The word “liberal” originated in Latin, then made its way into French and from there into English. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its primary definition
“Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.”
However, it also has a political usage as in “the liberal senator from Massachusetts.” This meaning and usage must be relatively new: for one thing, we know that “liberal” was not given a political connotation by Dr. Samuel Johnson in his celebrated dictionary of 1755:
Liberal, adj. [liberalis, Latin, libėral, French]
1. Not mean; not low in birth; not low in mind.
2. Becoming a gentleman.
3. Munificent; generous; bountiful; not parcimonious.
So when did the good word take on that political connotation? Mystère.
We owe the attribution of a political meaning to the word to the Scottish Enlightenment and two of its leading lights, the historian William Robertson and the political economist Adam Smith. Robertson and Smith were friends and correspondents as well as colleagues at the University of Edinburgh; they used “liberal” to refer to a society with safeguards for private property and an economy based on market capitalism and free-trade. Roberts is given priority today for using it this way in his 1769 book The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V. On the other hand, many in the US follow the lead of conservative icon Friedrich Hayek who credited Smith based on the fact that the term appears in The Wealth of Nations (1776); Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom (1944), a seminal work arguing that economic freedom is a prerequisite for individual liberty.
Today, the related term “classical liberalism” is applied to the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704) and he is often referred to as the “father of liberalism.” His defense of individual liberty, his opposition to absolute monarchy, his insistence on separation of church and state, and his analysis of the role of “the social contract” provided the U.S. founding fathers with philosophical tools crucial for the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and ultimately the Constitution. It is this classical liberalism that also inspired Simon Bolivar, Bernardo O’Higgins and other liberators of Latin America.
In the early 19th century, the Whig and Tory parties were dominant in the English parliament. Something revolutionary happened when the Whigs engineered the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 which was an important step toward making the U.K. a democracy in the modern sense of the term. According to historians, this began the peaceful transfer of power from the landed aristocracy to the emergent bourgeois class of merchants and industrialists. It also coincided with the end of the Romantic Movement, the era of the magical poetry of Keats and Shelley, and led into the Victorian Period and the well intentioned poetry of Arnold and Tennyson.
Since no good deed goes unpunished (especially in politics), passage of the Reform Act of 1832 also led to the demise of the Whig Party: the admission of the propertied middle class into the electorate and into the House of Commons itself split the Whigs and the new Liberal Party emerged. The Liberal Party was a powerful force in English political life into the 20th century. Throughout, the party’s hallmark was its stance on individual liberties, free-markets and free-trade.
Accordingly, in the latter part of the 19th century in Europe and the US, the term “liberalism” came to mean commitment to individual freedoms (in the spirit of Locke) together with support of free-market capitalism mixed in with social Darwinism. Small government became a goal: “That government is best that governs least” to steal a line from Henry David Thoreau.
Resistance to laissez-faire capitalism developed and led to movements like socialism and labor unions. In the US social inequality also fueled populist movements such as that led by William Jennings Bryan, the champion of Free Silver and other causes. Bryant, a brilliant orator, was celebrated for his “Cross of Gold” speech, an attack of the gold standard, in which he intoned
“you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
He was a national figure for many years and ran for President on the Democratic ticket three times; he earned multiple nicknames such as The Fundamentalist Pope, the Boy Orator of the Platte, The Silver Knight of the West and the Great Commoner.
At the turn of the century, in the US public intellectuals like John Dewey began to criticize the basis of laissez-faire liberalism as too individualistic and too threatening to an egalitarian society. President Theodore Roosevelt joined the fray, led the “progressive” movement, initiated “trust-busting” and began regulatory constraints to rein big business in. The Sixteenth Amendment which authorized a progressive income tax made it through Congress and the state legislatures during this presidency.
At this time, the meaning of the word “liberal” took on its modern political meaning: “liberal” and “liberalism” came to refer to the non-socialist, non-communist political left – a position that both defends market capitalism and supports infrastructure investment and social programs that benefit large swaths of the population; in Europe the corresponding phenomenon is Social Democracy, though the Social Democrats tend to be more to the left and stronger supporters of the social safety net, not far from the people who call themselves “democratic socialists” in the US today.
On the other hand, the 19th century meaning of “liberalism” has been taken on by the term “neo-liberalism” which is used to designate aggressive free-market capitalism in the age of globalization.
In the first term of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Congress passed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act as well as legislation establishing the Federal Reserve System and the progressive income tax. Wilson is thus credited with being the founder of the modern Democratic Party’s liberalism – this despite his anti-immigrant stance, his anti-Catholic stance and his notoriously racist anti-African-American stance.
