The origins of American liberalism lie in the political ideals of the Enlightenment. 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, and most expected slavery to wither away. Indeed, it was abolished in all the Northern states by 1804, but due to the demand for raw cotton by the Industrial Revolution, plantation slavery continued to flourish in the Deep South.
From the time of the American Revolution to the present day, America 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 Jim Crow system of the South between the 1890s and 1960s relegated blacks to second class citizenship, until it was overthrown by the Civil Rights Movement and new federal laws in 1964 and 1965.
Thomas Jefferson believed that America should remain a nation of small farmers. As the American economy began to shift to manufacturing and services, liberals began to fear threats to liberty from corruption and monopolies (called "trusts" at the time). Wealth and the influence it brought was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few business owners, shifting from the previous system of a few large land owners, and raised new questions whether political democracy could survive the power of the rich.
The dominance of the Republican Party for most of the era 1860–1932, the Third Party System, and the Fourth Party System, prevented any major reversal of the concentration of wealth. During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, laws were passed restricting monopolies and regulating railroad rates. According to James Reichley, it was during this era that the term "liberal" took on its current meaning. Prior to the early 1900s, the term had usually described classical liberalism, which emphasizes limited government and the free market. During the 1920s, the term "progressive" became associated with politicians such as Robert La Follette, who called for government ownership of railroads and utilities in his 1924 third-party presidential bid., and Theodore Roosevelt who came out of retirement to run again for president under a third party called Progressive Party. Later, political figures such as Franklin Roosevelt adopted the term "liberal" to describe an individual in favor of some government activism but opposed to more radical reforms.
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. 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, which led to the eventual election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The intellectual foundations of this conservative resurgence included the works of free-market economists Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, who argued against central economic planning (with the notable exception of the Federal Reserve), regulation of business, and Keynesian economics. Deregulation began in the mid-1970s and had broad support from both liberals and conservatives. 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. Democratic president Bill Clinton (1993–2001) worked with conservatives, against strong liberal opposition, to end some of the main welfare programs and to implement NAFTA, linking the economies of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Clinton pushed to extend modern liberal ideals especially in the areas of health care (where he failed) and environmental protection (where he had more success).
According to Louis Hartz, liberalism was the only significant political tradition in the United States. However, in the 1970s, Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood and J. G. A. Pocock saw republicanism as the main political tradition. In the 1980s, J. David Green returned to Hartz's thesis, but saw two different types of liberalism in the tradition, which he called humanist and reform. More recently, writers have seen a multitude of traditions, including liberalism, republicanism and Protestantism.
The United States of America 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 American Bill of Rights guarantees every citizen the freedoms advocated by the liberal philosophers: 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, questions arose, both before and after the country was founded. In the Dred Scott decision of 1856–57, 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. Therefore, the constitution was amended several times to extend these rights to ever 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 in the United States (also called laissez-faire liberalism) is the belief that a free market economy is the most productive. It may be represented by Henry David Thoreau's statement "that government is best which governs least." Classical liberalism is a philosophy of individualism and self-responsibility. Classical liberals in the United States believe that if the economy is left to the natural forces of supply and demand, free of government intervention, the result is the most abundant satisfaction of human wants. Modern classical liberals oppose the concepts of social democracy and the welfare state.
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. Ward was a passionate advocate for a sociology which would intelligently and scientifically direct the development of society.
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. In The Techniques of Democracy (1915) he argued against both dogmatic individualism and dogmatic socialism. As editor of the New Republic, Croly had the forum to reach the intellectual community.
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, sociologist at Princeton University, The New Republic, March 2007
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 U.S. history, was marked by an increased role for the Federal government in addressing the nation's economic and other problems. Work relief programs provided jobs, ambitious projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority were created to promote economic development, and a Social security system was established. The Great Depression dragged on through the 1930s, however, despite the New Deal programs, which met with mixed success in solving the nation's economic problems. Economic progress for minorities was hindered by discrimination, about which the Roosevelt administration did less than subsequent administrations, but more than had been done before. The New Deal provided direct relief for minorities in the 1930s (through the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and other agencies); and, during World War II, executive orders and the 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.
