate advocate for a sociology that would intelligently and scientifically direct the development of society. [21]

Another influential thinker in the Progressive Era was Herbert Croly (1869–1930). He effectively combined classical liberal theory with progressive philosophy and founded the periodical The New Republic to present his ideas. Croly presented the case for a mixed economy, increased spending on education and the creation of a society based on the "brotherhood of mankind". In 1909, Croly published The Promise of American Life in which he proposed raising the general standard of living by means of economic planning, though he opposed aggressive unionization. [22] In The Techniques of Democracy (1915), Croly argued against both dogmatic individualism and dogmatic socialism. As editor of The New Republic, he had the forum to reach the intellectual community. [23]

According to Paul Starr, sociologist at Princeton University:

Liberalism wagers that a state [...] can be strong but constrained—strong because constrained. [...] Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance the opportunity and personal dignity of minorities and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society.

Paul Starr, The New Republic, March 2007


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 unemployment, provide greater opportunities and restore prosperity. His presidency from 1933 to 1945, the longest in the United States history, was marked by an increased role for the federal government in addressing the nation's economic and other problems.[ vague ][ citation needed ] Work relief programs provided jobs, ambitious projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority promoted economic development and a social-security system laid the groundwork for the nation's modern welfare system. The Great Depression dragged on through the 1930s despite the New Deal programs, which were met with mixed success in solving the nation's economic problems.[ original research? ][ citation needed ] 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.[ opinion ] The New Deal provided direct relief for minorities in the 1930s through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other agencies and during World War II executive orders and the Fair Employment Practices Commission opened millions of new jobs to minorities and forbade discrimination in companies with government contracts. The 1.5 million black veterans in 1945 were fully entitled to generous veteran benefits from the GI Bill on the same basis as everyone else. [24]

The New Deal consisted of three types of programs designed to produce "Relief, Recovery and Reform". [25]

Relief was the immediate effort to help the one-third of the population that was hardest hit by the depression. Roosevelt expanded Herbert Hoover's Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) work relief program and added the CCC, the PWA and the WPA. In 1935, the Social Security Act and unemployment insurance programs were added. Separate programs were set up for relief in rural areas, such as the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration.

Recovery programs sought to restore the economy to pre-depression levels. It involved deficit spending, dropping the gold standard, efforts to re-inflate farm prices that were too low and efforts to increase foreign trade.[ citation needed ] New Deal efforts to help the United States recuperate were chiefly channeled through a Hoover program, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).[ citation needed ]

Reform was based on the assumption that the depression was caused by the inherent market instability and that government intervention was necessary to rationalize and stabilize the economy and to balance the interests of farmers, business and labor. Reform measures included the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), regulation of Wall Street by the Securities Exchange Act (SEA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) for farm programs, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance for bank deposits enacted through the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act, dealing with labor-management relations. Despite some New Dealers's urgings, there was no major 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. [26]

Roosevelt's presidency was dominated by isolationism in international affairs until 1938, when the United States developed an increasingly central role in World War II, especially after the United States formal entry into the war in 1941.[ relevant? ] 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. [27] His support led for the establishment of the United Nations, with the proviso that the United States would have a veto power. [28] [29]

Liberalism during the Cold War

American liberalism in the Cold War-era was the immediate heir to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and the slightly more distant heir to the progressives of the early 20th century. [30] Sol Stern wrote that "Cold War liberalism deserves credit for the greatest American achievement since World War II—winning the Cold War". [31]

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.[ original research? ] Freedom from want could justify positive government action to meet economic needs, a idea more associated with the concepts of Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party, Henry Clay's Whig Party and Alexander Hamilton's economic principles of government intervention and subsidy than the more radical socialism and social democracy of European thinkers, or with prior versions of classical liberalism as represented by Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party and Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party.[ citation needed ]

