U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Problem Of American Liberalism

With apologies to H.J. McCloskey, who in 1965 had an article published in The Review of Metaphysics (Vol. 19, no. 2) titled “The Problem of Liberalism,” I propose we renew discussion of liberalism for historians today.

McCloskey wrote in what we might view as the height of the era, and in relation to philosophy. It’s the ‘might’ in my prior sentence, however, that has stimulated me to propose the issue for debate here. I want to discuss the problem of liberalism in relation to historians—intellectual historians in particular—studying twentieth-century America.

My proposition is this: Understanding American liberalism in the twentieth century is the single most important issue facing U.S. intellectual historians today.


Liberalism touches on a daunting array of issues and topics important to studying thought in the century: politics, economics, religion, war, civil rights, individualism, communitarianism, the Progressive Era, the Cold War, the Culture Wars, the New Deal, Reaganism, and the list goes on and on.

Liberalism has also been a side—and sometimes direct—topic of many USIH posts (see here and here and here for recent examples). The topic has of course been covered in all three conferences. But we’ve never tackled it head on at USIH (until today) as an historiographical problem.

Despite this web of reference, citation, and relevance, I find only cobwebs surrounding the issue both in popular discussion and in the profession. I propose the following questions for debate:

– When did American liberalism begin? What was its apex? Is it over–is the “liberal project” in America dead?
– What is peculiar about American liberalism in terms of what Max Lerner called the “battlefields of liberalism”?
– Why is liberalism both loved and loathed?
– What is liberalism’s relationship to the academy?
– What is liberalism’s relationship with American modernity?
– What is philosophy’s relationship with liberalism?
– Who are the most articulate proponents of liberalism in philosophy? Rawls? Dewey? Habermas? Walzer?
– Why is liberalism, in a very confusing turn of events, sometimes confused with socialism/communism?
– What is liberalism’s relationship with the Left?
– What is liberalism’s relationship with the Arts?
– Who are exemplars of U.S. political liberalism? Franklin Delano Roosevelt?
– Could Ronald Reagan be classified as an exemplar of Republican liberalism? Or is Eisenhower a better example?
– How does liberalism cross party lines?
– What is liberalism’s relationship to the common terms of liberal and conservative?
– What is liberalism in American economic terms?
– What is the relationship between class (economic) and liberalism?
– If liberalism has been instrumental in the construction of something of a “welfare state” in America, why is liberalism reviled by those on the far Left?
– Why is religion’s relationship—whether Christian or otherwise—with liberalism troubled?
– Are secularism and liberalism basically synonymous?
– What is liberalism’s relationship with multiculturalism? What of pluralism?
– What is postmodernism’s relationship with liberalism?
– With all this potential confusion, who are “liberals”?
– Why is liberalism prone to the anarchy of license, “absolute liberty,” and laissez-faire?
– Can equality exist without liberalism?

To catalyze debate in relation to answering some of these questions, I offer the following:

A. A definition of liberalism (from The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition, 1997):

1. The state or quality of being liberal.
2.a. A political theory favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.
2.b. The tenets or policies of a Liberal party.
3. An economic theory in favor of laissez-faire, the free market, and the gold standard.
4.a. A 19th-century Protestant movement that favored free intellectual inquiry, stressed the ethical and humanitarian content of Christianity, and de-emphasized dogmatic theology.
4.b. A 19th-century Roman Catholic movement that favored political democracy and ecclesiastical reform.

B. Liberalism as denoted in my thesaurus (Webster’s New World/Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus, Wiley, 1999):
Synonyms: broad-mindedness, liberality, free-thinking, freedom, radicalism, humanitarianism, humanism, free thought, progressivism, universality, forward view, breadth of mind, latitudinarianism

C. Liberalism according to Wikipedia.

I don’t like this article, in part because it uses the term “liberals” loosely in the second line of the piece. I realize that liberals can be used broadly as supporters of “liberalism,” but the term has too many present-day negative connotations to be read fairly by non-specialist readers of the entry. …Then again, a fair reader (rare) would see that “liberals” could apply to wide parts of both currently dominant American political parties. It is probably the case that Wikipedia’s entry for “social liberalism” best encapsulates twentieth-century American liberalism as discussed by historians. But that entry is long, and this post is getting too long.

D. Liberalism according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (circa 1996, authored by Gerald Gaus and Shane Courtland.

I love the opening closing paragraphs (bolds mine):

As soon as one examines it, ‘liberalism’ fractures into a variety of types and competing visions. In this entry we focus on debates within the liberal tradition. We begin by (1) examining different interpretations of liberalism’s core commitment — liberty. We then consider (2) the longstanding debate between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ liberalism. In section (3) we turn to the more recent controversy about whether liberalism is a ‘comprehensive’ or a ‘political’ doctrine. We close in (4) by considering disagreements as to ‘the reach’ of liberalism — does it apply to all humankind, and must all political communities be liberal?

