Liberalism in the United States

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.

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. Some American liberals, who call themselves classical liberals, fiscal conservatives, or libertarians, support fundamental liberal ideals but disagree with 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]

Since the 1930s, without a qualifier the term "liberalism" in the United States usually refers to "modern liberalism", a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and, later, Lyndon 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.

According to Louis Hartz, liberalism in the United States differs from liberalism elsewhere in the world because America never had a resident hereditary aristocracy,[3] and as such, avoided much of the "class warfare" that swept Europe.[4]


Prominent liberals in the United States. From left to right, top to bottom: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Krugman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor.

The origins of American liberalism lie in the political ideals of the Enlightenment.[5] 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 needed a nation strong enough to survive in the world.[6]

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.[7]

Thomas Jefferson believed that America should remain a nation of small farmers.[8] 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).[9][10]

During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, laws were passed restricting monopolies and regulating railroad rates.[11][12] According to James Reichley, it was during this era that the term "liberal" took on its current meaning.[13] Prior to the early 1900s, the term had usually described classical liberalism, which emphasizes limited government and the free market.[13] 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,[13] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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. Deregulation began in the mid-1970s. 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.[15][16] 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 liberal ideals in the areas of health care (where he failed) and environmental protection (where he had more success). However 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.[17]

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