In the 1950s and 1960s, both major American political parties included liberal and conservative factions. The Democratic Party had on one hand Northern and Western liberals and on the other generally conservative Southern whites.[ original research? ] Difficult to classify were the Northern urban Democratic political machines. The urban machines had supported New Deal economic policies, but they slowly came apart over racial issues. Some historians have divided the Republican Party into liberal Wall Street and conservative Main Street factions while others have noted that the Republican Party's conservatives came from landlocked states (Robert Taft Jr. of Ohio and Barry Goldwater of Arizona) and the liberals tended to come from California (Earl Warren and Pete McCloskey), New York (Nelson Rockefeller) and other coastal states.[ citation needed ]

Opposing both Communism and conservatism, Cold War liberalism resembled earlier liberalisms in its views on many social issues and personal liberty, but its economic views were not those of free-market Jeffersonian liberalism nor those of European social democrats. They never endorsed state socialism, but they did call for spending on education, science and infrastructure, notably the expansion of NASA and the construction of the Interstate Highway System. Their progressive ideas continued the legacy of Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most prominent and constant among the positions of Cold War liberalism included the following:

At first, liberals generally did not see Franklin D. Roosevelt's successor Harry S. Truman as one of their own, viewing him as a Democratic Party hack. However, liberal politicians and liberal organizations such as the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) sided with Truman in opposing Communism both at home and abroad, sometimes at the sacrifice of civil liberties. [32] For example, Hubert Humphrey put before the Senate in 1950 a bill to establish detention centers where those declared subversive by the President could be held without trial, but it did not pass.

Liberals were united in their opposition to McCarthyism. [33] [ vague ]

Liberal consensus

By 1950, the liberal ideology was so intellectually dominant that the literary critic Lionel Trilling wrote that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition, [...] there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation". [34]

For almost two decades, Cold War liberalism remained the dominant paradigm in American politics, peaking with the landslide victory of Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson had been a New Deal Democrat in the 1930s and by the 1950s had decided that the Democratic Party had to break from its segregationist past and endorse racial liberalism as well as economic liberalism.

Liberals and civil rights

Cold War liberalism emerged at a time when most African-Americans were politically and economically disenfranchised. Beginning with To Secure These Rights, an official report issued by the Truman White House in 1947, self-proclaimed liberals increasingly embraced the civil rights movement. In 1948, President Truman desegregated the armed forces and the Democrats inserted a strong civil-rights plank in the party platform even though delegates from the Deep South walked out and nominated a third-party ticket, the Dixiecrats, headed by Strom Thurmond. Truman abolished discrimination in the armed forces, leading to the integration of military units in the early 1950s. However, no civil rights legislation was passed until a weak bill in 1957. [35]

During the 1960s, relations between white liberals and the civil rights movement became increasingly strained as civil-rights leaders accused liberal politicians of temporizing and procrastinating, although they realized they needed the support of Northern whites[ clarification needed ] to pass any legislation over Southern obstructionism. Many white liberals believed the grassroots movement for civil rights would only anger many Southern whites and make it even more difficult to pass civil rights laws through Congress.[ citation needed ] In response to that concern, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to tone down the March on Washington in 1963.[ citation needed ] President John F. Kennedy finally endorsed the March on Washington and proposed what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he could not get it passed during his lifetime. Lyndon B. Johnson, who took the presidential office in November 1963 following Kennedy's assassination, used the image of Kennedy's martyrdom to mobilize Northern support, along with the black-leadership community, to pass major civil-rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The result was an end to legalized segregation and an end to restrictions on black voting. However, it was followed by a wave of black riots in the inner cities which made for "long hot summers"[ citation needed ] in every major city from 1964 through 1970. The riots alienated much of the white working-class that had been the base of the labor-union element in the civil-rights coalition. [36]

The civil-rights movement itself was becoming fractured. On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X stated he was going to organize a black-nationalist organization that would try to "heighten the political consciousness" of African-Americans. [37] 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.[ citation needed ] 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.[ citation needed ] 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. [38]