The New Deal consisted of three types of programs designed to produce "Relief, Recovery and Reform":
Relief was the immediate effort to help the one-third of the population that was hardest hit by the depression. Roosevelt expanded Hoover's FERA work relief program, and added the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Public Works Administration (PWA), and starting in 1935 the Works Progress Administration (WPA). In 1935 the Social Security Act (SSA) and unemployment insurance programs were added. Separate programs were set up for relief in rural areas, such as the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration.
Recovery was the goal of restoring the economy to pre-depression levels. It involved "pump priming" (deficit spending), dropping the gold standard, efforts to re-inflate farm prices that were too low, and efforts to increase foreign trade. New Deal efforts to help corporate America were chiefly channeled through a Hoover program, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).
Reform was based on the assumption that the depression was caused by the inherent instability of the market and that government intervention was necessary to rationalize and stabilize the economy, and to balance the interests of farmers, business and labor. Reform measures included the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), regulation of Wall Street by the Securities Exchange Act (SEA), the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) for farm programs, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance for bank deposits enacted through the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933, and the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (also known as the Wagner Act) dealing with labor-management relations. Despite urgings by some New Dealers, there was no major anti-trust program. Roosevelt opposed socialism (in the sense of state ownership of the means of production), and only one major program, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), involved government ownership of the means of production.
In international affairs, Roosevelt's presidency was dominated by isolationism until 1938, followed by an increasingly central role in World War II, especially after America's formal entry into the war in 1941. Anticipating the post-war period, Roosevelt strongly supported proposals to create a United Nations organization as a means of encouraging mutual cooperation to solve problems on the international stage. His commitment to internationalist ideals was in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson, architect of the failed League of Nations, and led to his support for the establishment of the United Nations, with the proviso that the U.S. would have a veto power.
U.S. liberalism of 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. Sol Stern wrote, "Cold War liberalism deserves credit for the greatest American achievement since World War II—winning the Cold War."
The essential tenets of Cold War liberalism can be found in Roosevelt's Four Freedoms (1941): of these, freedom of speech and of religion were classic liberal freedoms, as was "freedom from fear" (freedom from tyrannical government), but "freedom from want" was another matter. Roosevelt proposed a notion of freedom that went beyond government non-interference in private lives. "Freedom from want" could justify positive government action to meet economic needs, a concept more associated with the concepts of Lincoln's Republican party, Clay's Whig Party, and Hamilton's economic principles of government intervention and subsidy than the more radical socialism and social democracy of European thinkers, or with prior versions of classical liberalism as represented by Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican and Jackson's Democratic party.
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 urban Democratic "political machines". The urban machines had supported New Deal economic policies, but would slowly come apart over racial issues. Some historians have divided the Republican Party into liberal Wall Street and conservative Main Street factions; others have noted that the GOP's conservatives came from landlocked states (Robert Taft of Ohio and Barry Goldwater of Arizona) and the liberals tended to come from California (Earl Warren and Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey), New York (Nelson Rockefeller), and other coastal states.
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 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 Delano Roosevelt.
Most prominent and constant among the positions of Cold War liberalism were:Support for a domestic economy built on a balance of power between labor (in the form of organized unions) and management (with a tendency to be more interested in large corporations than in small business).
A foreign policy focused on containing the Soviet Union and its allies, one factor leading to its dissolution at the end of 1991.
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.
At first liberals generally did not see FDR'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. Hubert Humphrey, for example, in 1950 put before the Senate a bill to establish detention centers where those declared subversive by the President could be held without trial. It did not pass.
Liberals were united in their opposition to McCarthyism.
By 1950, the liberal ideology was so intellectually dominant that the literary critic Lionel Trilling could write that "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition... there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation."
