Hey, you, the person reading this. Do you know what it means to be a liberal? Depending on your own political persuasion, being liberal might make you a firm believer in liberty, equal opportunity, and the right to pursue an economic system that distributes the benefits of capitalism more broadly across the citizenry. Or, being a liberal might make you a Stalinist, Marxist, atheist, pantheist, freedom-hating, abortion-craving, tree-fondling, Chick-fil-A scorning, queer-o-sexual menace to Jesus and the Constitution that He wrote.
Either way, liberalism inspires passionate opinions in American society.
The 2016 election has so far pit a loud-mouthed, billionaire mini-Mussolini against the entire Republican establishment and a cranky Jewish socialist against the embodiment of status-quo Democratic lukewarmness. But one of the more significant developments in this nutty contest for president of ‘Murica is a passionate re-examining of liberalism as a political philosophy via the surprisingly competitive fight between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.
Sanders, who for the last several years has been the only Independent in the U.S. Senate, is challenging Clinton’s frontrunner status from the Left. In recent Democratic Party primary debates, he’s called out Hillary’s decidedly moderate record, one that includes no small amount of cozying up to the Wall Street plutocrats who tanked the world economy the last time she ran for president. Sanders has also criticized Clinton’s hawkish foreign policy, epitomized by her infamous vote in support of President George Dubya Bush’s quagmire to end all quagmires in Iraq.
Sanders’ charges that Clinton is not a real progressive inspired the former Secretary of State to claim she was a “progressive who likes to get things done,” a rather defensive stance that spurred Twitter activists to mock her record of New Democrat neoliberalism under the hashtag #HillarySoProgressive. While this back and forth, primary-season bickering is tiring to the Washington punditocracy, it’s nonetheless a welcome development, because, for the first time in decades, Democrats are fighting over the right to proudly call themselves liberals instead of running away from the term like the wishy-washy Charlie Browns they usually are.
Indeed, thanks to a merciless, decades-long PR campaign by the American Right, the term “liberalism” became a four-letter word that many Americans came to associate with hating capitalism, God, and everything ‘Murican about ‘Murica. This smear campaign has been so effective that politicos like Bernie Sanders are more comfortable using terms like “socialist,” and “progressive” instead of “liberal,” even though the latter description is far better suited to the political philosophy that Sanders advocates.
So, is there a standard definition for what actually constitutes “liberalism?” The short answer is “no,” and the long answer is “yes.” The roots of liberalism go as far back as you want to look for them, even to Aristotle’s ruminations over the role of the public good in human societies. But the idea of modern liberalism is a product of the Age of Revolution; it was the philosophy that fueled the great revolutions — French, American, Haitian, etc. of the 18th and 19th centuries. Liberalism in this era held that all people possessed individual rights; that the so-called Divine Right of monarchs to rule was an outdated and barbaric tradition, and that, in the tripartite motto that came to define the French Revolution, all people deserve “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.”
It is precisely liberalism’s grand historical tradition of pushing back against authoritarian domination — whether by kings, clergy, or corporations — that makes it reemergence in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries so important. To reclaim liberalism’s tarnished reputation is to reclaim the best of America. Simply put: Liberalism remains the best hope for the continued vitality of democracy, individual rights, and environmental preservation in the United States.
So why exactly is this the case, you may ask? The answer can be found in the inherent meaning of “liberalism” itself. As Alan Wolfe writes in The Future of Liberalism, the liberal philosophy is best summed up in the notion that, “As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” For liberals, liberty and equality come before markets. Liberals, Wolfe continues, believe that all people “should be free to exercise their full capacities: minds, through open societies that allow everyone to develop their intellect, and bodies, through societies that guarantee sufficient economic security to individuals so that they are not dependent upon the arbitrary will of others for the basic necessities of life.”* Without liberty and equality, market freedom is one more tyranny dressed in Liberty’s robes. You can’t be free if you’re stuck in the choking cloud of ignorance, and you can’t be free if you’re stuck under the thumbs of those with more money and power.
Unlike conservatism, which promotes dynamic changes to uphold long-established hierarchies of privilege and power, liberalism’s dynamic nature works towards the goal of expanding, not constraining, freedoms for more and more people.
Liberalism’s greatest strength lies in its dynamism, its willingness to seek new methods to ensure standards of human dignity. In his book Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Edmund Fawcett outlines why the liberal tradition endures to this day:
Liberalism offered means to adapt law and government to productive new patterns of trade and industry, to hold together divided societies from which familiar organizing hierarchies and overarching creeds were disappearing and to foster or keep hold of standards of humanity, particularly standards for how state power and moneyed power must not mistreat or neglect people with less power.*
It’s the last line, “how state power AND moneyed power must not mistreat or neglect people with less power,” that especially stands out. Here, Fawcett highlights where liberalism differs from conservatism, which tends to only see concentrated power in the state, when, in fact, powers always collude, and moneyed interests have always tried to control the state for their own ends, even if they have to run roughshod over democracy in the process.
Thus, liberalism is a philosophy that evolves to find new methods to ensure that the human rights to life, liberty, and happiness aren’t confined to the mere right to work a lousy job so you can buy a 50-ounce tub of mayonnaise at Sam’s Club. In the modern era of untrammelled, stateless corporate power, liberalism recognizes that to give up the state to private interests is to ensure the continued domination of vast groups of people who stand in the way of those interests’ relentless pursuit of profits.
What we think of as modern American liberalism harks back to the New Deal era and the long presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from 1933-1945. In the midst of the Great Depression, when the seeming failure of capitalism gave rise to fascist and communist movements across the globe, New Deal liberalism emerged as an attempt to save capitalism from itself. To do this, the New Deal advocated using democratically elected governments to help combat unregulated capitalism’s tendency towards monopolies and vast concentrations of wealth into fewer and fewer hands.
In this respect, New Deal liberalism differed from Classical Liberalism’s view of economic theory, which emphasized a laissez-faire approach to markets. On January 6, 1941, FDR presented what are now key pillars of American liberal thought via his “Four Freedoms” speech. Here, Roosevelt called for freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These freedoms, he noted, were “simple and basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world.” The latter statement is all-the-more prescient in a 21st-century world, where conservatives too often invoke the acceleration of technology and the flattening of the global economy to justify the market’s creative destruction of American jobs and lives.
“Freedom from Want” is especially key to modern liberal thought. Conservatism, in the words of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., supposedly “stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” but it rarely attempts to stop, or even question or examine, for that matter, the damage that unfettered capitalism can do to human lives.
This is where liberalism, anchored by FDR’s “Freedom from Want,” remains vital to the health of American society. Liberals used to stand up for the vitality — for the necessity — of their philosophy. In 1960, for example, JFK pushed back against conservative charges that he was a “liberal” when he proclaimed that:
If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal.’
Here was FDR’s “Freedom from Want” reinforced and expounded upon in an unapologetically liberal manner. That basic humans needs — material as well as psychological fulfillment — should not be sacrificed to the capricious whims of unfettered market capitalism, the supposed “natural order” of which falls in convenient alignment with the goals of society’s most wealthy and powerful, was a truism of modern liberalism. Perhaps it will be again.
Whoever wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 2016, that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have spent so much time jostling over the right to proudly call themselves liberals (or progressives) evidences a seriously healthy turn for the better in American politics. For too long, conservatives have defined the contours of what it means to be liberal in America. If Feeling the Bern means feeling a renewed appreciation for the liberal tradition, then I say Bern baby, Bern.
* See Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Vintage, 2009), 10.
* See Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), xviii.