Politically speaking, America may be the most confused country in the world. Millions of people in this country are conservatives and even reactionaries who think they are liberals; we have millions more liberals and radicals who call themselves conservative.
It is an unholy mess and it needs to be cleared up. It’s time for a language intervention.
Despite the mess so many “liberals” have made of this great political tradition, liberal and progressive are two of the noblest and most important words in the dictionary. They describe essential qualities of the American mind and essential values in American politics.
But today the words have been hijacked. They’ve been turned into their opposites: a liberal today is somebody who wants to defend and restore the Blue Social Model from the last century; a progressive is now somebody who thinks history has gone horribly wrong and that we must turn the clock back to make things better.
Does this really make sense?
In America today, while “liberals” and “progressives” still are sometimes out there on the barricades for some truly liberal and important values, most of what passes for liberal and progressive politics is a conservative reaction against economic and social changes that the left doesn’t like. The people who call themselves liberal in the United States today are fighting desperate rearguard actions to save policies and institutions that are old and established, that once served a noble purpose, but that now need fundamental reform (and perhaps in some cases abolition) lest they thwart the very purposes for which they were once made.
Too bad for the reactionaries, you might say, but why worry about the words? If labels that once described important and forward looking ideas have now been turned into labels for the politics of nostalgia, why fight over it?
But the l-word in particular isn’t just any old word. The l-word is America’s word, the word that sums up in a nutshell what this country is all about. A liberal is someone who seeks ordered liberty in politics: who seeks to reconcile humanity’s need for governance with its drive for freedom in such a way as to give us all the order we need (but no more) with as much liberty as possible. In this sense liberty isn’t divided into freedoms of speech, religion, economic activity or personal conduct: real liberals care deeply about all of the above, and seek a society in which individuals enjoy increasing liberty in each of these dimensions — while continuing to cultivate the virtues and the institutions that give us the order without which there can be no freedom.
If Americans lose their grip on the meaning of that word, we have a hard time making sense of our politics. I don’t want to give that up without a fight and, I am not sure that we must. The l-word has come back from the dead in the past. More than once.
There’s a long history of specific political agendas that incorporate a forward-looking agenda, and bear the name liberal precisely because they look ahead. As time goes by they make their contributions and society goes on to face new issues. There comes a time when the old ‘liberal’ is the new ‘conservative’; these agendas have made their contribution and time has marched on. In the end, fresher, more useful ideas emerge and these ultimately capture the label. The old liberalism dies but the liberal spirit lives on; a new, more vital liberalism takes up the struggle in new ways for a new day.
One Snake, Four Skins
In modern history, liberalism has gone through four distinct incarnations; the old snake keeps shedding its skin. Liberalism 1.0 was the political expression of the original enlightenment philosophy that developed in Britain and shaped the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That Revolution remains the seminal political event in the history of the English speaking world; the American founding fathers set out consciously to imitate the spirit of 1688: both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights flow from the ideas of a revolution that once and for all made Parliament supreme over the Crown in British history. Even today the principles of that glorious (and largely peaceful) revolution remain the central pillars of American political thought and the best definition of a liberal remains someone who wants to build on the accomplishments of that epochal event.
But the Revolution of 1688 had its limits and by 1776 liberalism 1.0 was no longer enough. In Britain, the corruption of the House of Commons allowed George III to reassert royal control; Americans realized that the constitutional monarchy that 1.0 liberals established in 1688 was no longer enough. The 2.0 liberalism of our founding fathers replaced constitutional monarchy with a republic expressly founded on natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. The 1.0 Revolution of 1688 had replaced an intolerant established Church with a more tolerant one. The 2.0 Revolution of 1776 separated the church from the state to the benefit of both.
Liberalism 2.0 as developed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was rooted in the thought of 1.0 liberals like John Locke, but thinkers and politicians like Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington developed and put into practice a set of ideas about how individual liberty could be reconciled with economic development and good governance. Note how the names changed. In 1688, if you supported the Glorious Revolution you were a Whig and a liberal. In 1776 if you supported those same principles against the Declaration of Independence, you were a Tory conservative. The labels changed with the times.