For almost two decades, Cold War liberalism remained the dominant paradigm in U.S. politics, peaking with the landslide victory of Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Lyndon Johnson had been a New Deal Democrat in the 1930s and by the 1950s had decided that the Democratic Party had to break from its segregationist past and endorse racial liberalism as well as economic liberalism.
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.
During the 1960s, relations between white liberals and the civil rights movement became increasingly strained; civil rights leaders accused liberal politicians of temporizing and procrastinating, although they realized they needed the support of Northern whites 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. In response to that concern, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed to tone down the March on Washington in 1963. 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 Johnson, who took office in November 1963, used the image of Kennedy's martyrdom to mobilize northern support, along with the black leadership community, to pass major civil rights legislation: 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 a wave of black riots in the inner cities, which made for "long hot summers" 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.
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. By 1966, a Black Power movement had emerged; Black Power advocates accused white liberals of trying to control the civil rights agenda. Proponents of Black Power wanted African-Americans to follow an "ethnic model" for obtaining power, not unlike that of Democratic political machines in large cities. This put them on a collision course with urban machine politicians. And, on its edges, the Black Power movement contained racial separatists who wanted to give up on integration altogether—a program that could not be endorsed by American liberals of any race. The mere existence of such individuals (who always got more media attention than their actual numbers might have warranted) contributed to "white backlash" against liberals and civil rights activists.
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.
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.
As opposition to the war grew, a large portion of that opposition came from within liberal ranks. After Johnson refused to run again, assassination removed Robert 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, although a California native, was largely regarded as from the old Northeast Republican Establishment. 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.
Liberals hated Nixon for reasons going back to his attacks on Alger Hiss, who Nixon accused of being a spy for the Soviets. Their hostility grew as Nixon continued the Vietnam War. And 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 like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton, while in the 1968 election Nixon appealed to a "silent majority" of conservatives, disgusted and frightened by soaring crime rates and widespread race riots. Nixon's Enemies List was composed largely of liberals. And yet, as president Nixon pursued 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 such liberal programs as the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. One of his top advisers was liberal Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said, "Nixon mostly opted for liberal policies, merely clothing them...in conservative rhetoric." 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." Historians increasingly emphasize the liberalism of his administration's policies, while not attributing them to Nixon personally.
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), and nutrition (with the establishment of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in 1972).
The political dominance of the liberal consensus, even into the Nixon years, can best be seen in policies such as the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency or in Nixon's (failed) proposal to replace the welfare system with a guaranteed annual income by way of a negative income tax. Affirmative action in its most quota-oriented form was a Nixon administration policy. Even the Nixon "War on Drugs" allocated two-thirds of its funds for treatment, a far higher ratio than was to be the case under any subsequent President, Republican or Democrat. Additionally, Nixon's normalization of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union were probably 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 Nixon, through his Supreme Court appointments, effectively ended a decades-long expansion under U.S. law of economic rights along the lines of those put forward in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly.
During the Nixon years (and through the 1970s), the liberal consensus began to come apart. The alliance with white Southern Democrats had been lost in the Civil Rights era. While the steady enfranchisement of African Americans expanded the electorate to include many new voters sympathetic to liberal views, it was not quite enough to make up for the loss of some Southern Democrats. Organized labor, long a bulwark of the liberal consensus, was past the peak of its power in the U.S. and many unions had remained in favor of the Vietnam War even as liberal politicians increasingly turned against it. Within the Democratic party leadership, there was a turn toward moderation on racial themes after the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972.
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. More centrist groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) supported Bill Clinton and challenged liberals for control of the Democratic Party. Thus Clinton portrayed himself as a centrist "New Democrat"; he distanced himself from "New Deal" Democrats. With help from the southern-dominated Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) he claimed the center of national politics.
On January 1, 2013, President Barack Obama succeeded in raising taxes on the rich, while keeping them steady on the middle class. 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. In the 2008 presidential election, exit polls showed that 22% of the electorate self-identified as "liberal." 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.
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. 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 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.