'Liberal' Enters the American Political Lexicon

by John B. Judis | February 28, 2005

In the nineteenth century, liberalism was identified with the laissez- faire policies of William Gladstone's British Liberal Party, but, in the twentieth century, liberalism came to be identified in Britain and the United States with support for government intervention in the market. As Ronald Rotunda recounts in The Politics of Language, The New Republic played an important role in effecting this transformation in American politics. What we now think of as American liberalism goes back to the British Liberals and to Republican progressives. The British Whigs of the 1830s, who favored expanded suffrage, were branded "Liberals" (after the continental revolutionaries) by the opposition Tories. The term was meant to be derogatory, but it became a badge of honor rather than of shame, and the Whig Party became the Liberal Party, which espoused what would now be thought of as a laissez- faire, or libertarian, opposition to government interference in the market. In the early twentieth century, British Liberals, competing with the Labour Party for working-class votes, adopted a "new liberalism" based upon the premise, spelled out by Liberal Party philosopher L. T. Hobhouse, that, if capitalism couldn't provide citizens with basic economic security, it had to "be secured by the deliberate action of the state." In the United States, Theodore Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Republicans adopted a similar approach, but they, like their Democratic counterparts, called their politics "progressive" and not "liberal." When The New Republic began shifting its allegiance from Theodore Roosevelt and the Republicans to Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats in the 1916 election, it used the term "liberal" in a June editorial to describe Wilson's "preference for a governing government." That marked perhaps the first use of the term to describe a Democratic version of progressivism, and it stuck. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt adopted the term to describe his own progressive convictions, and, in 1941, summing up his own achievements, he wrote, "I have always believed, and I have frequently stated, that my own party can succeed at the polls so long as it continues to be the party of militant liberalism." Here's the 1916 editorial, available only at TNR Online: June 24, 1916 President Wilson has had his day at St. Louis. His Democratic associates have renominated him with every indication of loyalty and satisfaction. They allowed him his way about the platform and about the proceedings of the convention. The delegates did not entirely agree with Mr. Wilson in the emphasis he wished to place upon on the issues of the campaign; but they did not permit their disagreement to become embarrassing. It was his day, and they knew it. They owe their success to him. If they had elected William J. Bryan or Champ Clark to the Presidency in 1912, they would have long since been floundering around in a wilderness of difficulties. The Democracy of today is even more deeply indebted to Mr. Wilson than its forebears were indebted to Jefferson and Jackson. The elder statesmen dominated and led the party during a period in which it was far more homogeneous than it is now--far more united in spirit and purpose. The contemporary Democratic party is preserved by no similar bond of class interest and feeling. It is an exclusively political organization whose members are associated for the purpose of getting and keeping control of the government. Its existing vitality is the creation of Mr. Wilson's leadership. The Democrats cannot get along without it. They have no substitute for Mr. Wilson, no alternative to his policy. For the time being they are not merely a Wilson but a Wilson-ized Democracy. Mr. Wilson has not been a great President; he has been a great party leader. His eminence as a party leader is a clue to the policy of his administration and to the larger part of its successes and failures. From the day of his first nomination, his unwavering purpose, his absorbing preoccupation has been the resurrection of the Democratic party as a capable organ of government. In his devotion to his party he has been only following in the footsteps of his party predecessors. Jefferson and Jackson were also great party leaders rather than great Presidents. Or, if you please, they were great party Presidents only in so far as they were great party leaders; and in this respect they offered a sharp contrast to the great Presidents belonging to the opposite nationalist tradition, Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt, who always appealed to something more than a partisan idea and aroused something larger than partisan support. Mr. Wilson assumed office at a critical moment in the life of Democracy. The progressive movement had caused a schism among the Republicans. Both the conservatives and the radicals in that party had become more attached to conservative or radical ideas than they were to partisan success. Mr. Wilson was resolved that under his leadership the fellowship of his party should never be similarly shattered, that no effort should be spared to preserve the unity and renew the vitality of the Democracy. Never for one moment has he allowed this major purpose to be neglected or obscured. In the effort to accomplish it he has been, as he was obliged to be, a thoroughgoing opportunist. He has made many sacrifices and adopted many different and even contradictory expedients. He has at times flourished his convictions with reckless zeal and at others abandoned them in discreet silence; he has at times conciliated opposition at a very high price and at others ridden it down with ruthless determination; he has played painfully safe on some issues and taken long chances on others; he has posed both as the leader of his party and as its humble and faithful mouthpiece. His course has been a striking example of the agile and resourceful selection of the most available road to immediate success. The most emphatic indication of his success consists in his ability to dispense with the services of William J. Bryan. Four years ago, Mr. Bryan had to be included in the Cabinet because as an outsider and a possible malcontent he was in a position to ruin the administration. Today the Commoner is innocuous both as an outsider and as a malcontent. American politics has rarely staged a spectacle more ironic and more pathetic than that of Mr. Bryan at St. Louis. He was obliged to march to