Liberals and Vietnam

While the civil rights movement isolated liberals from the working class and Southern Democrats, the Vietnam War threw another wedge into the liberal ranks, dividing pro-war "hawks" such as Senator Henry M. Jackson from "doves" such as Senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern. As the war became the leading political issue of the day, agreement on domestic matters was not enough to hold the liberal consensus together.[ citation needed ]

Vietnam was part of the strategy of containment of Soviet Communism which began in earnest after World War II with the descent of the so-called Iron Curtain. In the 1960 presidential campaign, Kennedy was more "hawkish" on Southeast Asia than Richard Nixon. Although it can be argued that the war expanded only under Johnson, there was much continuity of their cabinets.[ citation needed ]

A large portion of the growing opposition to the war came from within liberal ranks. After Johnson refused to run again, assassination removed Robert F. Kennedy from contention and noted liberal Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention with the presidential nomination of a deeply divided party. Much of the party's right-wing had left to support Governor of Alabama George Wallace. The result was a narrow victory for Republican Richard Nixon, a man who was largely regarded as from the old Northeast Republican establishment despite his being a California native. Nixon enacted many liberal policies, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, normalizing relations with Communist China and starting the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to reduce the availability of ballistic missiles.[ citation needed ]

Richard Nixon and the liberal consensus

Percent of self-identified liberals in the United States broken down by state according to Gallup, August 2010; darker colors mean more liberals per state (click image for details) Liberal Gallup 8-10.svg
Percent of self-identified liberals in the United States broken down by state according to Gallup, August 2010; darker colors mean more liberals per state (click image for details)

Liberals criticized Nixon for reasons going back to his attacks on Alger Hiss, whom Nixon accused of being a spy for the Soviets. Criticism on Nixon continued during the Vietnam War. Yet as President, Nixon had many policy positions that can only be described as liberal. Before Nixon was elected, the liberal wing of his own party favored politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton while in the 1968 presidential election Nixon appealed to a "silent majority" of conservatives, disgusted and frightened by soaring crime rates and widespread race riots. [39] Nixon's Enemies List was composed largely of liberals despite his pursuing many liberal policies, often through executive orders. Examples include the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency which he achieved without a vote in Congress and the increase in funding for liberal programs like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. [40] One of his top advisers, liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan, said that "Nixon mostly opted for liberal policies, merely clothing them [...] in conservative rhetoric". [41] Nixon's conservative rhetoric rallied his base, but in addition to support for such liberal causes as the arts and the environment he supported liberalization of laws against recreational drugs and even—to the astonishment of conservatives—imposed wage and price controls to counteract inflation. Noam Chomsky, who often attacks liberalism from the far-left, has called Nixon "in many respects the last liberal president". [42] Historians increasingly emphasize the liberalism of his administration's policies while not attributing them to Nixon personally. [43]

The 1965–1974 period was a major liberal activist era in Congress, with the Democratic-led Congresses during the presidency of Richard Nixon continuing to produce liberal domestic policies. They organized themselves internally to round up votes, track legislation, mobilize interests and produce bills without direct assistance from the White House. A wide range of progressive measures were carried out, such as in social security (with a 20% benefit increase and linkage to automatic cost-of-living increases in 1972), public welfare (with expansion of unemployment compensation, food stamps and supplemental security income additions to social security), workplace rules (with the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970), urban aid (with the addition of mass transit subsidies to highway construction enactments), environmentalism (with the passage of the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 and the Clean Air Act of 1970), aid to education (including Title IX in 1972), civil rights (with the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1970) [44] and nutrition (with the establishment of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in 1972). [45]

The political dominance of the liberal consensus even into the Nixon years can best be seen in policies like the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency or in Nixon's failed proposal to replace the welfare system with a guaranteed annual income by way of a negative income tax. Affirmative action in its most quota-oriented form was a Nixon administration policy. Even the Nixon "War on Drugs" allocated two-thirds of its funds for treatment, a far higher ratio than was to be the case under any subsequent President, Republican or Democrat. Additionally, Nixon's normalization of diplomatic relations with Communist China and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union were likely more popular with liberals than with his conservative base. Nixon also successfully supported a cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients.

