Elpida Bograkou, S.A.F.I.A Research Team, USA
“The great advantage of the American is that he has arrived at a state of democracy without having to endure a democratic revolution and that he is born free without having to become so”, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote over a century ago (Tocqueville cited in Frost & Sikkenga 2003; 7). It is, indeed, true that the American society had always been associated with the political philosophy of Liberalism and has become one of the beacon countries for its expression. Liberal ideals such as the ideals of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion for all belief systems, and the separation of church and state, right to due process, and equality under the law are some of the most basic and fundamental rights of the United States of America.
There havebeen a lot of heated debates around the nature of American Liberalism, its origins and evolution. The origins of this political theory can be found in the political ideals of the Enlightenment and followed the, aforementioned, Lockean Liberalismprinciples (Frost & Sikkenga 2003. 33). In 1787 the American Constitution was the first that set up the first sovereign peoples republic. However, it must be noted that despite the liberal nature of the American Constitution there were, still, some contradictions that even the Founding Fathers acknowledged such as the acceptance of slavery and limited voting rights. From the time of the American Revolution to the present day, the American society has managed to extend all kinds of freedom and liberties to each American individual.
One of the major characteristics of the American society that helped with the domination of liberal political thought is the fact that Americans never had a feudal system and this is, in fact, what distinguishes American and European Liberalism. Louis Hartz, an American political scientist and influential liberal proponent of the idea of American exceptionalism, has argued in hisbook The Liberal Tradition in America thatthe absence of feudalism is a basic factor to take into consideration when discussing the liberal nature of the American political climate (as cited in Schlesinger). As the American economy started shifting from faming to manufacturing and services liberals feared that the ones concentrating most of the wealth would endanger American democracy so as to satisfy their interests.
In order to deal with the eminent danger of monopolies and concentration of wealth to the few in the 19th and 20th century the domination of the Republican Party for most of the era from 1860 to 1932, the Third Party System, and the Fourth Party System as well as political reforms during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century which restricted monopolies, tried to prevent any major reversal from the liberal ideals due to the concentration of wealth in the hands of the elite (Jensen as cited in Shafer & Badger). At the same time, Franklin Roosevelt signaled the end of the era of classical liberalism and changed the cultural meaning of being a liberal by adopting the term to describe an individual in favor of some government activism but opposed to more radical reforms.
Modern American liberalism comes with The New Deal initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt and intended to relief, recover and reform the economic and humanitarian consequences of the Great Depression somewhere around 1933. The aftermath of the New Deal lead to the formation of the liberal front of the Cold War onwards to the liberal front of the Progressive era. Although the liberal front was dynamic in both phases, there were and still are some opposite driving forces within it. Conservativism was always present, expressed through all political parties and political practices of the elected administrations. The end of the liberal consensus came with the election of Ronald Reagan that marked the election of the first non-Keynesian administration and the first application of supply-side economics instead of laissez-faire/free markets that classical liberalists supported. Richard M. Abrams in America Transformed: Sixty Years of Revolutionary Change, 1941–2001(2006) argues that the eclipse of liberalism was caused by a grass-roots populist revolt motivated by corporations that wanted to weaken labor unions and eliminate the regulatory regime of the New Deal. The success of liberalism in the first place, he argues, came from efforts of a liberal elite that had entrenched itself in key social, political, and especially judicial positions (Abrams 2006). In a sense, Abrams proposes that the power elites were the ones that decided at any time the way the struggle of liberal ideals was expressed.
At this point one can easily understand why the debate around how liberal America truly is, has become a dead end. American liberalism not only has a complex nature but also differs in its manifestation. Taking into consideration the recent political developments and Donald J. Trump’s election, this difficulty in defining the phenomenon of American liberalism is prominent. Many are those who argue that the end of the Obama era is the end of American liberalism. Nowadays, raw conservativism is replacing it with a lot of success. (Beinart 2016). Jeff E. Colgan and Robert O. Keohane in their article The Liberal Order Is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Witherin Foreign Affairs magazine, raise the argument that the “extremely nationalist in tone and content” (Colgan & Keohane 2017; 37) Trump campaign made the US to turn its back to the liberal order.They find that the enemy of the Liberal America is the Populist America who has faith in strong, charismatic leaders and distastes limits on sovereignty and powerful institutions such as the UN, NATO, the EU and the WTO to name a few. Through them the American liberal order had a leading role in peacekeeping and peacebuilding. For Colgan and Keohane, the liberal order is being challenged nowadays.
However, it is fair for one to wonder. Are the Americans liberal in the end? A recent study from GALLUP shows that in 2016, when an average of 36% of U.S. adults throughout the year identified themselves as conservative and 25% as liberal. It is important to note that the margin between the two is significantly decreasing since the 1990’s when the first survey was conducted. It is interesting that through the survey we can see that polarization of Americans regarding political ideology is being observed in the expense of the moderates. As the survey points out, two are the basic political ideologies pending now in the US. Conservative, sometimes extremist, far-right Republicans and Democrats who grow in appreciation after the Obama Administration, fighting for multilateral, modernizing agreements and civil rights. However, both are manifestations of the same political ideology that transforms over time and space to appropriately act as a safeguard of core values and ideals; Liberalism. Finally, the question for me should be: how is America’s liberal order expressed in 2017?
Abrams, R. M. (2006).America Transformed: Sixty Years of Revolutionary Change, 1941–2001; esp. pp ix and 125
Beinart, P. (2015, December 24). Why America Is Moving Left. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/01/why-america-is-moving-left/419112/
Colgan. J.D & Keohane, R.O. (2017). The Liberal Order Is Rigged: Fix It Now or Watch It Wither. Foreign Affairs. May/June Issue 2017; 36-44
Gallup, I. (2017, January 03). US Conservatives Outnumber Liberals by Narrowing Margin. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/201152/conservative-liberal-gap-continues-narrow-tuesday.aspx
Frost, B., & Sikkenga, J. (2003). History of American political thought. Lanham (Md.): Lexington Books; 33
Jensen, R. (2001). Democracy, Republicanism and Efficiency: The Values of American Politics, 1885–1930, in Byron Shafer and Anthony Badger, eds, Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775–2000; 149–80
Rutland, R. A. (1995). The Democrats: From Jefferson to Clinton. Columbia: University of Missouri Press; 61
Sandel, M. J. (1998). Democracy’s discontent: America in search of a public philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 157