Yet while liberalism 2.0 was more advanced, more fully and consistently liberal than the 1.0 model, the 2.0 liberals remained tied to pre-liberal and pre-modern ideas. The American founding fathers for example thought that limiting the vote to rich white men was just fine; women and the ‘lower orders’ had no legitimate place in public life. While (much more than the 1.0 liberals) 2.0 liberals understood that slavery was an evil, they believed that it could be tolerated until it died a natural death.
The 19th century saw the development of liberalism 3.0; sometimes called Manchester Liberalism, this was, compared to the earlier systems, a philosophy of radical individualism and equality. 3.0 liberals had much more confidence in the common sense reasoning power of ordinary people than earlier generations; their programs included once unthinkable ideas like universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, an end to state-enforced monopoly corporations, limited government, free markets at home and free trade abroad. 3.0 liberals tended to support strong, personal and emotional religious belief; they were much more likely to be evangelical than either 1.0 or 2.0 liberals. Like earlier liberals, 3.0 liberals believed that capitalism, individual rights and a culture of virtue supported by a tolerant, non-fanatical Protestant Christianity could provide ordered liberty to countries like the US and the UK. (They also by and large believed in the superiority of the white race, thought that “too much” Jewish influence was bad for a country, and thought that Catholic countries could never become effective modern democracies.)
Stage Four Liberals
In the 20th century, liberals continued to seek new ways of advancing the core liberal synthesis of individual freedom with social order in the post-Civil War world. Ultimately they produced liberalism 4.0, the model that most Americans today understand when they hear the word liberal. Today 4.0 is increasingly outdated and backward-looking, but in its time it was a genuinely positive attempt to realize old values in new circumstances, and many of its achievements still demand our respect.
The driving force shaping the agenda of 4.0 liberals were a series of powerful and profound historical developments that changed the world under their feet. The first three versions of liberal politics were built in societies that, while beginning to urbanize and industrialize, were still predominantly agricultural. Both Jeffersonian and Jacksonian liberals saw independent small farmers as the basis of American freedom and democracy.
All that began to change after the Civil War. The industrial revolution and associated phenomena (urbanization, mass immigration from non-English speaking, non-Protestant societies, the economic decline of small farmers and rural communities) presented liberals with new and very complicated problems. The problems of urbanization, class conflict (and the competition with socialism for the support of urban industrial workers), assimilation, and the regulation of a modern industrial economy gave 4.0 liberals new issues to worry about.
Their problems were extremely complex and posed some challenging questions about the basic premises of liberal thought. Classically, liberals considered an unholy alliance of church and state as the prime enemy of freedom. In the late nineteenth century, the rise of huge industrial corporations created yet another force that threatened to crush individual liberty; 4.0 liberals began to think about the state as a possible ally to defend individuals from unaccountable private power.
There were other problems. Agrarian America had been a relatively egalitarian society when it came to incomes; the industrial revolution and mass immigration threatened to divide society into paupers and millionaires. Agrarian America had also been relatively homogeneous, culturally speaking. Most Americans had been Protestant and either from Britain itself or from relatively similar cultures in northern Europe, like those of Germany and the Netherlands. A society including millions of impoverished urban workers from radically different cultural backgrounds could not be run exactly the same way as in the past; the situation grew even more complex as millions of African-Americans left Dixie for the big northern cities after World War I.
The progressives and liberals who created liberalism 4.0 did their best to address these and similar problems in ways that they hoped would preserve as much as possible of the old liberal heritage in a new and more difficult world. The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests – and split into classes with most industrial and agricultural workers subject to very low wages, long hours and poor working conditions. At the same time the challenges of modernization and urbanization (public health, food safety, provision of newly necessary services like electricity and gas) could best be met through public services and, in some cases, heavily regulated private monopolies. The professional and managerial classes were not just middle classes in the sense of standing between the rich and the poor in income and status; they were mediating classes who sought through the state, the universities and the learned professions to impose a balance between the interests of the wealthy and the workers.
