U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Brinkley’s Brief History of the Idea of Liberalism

For today’s post I had hoped to gather my thoughts for a follow-up entry on Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Those thoughts are accumulating and percolating, but untyped as of today. I’m halfway through chapter sixteen (“A People’s War?”), which means I’m very nearly two-thirds done with the book. This chapter, on World War II, is representative of the book overall—of all that is good and bad about Zinn’s classic. Enough on that. My notes are not quite ready for prime time, so I’ll get to that next week.

Today’s offering will be brief. I forward for your consideration this brief history of the idea of liberalism, authored by Alan Brinkley. Originally published by The Nation yesterday, it is titled: “The L Word Lives: Is it safe to say ‘liberal’ again?”

At two points in this blog’s history I argued that understanding the history, boundaries, and problems of liberalism might be one of the most important tasks of our generation. My sense with that was we would not fully understand conservatism (a major preoccupation of this blog) unless that “other” task was complete. Toward that task, Brinkley divides his history of liberalism into five eras. Here are some relevant passages from the piece:


Preface: Brinkley’s Opening

For more than twenty years, the word “liberal” seemed to have disappeared from the political world. But President Obama’s speech appears to have revived it—even though the word did not appear in his inaugural address.

In the aftermath of his speech, “liberal” was suddenly everywhere—by the right (with derision) and by the left (with relief). Most interestingly, the word appeared prominently in the mainstream news outlets that have typically avoided using a term that had evolved from being a basic political descriptor to a loaded piece of jargon used as an epithet by Republicans as avoided as a liability by Democrats.

“OBAMA OFFERS LIBERAL VISION,” a New York Times banner headline blared. “For His Second Term, a Sweeping Liberal Vision,” said the Los Angeles Times. “A Speech That Embraced Liberalism,” added Politico.

1. 19th-century Liberalism

Over a century ago, liberalism meant civil liberties, political freedom with limited government, and laissez-faire economic policy — not making an effort to change the nation. That idea lasted through the nineteenth century.

2. Progressive Era Liberalism

Before World War I, liberalism—then called “progressivism”—tried to build a broadminded government reaching out to people across the nation.

3. 1930s Liberalism

Not until the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal used the word, did Americans—and their government—make a more powerful “liberalism”. The New Deal was an effort to give ordinary citizens rights that had been almost forgotten.

4. 1960s Liberalism

The turmoil of the late 1960s—the battles of civil rights, the fiasco of Vietnam, the unraveling of the American economy— created a new radicalism of the right and a left that made liberalism seemed obsolete to many people.

5. Liberalism Up Through 2013

Liberalism has not yet fully revived from that era [1960s] into our time. If liberalism remains an ideal, it still remains a weak one.


What do you think? What’s Brinkley missing? I don’t understand, for instance, why he excluded the era of neoliberalism. Did he exclude that term because he feels there is no overlap, that neoliberalism is its own animal? – TL

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for alerting us to Brinkley’s article, Tim.

    Here’s a largely forgotten survey that bears on this discussion: Ronald D. Rotunda, “The ‘liberal’ Label: Roosevelt’s Capture of a Symbol,” PUBLIC POLICY 17 (1968): 377-408.

    In the 1950s many people (Clinton Rossiter, Peter Viereck, Reinhold Niebuhr, to name a few) connected New Deal liberalism to Burkean Conservativism, or what Viereck called “conservative socialism.” Viereck and Rossiter both quote FDR and Adlai Stevenson claiming that they were in fact conservatives. I was not able to track down the speeches from which those quotations came.

    • Mark: Thanks for the Rotunda reference. And I get/see the “conservative socialism” label. – TL

  2. “not making an effort to change the nation” not sure that makes sense even for later 19th century liberalism.

    would it be worth looking a little further back? isn’t it possible to argue that certain kinds of 18th century political thought should be called ‘liberal’? –i’m thinking of arguments about montesquieu– i know very little about political thought in the early 19th century in the US, but in France it can be said that liberalism in a modern form (and the word itself used to describe a political position/program) emerged out of the Revolution, and particularly after Napoleon. this is a political liberalism more richly textured than the later 19th-century version–one much less apt to draw an immediate equivalency between economic freedom (free markets, little state intervention…) and political freedom. concern with that period–before 1848–has certainly been central to attempts to revive liberalism as a mode of political thought in france since around 1980.

    not sure exactly how that would fit into a narrative of US history. i guess the assumption here is that it’s safe to ignore anything that came before the civil war?

    new deal liberalism and burkean conservatism? how does the argument go? does it have to do with family policy? racial politics? code for calling FDR a fascist?

    • Eric:

      I guess it all depends on how you understand Burke. Readers like Viereck, Rossiter, Niebuhr, Schlesinger, Jr., Herberg, Nisbet, Paul Goodman, even somewhat Kirk and Weaver, got 3 things from Burke: a justification for progress-with-restraint; a supporter of communitarian “little platoons” against “mass society”; and (more contested) a defender of responsible aristocracy. In this light, the New Deal could be seen as less as about “equality” than bureaucratized noblesse oblige–gifts from persons who had no intention of upsetting WASP culture. I know this is a questionable reading of Burke that many reject, but it was their reading.