An opposing view offered by Cass R. Sunstein in The Second Bill of Rights (Basic Books, 2004, ISBN   0-465-08332-3) argues that through his Supreme Court appointments Nixon effectively ended a decades-long expansion under United States law of economic rights along the lines of those put forward in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly.


During the Nixon years and through the 1970s, the liberal consensus began to come apart. The alliance with white Southern Democrats had been lost in the Civil Rights era. While the steady enfranchisement of African Americans expanded the electorate to include many new voters sympathetic to liberal views, it was not quite enough to make up for the loss of some Southern Democrats. Organized labor, long a bulwark of the liberal consensus, was past the peak of its power in the United States and many unions had remained in favor of the Vietnam War even as liberal politicians increasingly turned against it. Within the Democratic Party leadership, there was a turn toward moderation on racial themes after the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972. [46]

Meanwhile in the Republican ranks, a new wing of the party emerged. The anti-establishment conservatives who had been aroused by Barry Goldwater in 1964 challenged the more liberal leadership in 1976 and took control of the party under Ronald Reagan in 1980. Liberal Republicans faded away even in their Northeastern strongholds. [47] More centrist groups, like the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), supported Bill Clinton and challenged liberals for control of the Democratic Party. [48] Clinton portrayed himself as a centrist New Democrat. Thus, he distanced himself from New Deal Democrats. With help from the Southern-dominated DLC, Clinton claimed the center of national politics. [49]

On January 1, 2013, President Barack Obama succeeded in raising taxes on the rich while keeping them steady on the middle class. [50] On January 21, 2013, Obama delivered his second inaugural address that championed numerous liberal causes.


While it is difficult to gather demographic information on ideological groups, recent surveys by The New York Times and CBS News indicate that between 18% and 27% of American adults identify as liberal, versus moderate or conservative. [51] In the 2008 presidential election, exit polls showed that 22% of the electorate self-identified as liberal. [52] According to a 2004 study by the Pew Research Center, liberals were tied with the conservative sub-group, the "Enterprisers", for the most affluent group and were the ideological demographic with the highest rate of college education. 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. [53]

Liberalism also remains the dominant political ideology in academia, with 72% of full-time faculty identifying as liberal in a 2004 study relying on 1999 data from the North American Academic Study Survey. [54] The social sciences and humanities were most liberal whereas business and engineering departments were the least liberal. However, even in the business departments liberals outnumbered conservatives 49% to 39%.

Exit polls show nearly 90% of liberals voted for Democrats in House elections since 2006. They voted 88% for Democrats in 2014; 88% in 2012; 93% in 2010; 89% in 2008; and 89% in 2006. Before that, they were in the low 80s: 80% in 2004; 81% in 2002; 84% in 2000; 84% in 1998; 82% in 1996; 81% in 1994; and 81% in 1992. [55]

See also

Related Research Articles

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This article gives information on liberalism worldwide. It is an overview of parties that adhere to some form of liberalism and is therefore a list of liberal parties around the world.

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Conservative Democrat

In American politics, a conservative Democrat is a member of the Democratic Party with conservative political views, or with views relatively fiscal conservative or social conservative with respect to those of the national party. While such members of the Democratic Party can be found throughout the nation, actual elected officials are disproportionately found within the Southern states, and to a lesser extent within rural regions of the United States generally, more commonly in the Midwest.

Conservative liberalism is a variant of liberalism, combining liberal values and policies with conservative stances, or simply representing the right-wing of the liberal movement. It is a more positive and less radical variant of classical liberalism. Conservative liberal parties tend to combine market liberal policies with more traditional stances on social and ethical issues. Neoconservatism has also been identified as an ideological relative or twin to conservative liberalism, and some similarities exist also between conservative liberalism and national liberalism.

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