On religion, 4.0 liberals were better than their predecessors at understanding the ways in which growing numbers of American Catholics and Jews could support rather than undermine the culture of faith and virtue on which civil liberty ultimately depends. Partly to create a neutral public space in which Catholics and Jews could join Protestants on equal terms in debate, 4.0 liberals tended to favor the secularization of public life.
Version 4.0: FDR.
When it came to both gender and (perhaps their greatest accomplishment) race, 4.0 liberals did yeoman service to the cause of human freedom by opening the doors of full participation more widely than ever before. If efforts to create a more just and open society sometimes crossed the line into illiberal restrictions on speech (especially at citadels of political correctness like some universities), and if programs like school busing and affirmative action were sometimes counterproductive, nevertheless the great effort to open the gates of American opportunity to non-whites, with special attention to African-Americans, was on the whole and in its broad outline one of the greatest triumphs ever of the liberal spirit .
Although socialists and social democrats sometimes made common cause with 4.0 liberals, it’s important to realize that, at bottom, 4.0 liberalism was built as an alternative to socialism rather than as an introduction to it. That is, many American liberals came to believe that providing benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance would inoculate American workers against more virulent forms of socialist ideology, and attract the new immigrants and their children toward the American liberal tradition.
It worked. The strong socialist political movements, mostly based among recent immigrants from countries with strong socialist and social-democratic traditions, gradually faded away. The descendants of the European immigrant waves between 1880 and 1920 turned their backs on socialism; and the overwhelming bulk of the American labor movement was strongly anti-communist all through the Cold War.
Time To Move On
Uniting all four liberal versions is a belief in the individual conscience and a drive to find a creative compromise between the individual’s drive for self-expression and free action and the need for a stable society. There is a belief that an open, dynamic society will lead to a better life for all and that promoting ordered liberty is the morally obligatory as well as the pragmatically desirable thing to do. All four versions were grounded in the history, philosophy, literature and culture of the western world – while progressively opening to new ideas and perceptions from within and beyond the west. All four versions were pragmatic, developing their visions and ordering their priorities based on an understanding of what their society’s abilities and limits were.
All four versions have something else in common: none of them can serve as the political program for the heirs of the two great revolutions today. We don’t want the constitutional monarchy and Anglican establishment of William III; we don’t want the aristocratic, limited franchise republic of George Washington. We don’t want the Manchester liberalism of the British and American radicals of the 1860s; and we don’t want the progressive, managerial state that liberals and progressives built in the first two thirds of the twentieth century.
That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t admire, learn from, and build on the accomplishments of each iteration of the revolutionary tradition. But our job today is to begin to put together a new synthesis of the enduring liberal values in the 21st century: liberalism 5.0.
Over the next couple of weeks I will have more to say about what liberalism 5.0 is going to be about. Like earlier versions, it will build on the best of what has gone before while making adjustments – radical when necessary, though never gratuitously so – to existing beliefs and institutions. 5.0 liberals will challenge the right of 4.0 liberals to the magic L-word, seeking both to convince 4.0 liberals to come on back to the future — and denouncing those that don’t as the blinkered reactionaries and speed bumps they are.
These conversions are not, historically speaking, as rare as one might think. Benjamin Franklin was one of the most prominent American 1.0 liberals during much of his life. During his long residence in London he hoped that a transatlantic British Empire under the royal House of Hanover would be a beacon of enlightenment to all the world. But as times changed, so did Franklin, becoming one of the most courageous and effective leaders of the American Revolution. I suspect that some of the most important and creative people who will lead the movement towards a 5.o America will have grown up steeped in the values of 4.0 thought.
During the next couple of weeks I will post some more about what 5.o liberalism will look like and how it both breaks with the policies and world view of 4.0 liberals while seeking core liberal values in a changing world. But whether we still call it liberalism or whether we find some new word to stand for our deepest national hopes and dreams, American society must move beyond the increasingly dysfunctional and outdated ideas of 4.0 liberalism. Whatever was the case in the past, it just doesn’t work now. If we don’t recognize that and move on, economic decline and social stagnation will undercut our prosperity, endanger our liberty and undermine our international power and domestic security. That is a future no true liberal could love.