American liberals have made scarcely a new proposal for reform in twenty years. It is not evident that they have had any important new ideas. Reputations for liberals or radicalism continue to depend almost exclusively on a desire to finish the unfinished social legislation of the New Deal.... On domestic matters, liberal organizations have not for years had anything that might be called a program. Rather they have had a file. Little is ever added. Platform-making consists, in effect, in emptying out the drawers.
Easy, we were all liberal then.
Yes, what a different world it was back in 1960 when an article ran in the Sunday edition of the New York Times written by Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. "Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism," he wrote, "cannot aspire to be an influence on the national political scene."
Say something like that today and you'll be excommunicated by the New York Times, or worse, called a pedophile by Yawn Hannity.
Maybe the problem with today's view of liberals, is the complicated definition we have. I mean, the conservative's definition is pretty simple: a philosophical commitment to limited government, laissez-faire economics, biblical based mortality, and the use of unilateral military force whenever. Period. Next contestant please.
Unfortunately, the fundamental values of contemporary American liberalism aren't as easily defined as those of the conservatives. As the literary critic Lionel Trilling observed in his book, The Liberal Imagination, (Liberalism) is a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine. Its bedrock belief in personal freedom, of thought, of expression, and of action, is derived from and defined by the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement, and its children, a group that includes John Locke, Voltaire, David Hume, Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison. Further defined: a liberal society strives to maximize these freedoms for the largest number of citizens while at the same time protecting the rights and interests of the minority, whose idea of personal freedom may conflict with those of the majority. This force on the freedom and the personal dignity of the individual fundamentally distinguishes liberalism from the tenets of both the religious right and the Marxist left, which stress instead unquestioned obedience to a higher authority for the benefit of the collective. Liberals find an inherited and unquestioned belief systems--whether imposed by the Bible, the Koran, the Dialectic of History, or the Fatherland-- to be anathema.
Ouch, based on definitions I think it's easy to see why conservatives are benefiting from the shorter attention spans in today's society. Unfortunately, there's a whole lot more to define with inclusions than there is with exclusion.
The term liberal originally entered the political lexicon in 1811 when a group of Spaniards proposed the adoption of a new constitution based on the French constitution of 1781. Its proponents called themselves the Enlightenment, and their platform included a strong dose of anti-clericalism. From Spain, historian Ronald D. Rotunda explains, the term liberal traveled to Italy, France, and Britain, where it was naturally identified with the laissez-faire economic policies of William Gladstone in the nineteenth century. British liberalism might aptly be termed "the revolt of reason," as its followers sought to wean the nation from its reliance on the twin powers of the church and the Crown. As liberal philosopher John Dewey would later state:
The word (liberalism) came into use to denote a new spirit that grew and spread with the rise of democracy. It implied a new interest in the common man and a new sense that the common man, the representative of the great masses of human beings, had possibilities that had been kept under, that had not been allowed to develop, because of institutional and political conditions. This new spirit was liberal in both senses of the word. It was marked by a generous attitude, by sympathy for the underdog, for those who were not given a chance. It was part of a widespread rise of humanitarian philanthropy. It was also liberal in that it aimed at enlarging the scope of free action on the part of those who for ages had had no part in public affairs and no lot in the benefits secured by this participation.
Liberalism took a step toward our present understanding of the term with the formulation of a "New Liberalism" by L. T. Hobhouse in 1911. New Liberals shared with classical liberals the notion that wealth was produced by individuals, but argued that these same individuals' prosperity relied on the health and security of the community. Building on Hobhouse's insight, Dewey, America's most influential liberal thinker for more than half a century, advanced the cause considerably by arguing that "liberty" should be imagined not as an abstract principle merely to be admired but as "the effective power to do specific things"-- things that could not be done by people enjoying only the theoretical ability to act on their freedoms. No longer could the slogan of political liberals be "Let the government keep its hands off industry and commerce," as the government became necessary to protect the individual's freedom from the growing power of just those forces.
This is where the wealthy top one-percent started edging away from liberal thought outside of the art galleries and fancy dining tables, for, liberalism became concerned with how corporate trust and monopolies interfered with individuals' ability to achieve Enlightenment. The new view was initially adopted in the early 1900s by both Theodore Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" Republican Party and Woodrow Wilson's Democrats under the banner of "progressivism," where trust-busting and industry regulation became the agreed-upon responsibility of progressive governance. It was not until Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal in the early 1930s, however, that the actual term liberal came into widespread use in the United States. Faced with a crisis of capitalism brought on by conservative do-nothing policies much as seen today, a global threat to liberal principles in the forms of socialism, communism, and fascism threatened us all, and so Roosevelt tossed aside old nostrums about economics and public policy and redefined the government's role in society. The new America liberalism was to "protect its people against disasters once considered inevitable, and to solve problems once considered unsolvable." In contrast to what FDR called "the conservative party," which "honestly and conscientiously believes" that "in the long run, individual initiative and private philanthropy can take care of all situations," the "liberal party is a party 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 the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them.
For the first time in its history the U.S. government accepted responsibility for providing a "safety net" for its citizens, embarking on what the social critic Irving Howe termed the "socialization of concern" by creating programs like social security and unemployment insurance, along with supporting workers' right to organize.
In the decades following the New Deal, liberalism remained the fundamental bedrock of much of American political life, regardless of which party happened to be in power. "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs," President Eisenhower wrote his brother Edgar, "you would not hear of that party again in our political history." The historian Alan Brinkley speaks of growing up in the 1950's and 60's with a strong sense of self-identification with the accomplishment of liberalism. In those days, he wrote, the word required no complicated definitions, for it was, in many middle-class neighborhoods, in the very air and water that working people imbibed. "The achievements of liberalism were everywhere visible: the robust growth of the American economy, stabilized by the active use of Keynesian policies; the gradual expansion of the New Deal welfare and social insurance system, which had lifted millions of elderly people (and many others) out of poverty; and beginning in the early 1960's the alliance between the federal government and the civil rights movement, an alliance that most white liberals believed gave liberalism a powerful moral claim to accompany its many practical achievements."
As I said at the beginning of this post, the 50's were actually the last decade where the word liberal wasn't a bad thing. Compared to today's draconian conservative party, even the Republican's then could be considered liberal: Republican President Eisenhower, supported social security and gave us our first government civil rights involvement by sending in the National Guard to Little Rock Arkansas to allow nine students of color to enter Little Rock Central High School; and his vice-president, Richard Nixon, would eventually become president and give us the Environmental Protection Agency. Yes, it was the fifties and liberalism was a good thing. Where did it end? Maybe with such statements as the John Kenneth Galbraith statement I began this post with. The one blaming the current situation on the lack of new liberal ideas. What if he wrote it today. Wouldn't it go something like:
American conservatives have made scarcely a new proposal in twenty years. It is not evident that they have had any important new ideas. Reputations for conservatives or radicalism continue to depend almost exclusively on a desire to finish the unfinished tax-cuts for the wealthy from the Ronald Reagan error...On domestic matters, conservative organizations have not for years had anything that might be called a program. Rather they have had a file. Little is ever added. Platform-making consists, in effect, in emptying out their tax-cutting drawers.