Given that liberalism fractures on so many issues — the nature of liberty, the place of property and democracy in a just society, the comprehensiveness and the reach of the liberal ideal — one might wonder whether there is any point in talking of ‘liberalism’ at all. It is not, though, an unimportant or trivial thing that all these theories take liberty to be the grounding political value. Radical democrats assert the overriding value of equality, communitarians maintain that the demands of belongingness trump freedom, and conservatives complain that the liberal devotion to freedom undermines traditional values and virtues and so social order itself. Intramural disputes aside, liberals join in rejecting these conceptions of political right.*

*I have no idea what this last line means.

E. Liberalism according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (circa 1960 as defined by Max Lerner).

Here are the opening lines of that essay:
.Liberalism is the creed, philosophy and movement which is committed to freedom as a method and policy in government, as an organizing principle in society and as a way of life for the individual and community. As a term it took its origins from the “Liberales,” a Spanish political party in the early 19th century, but received its widest currency in the English language. As an idea and philosophy it predates its use as a term, and can be traced back to the Judaeo-Christian-Greek intellectual world, along with the idea of liberty itself with which it is closely linked.

Confusion of Terms.–Some of the confusions about liberalism arise from the various stages of meaning through which the term passed during a history of several centuries, and from the wide diversity of uses to which it has been put. There were in the second half of the 20th century a number of political parties, in Great Britain, Italy, Germany and elsewhere, called by the name of the “Liberal party” or some variant of it; there was a party of the same name active in the politics of New York state; and even a Liberal International which served as a clearinghouse for liberal political movements throughout the world. But while these parties expressed the liberal outlook, that outlook was not limited to them.

There is much to recommend in this essay, particularly it’s last section (“Liberalism in the Second Half of the 20th Century”), but notice how “Confusion of Terms” opens the second paragraph—not surprisingly.

I think we can see here how liberalism, as used in discussions about twentieth-century America, could be confusing. That said, in terms of a dictionary definition, I believe that 2.a. gets closest to the core of what I want to discuss in relation to every other topic outlined in the questions above.

With this breadth of associations and terminology, how are we—as writers and readers of history—to discuss “liberalism” with any clarity? Indeed, what is “liberalism” in twentieth-century America? It should be clear with this post that, at the very least, any historical narrative using this term without careful definition exposes itself to equivocation.

To be continued…- TL

PS (11:30 CST, 12/23): If possible, in discussion I would ask that we not use the term ‘liberalism’ to designate the political, social, and culture desires of ‘liberals’ (i.e the perceived ‘Left’ in America). In other words, I want to go against the common usage of the term liberalism in relation to the world of pundits and social commentators. I want to use liberalism in its most philosophical sense.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’ll add a couple of cents: I have found some of the best insight into liberalism in 20th America in discussions/dissections of the period when 60s era Democrats began to migrate toward neoconservatism–or some variety of critical liberalism. I am thinking of Gary Dorrien’s profiles of neocons in the Neoconservative Mind and Justin Vaisse recent book. For example, I think much more needs to be written on Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his struggle with liberalism as a philosophy and liberalism as public policy. It seems to me that at this moment–around the early 1970s–communitarian impulses of liberalism reached a critical impasse with individualism. Was it this moment that liberalism began to be defined more by those who were not liberals than by those who were?

  2. from my perspective, which is not that of a historian of the US–so forgive me if this is silly–i think it isn’t completely crazy to begin thinking about liberalism as a relative position. liberalism as a political position comes into existence in France as a way of dealing with Napoleon. it certainly presented itself as a moderate position in the early 1800s rejecting the intransigence not only of ultras who wanted to restore the power of crown and altar, but also of revolutionaries who wanted to bring back the popular republic. it was marked (not to say marred) from the beginning by opportunism and class exclusivity. liberalism put the political protection of certain personal freedoms before their philosophical justification. when some justification was demanded, some combination of historical justification for moderate individualism, and Kant, were generally sufficient. this was–still in France–a political rather than an economic liberalism.

    what does all that mean about the US? maybe what is interesting about the US from this perspective continues to be not the absence but the suppression–physical and psychological–of a left alternative to liberalism? in this way, liberalism, always positional, could define itself without difficulty early in the 20th century, but especially in the context of the cold war, was forced onto one end of a newly bi-polar configuration, a fundamental distortion of its basic operating procedure?

  3. Ray,

    I do think that the late 1960s and early 1970s figure large in the history of liberalism. But did that period see ~the end~ of liberalism? I’m not so sure. As you noted, it seemed to witness ~an end~ of a certain strain: the shift to personal satisfaction (i.e. individualism) superseded the older communitarian impulse.

    In addition, it doesn’t seem to me that postmodernism—as an intellectual and cultural “movement”—superseded liberalism’s reach as a political program. But of course this assumes that liberalism was a cultural and intellectual program. I think it was, via the aforementioned communitarian impulse. Though contested, I think the the civil rights movement was communitarian in nature and pervaded all kinds of cultural emblems and thought movements.

    But are we then in the long decline of liberalism? If so, where are we in that descent—the middle, or the very end? Will the end be an obvious, blatant paradigm shift. Or are we in the midst of the very paradigm that will supersede it?

    – TL

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