the beat of martial music behind the triumphal car of Wilson Preparedness, while at the same time continuing to intone in obedience to some inner rhythm his familiar personal pans to the Prince of Peace. In no region has Mr. Wilson been more successfully opportunist than in his selection and adaptation of political policies and convictions. He began with a philosophical interpretation of the progressive movement which transformed it into a revival of Jeffersonian Democracy. Back of the New Freedom was the traditional Democratic confidence in free competition among individuals as the most effective means of securing the public welfare--provided only the competition was automatically regulated in the interest of fair play. The prevailing political and economic abuses were traced to pernicious Republican privileges, for which the Democrats would substitute a new Democratic Constitution of Freedom. When that new Constitution was actually framed, however, it provided rather for more government than for more freedom. The solutions were administrative rather than legal. All the Democratic legislation has depended for the accomplishment of its purposes on those expert commissions which the President had expressly disparaged during the campaign of 1912. The national banking system was finally pulled together as the consequence of autocratic powers granted to a government commission. Another commission was authorized to deal with violations of fair business practice. Finally the Democratic tariff, which is supposed to embody some approximation to freedom of trade, is found to need for its proper administration a Board of Experts. The same tendency spread by contagion to other regions of public policy. All along the line the attempt to find negative, legalistic and automatic solutions of public problems, with which Mr. Wilson began his presidential term, has yielded to a more active and positive attitude. He has changed from an anti-suffragist to a suffragist, from an opponent of military preparedness to its advocate, from a waiting Mexican program to one of forcible interference, from a war policy of scrupulous neutrality to one of positive discrimination among the belligerents, from a disposition to consider peace as something to be preserved to a disposition to consider it as something to be planned, tried out, bought and paid for. In Mr. Wilson's present program there is scarcely a shred left of the fabric of his Jeffersonian revival. With every development of his policy he has been approximating to the spirit and creed of a Hamilton nationalist. Our own opinion of Mr. Wilson as a statesman has improved just in proportion as the indiscriminate and irresponsible individualism of his earlier views has yielded to a preference for responsible nationalistic organization. He is a wiser and safer political leader today than he was four years ago--one who has a better claim on the support of intelligent liberals. But certain misgivings persist. That the modifications in Mr. Wilson's policy are the result partly of an attempt to deal honestly with concrete problems we fully believe. Every statesman should be to a large extent an opportunist, and any policy of opportunism which seeks in good faith the public welfare and is nourished by facts is preferable to the doctrinaire rigorism. Yet these general considerations do not provide a sufficient excuse for Mr. Wilson's behavior. His brand of opportunism has not been convincing. His management has been unscrupulously adroit; his opinions have been suspiciously fluid; the reversals and expansions of his policy have been too numerous and too considerable. He respects facts, it is true, but his manner of respecting them resembles that of a general in command of a partisan army more than a statesman at the head of a country. The concessions which he has made hitherto have usually disconcerted his party without actually causing any revolt. Hitherto he has been able to count upon an accommodating disposition on the part of his fellow Democrats. They were willing to sacrifice pride of personal opinion and all ordinary party tradition in the interest of harmony. But suppose an issue were presented which required of Mr. Wilson, as the issue of sound money required of Mr. Cleveland, either to split his party or to damage the country? In such an emergency what course would Mr. Wilson adopt? Doubts of this kind have kept many liberals from going over to Mr. Wilson. In the event of a contest between them and his party they fear he would side with his party. Considering the collapse of the Progressive organization and the natural resentment caused by Republican tactics, remarkably few prominent independents have as yet rallied to his support. They may prefer the exhibition of Democracy at St. Louis to the exhibition of Republicanism at Chicago; but on the record they are justified in attributing to Mr. Hughes a more lukewarm partisanship than to Mr. Wilson, and a larger measure of personal independence. The attribution may not be decisive as to their vote. They may argue that Mr. Hughes has more need of independence than Mr. Wilson, and they will of course require many assurances from Mr. Hughes, which they have not yet received. But they also require certain assurances from Mr. Wilson. His successful partisan management has apparently fastened the two-party system on the country more firmly than ever. By revitalizing Democracy he has necessitated a resurrection of Republicanism and has deprived the liberal of any alternative to Democracy except Republicanism or Socialism. Although Democratic law-givers have had to fall back on administrative agencies for the accomplishment of desirable public purposes, the President has consented to a lowering of administrative standards in the interest of Democratic contentment. The whole bi-partisan congressional system which is organized to suck nourishment for the local party machine out of the national resources has met with less resistance from President Wilson than from his two immediate predecessors. What liberals need to obtain from Mr. Wilson is some assurance that during a second term he will not think and act too much as a Democrat; that he will work for rather than against sound administration; that his later preference for a governing government will not prove to be as fugitive as his earlier preference for doctrinaire Freedom; that he will in short shed his ink and his blood on behalf of a less partisanly Democratic interpretation of American national policy.

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