The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Liberalism in the United States


Usage of the word Liberal

In the United States, the common meaning of "liberal" has evolved over time. In the 19th century it denoted classical liberalism. After World War II, it came to refer to left-of center (but anti-socialist and anti-communist) new liberalism. As McCarthyism and the reaction to Communism made the use of most left-wing political terms (including "socialism" and "social democracy") anathema in the U.S., the former New Dealers and others to the left of center adopted the name "liberal".

To distinguish themselves from these, those in the U.S. who were closer to classical liberalism adopted the name "libertarian", a political stance that typically agrees with American liberalism on social issues, but adopts a neoliberal stance on economic issues that often more closely resembles American conservatism. Since approximately the Reagan era, the word "liberal" has been so much used as a derogatory term by U.S. conservatives that some on the left have adopted the label "progressive".

U.S. Liberalism since 1945

Cold War Liberalism

U.S. liberalism of the Cold War era was the immediate heir to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and the slightly more distant heir to the Progressives of the early twentieth century.

Although Roosevelt died before the Cold War era, the political stance 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, but "Freedom from want" and "freedom from fear" were another matter entirely. Coming off of the Great Depression, and with World War II already being fought in Europe and the Pacific, Roosevelt boldly proposed a notion of freedom that went beyond mere government non-interference in people's private lives. "Freedom from want", especially, could justify positive government action to meet economic needs, a concept more associated with socialism and social democracy than with prior versions of liberalism.

Defining itself against both Communism and conservatism, Cold War liberalism resembled earlier "liberalisms" in its views on many social issues, but its economic views were not those of free-market liberalism; instead, they constituted a mild form of social democracy.

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

  • Support for a domestic economy based 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.
  • Support for 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 Keynesianism economics. By way of compromise with political groupings to their right, this often became, in practice military Keynesianism.

This resembled what in other countries was sometimes referred to as social democracy. However, unlike European social democrats, U.S. liberals never widely endorsed nationalization of industry.

In the 1950s and '60s, both major U.S. political parties included both liberal and non-liberal elements. The Democratic Party was a two-wing party: on the one hand, Northern and Western liberals, on the other generally non-liberal Southern white regionalists. In between were the northern urban democratic "political machines". These groups had been able to agree on the New Deal economic stimulus policies, but would slowly come apart over the issue of race and the Civil Rights movement. The Republican Party was divided between a largely liberal Wall Street faction and a largely conservative Main Street faction.

In the early Cold War years, the liberals generally did not see Harry S. Truman as one of their own, viewing him as a bit on the conservative side. However, both as elected officials and through organizations such as the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), liberals sided with both Truman and those farther to the right (e.g. Joe McCarthy, Richard M. Nixon) in strongly opposing communism, sometimes at the sacrifice of civil liberties.

For example, ADA co-founder and archetypal Cold War liberal Hubert H. Humphrey rose to national prominence by merging the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party into the Democratic Party (1944), thereby purging it of communist influence, and even while making his name as a prominent advocate for Civil Rights, unsuccessfully sponsored (in 1950) a Senate bill to establish detention centers where those declared subversive by the president could be held without trial.

Nonetheless, liberals turned against McCarthyism relatively early, and were central to McCarthy's downfall.

The liberal consensus

In 1950, this ideology was so intellectually dominant in the U.S. that Lionel Trilling could state, "In the United States at this time, liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition... there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation, [merely] irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." [Lapham 2004]

This breed of liberalism continued into the early 1960s as the dominant strain of U.S. politics, perhaps peaking with the 1964 landslide victory of Lyndon B. Johnson over Barry Goldwater in the presidential election. While not necessarily a liberal himself, Johnson was a New Deal Democrat and had inherited and retained the overwhelmingly liberal Kennedy cabinet. The "guns and butter" politics of the Kennedy-Johnson years, in many respects maintained even by the later Republican administration of Richard M. Nixon, became known as the "liberal consensus".

Liberals and Civil Rights

Cold War liberalism emerged at a time when most African Americans, especially in the South, were politically and economically disenfranchised. The prominent liberal leaders were overwhelmingly white men. However, liberals increasingly embraced and even became identified with the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other similar legislation.

However, the relationship between white liberals and the Civil Rights movement was often strained, with Civil Rights leaders often wanting to move forward more rapidly than liberal government officials. Although President Kennedy sent federal troops to force 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, by the failure to seat the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention indicated the growing rift, which would only become worse with the emergence of the Black Power movement.

Consequently, the Civil Rights movement first threw a wedge between liberals and Southern Democrats (when the liberals supported it), then between white liberals and African Americans (when few white liberals were ready to support its later manifestations).

Liberals and Vietnam

Where the Civil Rights movement ultimately isolated liberals from 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 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.

To begin with, Vietnam was a "liberal war", part of the strategy of containment of Soviet Communism. In the 1960 presidential campaign, the liberal Kennedy was more hawkish on Southeast Asia than the more conservative Nixon. Although it can be argued that the war expanded only under the less liberal Johnson, there was enormous continuity of their cabinets.

As opposition to the war grew, a large portion of that opposition came from within liberal ranks. In 1968, the Dump Johnson movement forced Democratic President Johnson out of the race for his own party's nomination for the presidency. Assassination removed Robert Kennedy from contention and Vice President Hubert Humphrey emerged from the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention with the presidential nomination of a deeply divided party. The party's right wing had seceded to run Alabama governor George Wallace, and some on the left chose to sit out the election rather than vote for a man so closely associated with the Johnson administration (and with Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley). The result was a narrow victory for Republican Richard Nixon, a man who had, over the past twenty years, usually been seen as the liberals' nemesis.