The great political achievement of the era was the 19th Amendment which established the right of women to vote. The movement had to overcome entrenched resistance, finally securing the support of Woodrow Wilson and getting the necessary votes in Congress in 1919. Perhaps, it is this that has earned Wilson his standing in the ranks of Democratic Party liberals.
Bryan, for his part a strong supporter of Wilson and his liberal agenda in the 1912 election, then served as Wilson’s first Secretary of State, resigning over the handling of the Lusitania sinking. His reputation has suffered over the years because of his humiliating battle with Clarence Darrow in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 (Fredric March and Spencer Tracy resp. in “Inherit the Wind”); at the trial, religious fundamentalist Bryan argued against teaching human evolution in public schools. It is likely this has kept him off the list of heroes of liberal politics in the US, especially given that this motion picture, a Stanley Kramer “message film,” was an allegory about the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Speaking of allegories, a good case can be made that the Wizard of Oz is an allegory about the populist movement and the Cowardly Lion represents Bryan himself – note, for one thing, that in L. Frank Baum’s book Dorothy wears Silver Shoes and not Ruby Slippers!
The truly great American liberal was FDR whose mission it was to save capitalism from itself by enacting social programs called for by socialist and labor groups and by setting up regulations and guard rails for business and markets. The New Deal programs provided jobs and funded projects that seeded future economic growth; the regulations forced capitalism to deal with its problem of cyclical crises, panics and depressions. He called for a “bank holiday,” kept the country more or less on the gold standard by issuing an executive order to buy up nearly all the privately held the gold in the country (hard to believe today), began Social Security and unemployment insurance, instituted centralized controls for industry, launched major public works projects (from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Grand Coulee Dam), brought electricity to farms, archived the nation’s folk music and folklore, sponsored projects which brought live theater to millions (launching the careers of Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Eliza Kazan and many others) and more. This was certainly not a time of government shutdowns.
In the post WWII period and into the 1960s, there were even “liberal Republicans” such as Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller; today “liberal Republican” is an oxymoron. The most daring of the liberal Republicans was Earl Warren, the one-time Governor of California who in 1953 became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In that role, Warren created the modern activist court, stepping in to achieve justice for minorities, an imperative which the President and the Congress were too cowardly to take on. But his legacy of judicial activism has led to a politicized Supreme Court with liberals on the losing side in today’s run of 5-4 decisions.
Modern day liberalism in the U.S. is also exemplified by LBJ’s Great Society which instituted Medicare and Medicaid and which turned goals of the Civil Rights Movement into law with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
JFK and LBJ were slow to rally to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement (Eleanor Roosevelt was the great liberal champion of civil rights) but in the end they did. Richard Nixon and the Republicans then exploited anti-African-American resentment in the once Democratic “solid South” and implemented their “Southern strategy” which, as LBJ feared, has turned those states solidly Republican ever since. The liberals’ political clout was also gravely wounded by the ebbing of the power of once mighty labor unions across the heartland of the country. Further, the conservative movement was energized by the involvement of ideologues with deep pockets like the Koch brothers and by the emergence of charismatic candidates like Ronald Reagan. The end result has been that only the West Coast and the Northeast can be counted on to elect liberal candidates consistently, places like San Francisco and Brooklyn
What is more, liberal politicians have lost their sense of mission and have failed America in many ways since that time as they have moved further and further to the right in the wake of electoral defeats, cozying up to Wall Street along the way. For example, it was Bill Clinton who signed the bill repealing the Glass-Steagall Act undoing one of the cornerstones of the New Deal; he signed the bill annulling the Aid to Families With Dependent Children Act which also went back to the New Deal; he signed the bill that has made the US the incarceration capital of the world, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
Over the years, the venerable term “liberal” itself has been subjected to constant abuse from detractors. The list of mocking gibes includes tax-and-spend liberal, bleeding heart liberal, hopey-changey liberal, limousine liberal, Chardonnay sipping liberal, Massachusetts liberal, Hollywood liberal, … . There is even a book of such insults and a web site for coming up with new ones. And there was the humiliating defeat of the liberal standard bearer Hillary Clinton in 2016.
So battered is it today that “liberal” is giving way to “progressive,” the label of choice for so many of the men and women of the class of 2018 of the House of Representatives. Perhaps, one hundred years is the limit to the shelf life of a major American political label which would mean “liberal” has reached the end of the line – time to give it a rest and go back to Samuel Johnson’s definition?