Liberalism in the United States

What is political liberalism in the United States? That’s the topic of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s next discussion meeting, at 6.30pm on Tuesday 6 July. All are welcome.

The original conception of liberalism in America was the protection of people from arbitrary power, support for the free market and advocacy of religious tolerance. Many of these concepts found their place in the American Declaration of Independence and in the constitution of the emerging United States. The Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton (who may have been surprised to find himself, 230 years later, starring in a rap musical), John Jay and James Madison are now regarded as classics of western constitutionalism, laying out the doctrine of limited government, representative democracy and federalism.

This started to change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in response to the social ills of accelerating urbanisation and industrialisation. American liberals joined with progressives in advocating intervention in the economy and social reform programmes implemented by the government. The presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1945, and his ‘New Deal’, confirmed that American liberalism would be based on using the market economy to deliver prosperity for all, in good times and bad, and active government to promote greater equality. FDR’s version of liberalism – reinforced by Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programmes of the 1960s – became America’s national creed and for three decades, the welfare state expanded massively.

But in 1981, the new President, Ronald Reagan, declared that: ‘Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’. By then the term ‘liberal’ was increasingly conflated with the left, or even with socialism – big government, taxing excessively and spending inefficiently. Most Americans seemed to agree and, despite some interruptions, a powerful surge from the right has dominated American politics ever since. The word ‘liberal’ is now a term of abuse in the country’s political discourse.

Join us to discuss the origins, development and challenges of American liberalism with Helena Rosenblatt (Professor of History at The Graduate Center, City University of New York and author of The Lost History of Liberalism) and James Traub (journalist and author of What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of a Noble Idea). Chair: Layla Moran MP (Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs spokesperson).

This will be an online meeting, held over Zoom. You must register in advance to participate; register here. To find out more about the Liberal Democrat History Group, see our website.

* Duncan Brack is the Editor of the Journal of Liberal History and former Vice Chair of the Federal Policy Committee.

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2 Comments

  • Paul Barker 29th Jun '21 - 1:27pm

    There is an argument that once the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s, 60s & 70s had sucsessfully redefined the idea of The Public to include Non-White people then White Americans went off the concept of a “Public Good.”
    White Americans were willing to give up Benefits as long as Racial Minorities lost more. Trump & his followers have simply made this explicit.

    The big failure of both The New Deal & LBJs “Great Society” was that niether confronted Racism, they just went round it.

  • I respectfully disagree with Paul Barker on the subject of LBJ.

    Whatever else his faults may have been – and they were many, especially in Vietnam – Lyndon Johnson did manage to get the Civil Rights Act through both Houses in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination.

    I suggest Mr Barker takes a look at : ‘LBJ Fights the White Backlash, The Racial Politics of the 1964 Presidential Campaign’, Spring 2001, Vol. 33, No. 1 By Jeremy D. Mayer

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