Nixon and the liberal consensus

While the differences between Nixon and the liberals are obvious - the liberal wing of his own party favored politicians like Nelson Rockefeller or William Scranton, 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, Noam Chomsky has called Nixon, "in many respects the last liberal president." [1]

Although liberals turned increasingly against the Vietnam War, to the point of running the very dovish George McGovern for president in 1972, the war had, as noted above, been of largely liberal origin. Similarly, while many liberals condemned actions such as the Nixon administrations support for the 1973 Chilean coup, it was not entirely dissimilar to the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 or the marine landing in the Dominican Republic in 1965.

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 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.

In addition, Nixon's normalization of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and his policy of detente with the Soviet Union were probably more popular with liberals than with his conservative base.

Conversely, Cass R. Sunstein, in The Second Bill of Rights (Basic Books, 2004, ISBN 0465083323) 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.

End of the liberal consensus

During the Nixon years (and through the 1970s), the liberal consensus was coming apart. The alliance with white Southern Democrats had been lost in the Civil Rights era. While the steady enfranchisement of African Americans would expand the electorate to include many new voters sympathetic to liberal views, it would not be quite enough to make up for this. A tide of conservatism was rising in response to perceived failures of liberal policies. 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 to the right after the disastrous defeat of arch-liberal George McGovern in 1972.

Another factor in the decline of the liberal consensus was the rise of identity politics. Liberalism was not necessarily incompatible with feminism or various ethnic empowerment movements, but they resulted in a critique of the liberal left as "pale, male, and stale," to borrow a phrase from a slightly later time.

Meanwhile, in the Republican ranks, a wing of the party was emerging well to Nixon's right. The Goldwater Republicans became the Reagan Republicans. In 1980, conservative Republican Ronald Reagan captured his party's nomination for the presidency. His administration would establish a conservative hegemony every bit as durable as the earlier liberal consensus. By the end of the 20th Century, "liberal Republican" would seem almost oxymoronic, and centrist groups such as the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) would contend on an equal footing with liberals for control of the Democratic Party.

Notable Cold War liberals

Notable exponents of various strands among Cold War Liberalism include:

Some positions associated with contemporary U.S. liberalism

In the early 21st century, the term "liberalism" in the United States has become somewhat confused, applied to a broad spectrum of viewpoints. As the Democratic Party, generally seen as the standard-bearer of liberalism, adopted the more centrist outlook of the DLC, the term "liberal" (applied to the party as a whole) became associated even with more centrist candidates and issues who, for example, support the death penalty or take pro-business positions. For this reason, and because many on the farther right have so heavily used "liberal" as a pejorative, many Americans on the left of the political spectrum prefer to use the term progressive to describe their views, disassociating themselves from what they see as an increasingly conservative politics that still holds the name of liberalism.

Some Americans define liberals as those who support the use of government power to promote equality, but generally not to promote order. U.S. liberals also are more likely to openly support the legitimacy of government social intervention than are conservatives.

The following views could be considered typical of American liberalism today:

  • Support for government social programs such as welfare, medical care, unemployment benefits, and retirement programs.
  • Support for public education.
  • Support for trade unions - right of labor to organize.
  • Regulation of business - OSHA, against child labor, monopolistic practices, etc.
  • Support for civil rights (examples):
    • Oppose discrimination based on gender, race, age, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.
    • Support rights of women and minorities, particularly racial and religious minorities, the disabled, and homosexuals.
    • Some further support such programs as affirmative action and multi-lingual education .
    • Support broad voting rights.
    • Support for abortion rights.
  • Support for strong environmental regulations.
  • Support for public transit.
  • Support minimum wage requirements.
  • Support for government funding to alternative energy research.
  • Opposition to the death penalty.
  • Some further support for animal rights - as an issue of ethical human behavior.
  • Support for gun controls.

Contemporary use of the term as a pejorative

As discussed above, the most common contemporary U.S. use of the term liberal is somewhat at variance from the use of the term in the rest of the world, and with the historical meaning of the word in the U.S. through the mid-20th century (new liberalism versus classical liberalism). (See Liberalism and Liberalism in countries for discussion of these issues of usage).

The term liberal is sometimes used as derogatory or politically undermining label by those on the more conservative end of the political spectrum. It can imply an overly free-spirited, unaccountable, and compromised character (a libertine), or someone in favor of vast and needless government intrusion into peoples lives (see Big government).

U.S. conservatives in recent years, often those of the Republican Party, sometimes use liberal as a subversive adjective for anyone who is a member of or supports any policy of the Democratic Party.

Some think that conservatives have been successful in undermining progressives as "liberals", by deliberate public relations campaigns, and through repeated use of the word in ways that associate it with irresponsibility. (See, for example, Limousine liberal; another commonly-used phrase is tax-and-spend liberal.) Republican talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh is often credited with the perpetuation of these phrases. (See also Politicized issues, propaganda).

Liberal leaders

Liberal thinkers

In the List of thinkers contributing to liberal theory the following American thinkers are included:


  • Lewis H. Lapham, "Tentacles of Rage" in Harper's, September 2004, p. 31-41.
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13