Columbia University American historian Alan Brinkley discusses the return of the word “liberal” to mainstream American political discourse in the wake of Barack Obama’s recent inaugural address. Writing at The New Republic, he gives readers a quick primer on the use of this word in 20th-century America. Here is a taste:
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. One early twentieth-century scholar, remarking on the history of the Bill of Rights in the nineteenth century, described it as “140 years of Silence.” Only the wealthy and powerful supported those rights.
Before World War I, liberalism—then called “progressivism”—tried to build a broadminded government reaching out to people across the nation. But the growing power of corporations and massive inequality in the nineteenth and early twentieth century made liberalism almost meaningless. 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. That definition of liberalism remained powerful from the end of the New Deal into the 1960s.
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. Liberalism has not yet fully revived from that era into our time. If liberalism remains an ideal, it still remains a weak one.
But the liberal creed remains one that even many conservatives, if they thought about it, might agree with. Modern liberalism means liberty for speech and the press. It means freedom of religion and a separation of church and state. It provides equal rights under the law. Other elements of liberalism have begun to emerge in our own time: protecting the environment, securing social security and health care, stopping unnecessary wars, supporting the poor, feeding the hungry, helping the homeless.