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