      Niebuhr actually tried to argue that Burke was a kindred “realistic liberal.” I think Niebuhr’s greatest accomplishment was bringing a historically conservative principle–innate human sinfulness–into the service of leftist causes.

      In Chapters 7-9 of my book, THE RIGHT OF THE PROTESTANT LEFT, I show how those persons appropriated Burke as part of their quest for a “third way” between Cold War liberalism and libertarian conservativism. I’d also point readers to Peter Kolozi’s recent dissertation, sure to make an excellent book, “Conservatives against Capitalism” (completed under Corey Robin).

      On family values, Niebuhr’s theologically liberal associates in the World Council of Churches did worry alot about the demise of the “genteel” family (see Elesha Coffmann’s forthcoming book, THE CHRISTIAN CENTURY AND THE RISE OF THE MAINLINE, on ecumenical Christian links to genteel culture). On race, Niebuhr’s criticism of the 1954 Brown decision, and subsequent writings on civil rights, did evince characteristics of Burke.

      • I know *very little* about Burke, so I’m willing to take your word for it. There’s no question on your book’s thesis, however: there are degrees of “Christian Left,” both then and now.

  3. I’m wondering if “equality” is enough to tie these eras of liberalism together. He certainly emphasizes the expansive notion of rights, and the development of positive rights in both economic and social senses, but as Brinkley states, many of what liberals defend (i.e. civil liberties) conservatives would also embrace. If we are talking about liberalism as it relates to capitalist societies, it would be useful to have some incorporation of liberals’ evolving stance towards markets (or free markets) and the role of government–and as Tim notes, including neo-liberalism.

    • I would go with the notion of “individual rights,” with its imperfect (e.g. unevenness in relation to race, class, and gender) but deep roots in the Enlightenment, as a theme that ties certain “liberalisms” together. If we go that route, we can talk productively about the Romantics and Protestantism in discussions of the “long history of liberalism.” – TL

  4. To get American liberalism right, you’ve got to start at least as early as the English civil war – Locke’s moderation of Hobbes to his right and erasure of the Levellers to his left, compacting the “Liberal” continuum, which American history then re-expands, step by historical step, without ever eliminating any of the earlier stages — such that American liberalism ends up a broad family/spectrum spread over the continuum from center-left to far right. Then you’ve got to get your critique of Hartz’s “The Liberal Tradition in America” right. Then take a look at Eli Zaretsky’s discussion of the relationship/dynamics between Liberalism and the Left in American history in his new book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument.

  5. Many of us in the early New Left understood ourselves to be Liberals trying to get Liberalism to live up to its avowed ideals. Until about 1965-66. We then came to feel we had to break with “Liberalism” and condemn it; “Liberalism” — meaning technocratic New Deal/Cold War liberalism — became, for a few years, the main enemy.

    As I said at one of last year’s conferences on the 50th anniversary of the Port Huron Statement: Our own history is a model of how hard it is to find the right way of combining idealism and realism. (If the Left doesn’t do that, nobody will, as is so well demonstrated by the current state of affairs.) First we thought we could force Liberals to recognize their failure in that regard, their betrayal of their avowed ideals and the “crackpot” nature of their realism. Then we concluded that we had been profoundly unrealistic in believing that such was doable, and we swung (during and after 1968) to the denunciation of all Liberalism and the glorification of third world revolutionaries, Che, the Black Panthers – who, in fact, were mostly pretty unrealistic about their own situations and their own peoples. This led to the utter unrealism and perverted idealism of ideological dogmatism and “picking up the gun,” and to the disintegration of the New Left. Followed by the retreat of most of us into various narrower forms of political activism, careers, forms of cultivating one’s garden – including a lot of writing about what had happened.

    But we’ve never come up with a theorization of how we might have and should have done things differently – the errors of the Left in dealing with Liberals and Liberalism in the second half of the 1960s – and in the second half of the 1940s – and how the latter infected the former. We need that theorization to inform what we do now.

  6. I think “neoliberalism” (the term and the concept) now really does need to be grappled with in any discussion of the word “liberalism” in the American context. Though the term “neoliberalism” has a separate, older history in this country (that I’ve blogged about in the past), its current meaning is essentially imported from Europe and derived from the European meaning of “liberalism,” which, while a cousin to the American term, has been pretty distinct since at least the 1940s. So far, at least, when people say “liberal” in this country they definitely don’t mean “neoliberal” (and vice versa). But I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the term’s common sound and common DNA result in some crosspollenization sometime in the future. And I also wouldn’t be surprised if the popularity of “neoliberal” as a negative epithet among contemporary American progressives (as they’ve tended to style themselves over the last couple decades) slows the relabeling of progressives as “liberals.”

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