Center-Left Liberalism

By Paul Starr
to appear in The Oxford Companion to American Politics (2012)

“Liberalism” stands for a belief in an equal right to freedom and dignity, advanced by a government of constitutionally restrained powers. In different historical contexts, liberals have varied in their understanding of that ideal and the policies needed to achieve a free and prosperous society and a secure world. Since the early nineteenth century, the general trend in liberal thought and politics has been toward a broader, more inclusive conception of what an equal right to freedom means. In pursuit of that aim, liberals have come to favor greater regulation of the economy while also supporting the deregulation of private moral life and stronger protection of civil liberties.

In the United States, liberalism has been a deep and powerful current throughout the nation’s history. With its recognition that each individual has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the American civic creed is an expression of liberal ideals, and in that general sense the liberal tradition encompasses most American conservatives as well as liberals. Modern, center-left liberalism upholds the more egalitarian, reformist side of that tradition, differing with conservatism on how to conceive of freedom, the balance among conflicting liberties, and the uses of government in pursuit of prosperity, security, and the public good.

It is a mistake, though, to conceive of American society and politics as deriving wholly from liberal values, as Louis Hartz (1955) and others once argued. Deeply illiberal institutions, practices, and ideas run through the nation’s history, beginning above all with slavery. Every political ideology draws its distinctive character not only from its own principles, but also from what it fights against, and for American liberalism, the struggle to overcome the stain of racism has had a singular formative importance.

The relationship of liberalism to American politics has changed with the rise and fall of social movements and shifts in public opinion and electoral politics, parties, the courts, and other institutions. At times of peak influence, as in the 1930s and 1960s, liberalism has served as both a governing and a reforming philosophy; at other times, it has been chiefly a philosophy of criticism and opposition. American liberalism has acquired much of its energy and support not only from the African American struggle for equal rights, but also from movements among other ethnic minorities, workers, and women. In recent decades, the decline of labor unions has weakened liberalism politically, while the environmental and gay-rights movements have renewed it.

Although language is often a sensitive barometer of social change, the political significance of liberalism should not be equated with the vicissitudes of the term “liberal.” In the early twentieth century, the “progressives” occupied the ground of the center-left. But when the Progressive Party went into decline in 1916, some progressives began distinguishing themselves as “liberals,” a term that had international cachet at the time because of the pre-World War I achievements of Britain’s governing Liberal Party. By that point, under the leadership of David Lloyd George, Britain’s Liberals had long abandoned laissez-faire and instead embraced an activist state in line with the social reformism of what was then called the “new liberalism” (Hobhouse, 1911). It was in this reformist sense that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers claimed the term “liberal,” though some conservatives as late as the 1950s insisted that they were, in fact, the true liberals.

Meanwhile, “progressive” had become the preferred self-description of all those to the left of liberalism, from independent radicals to socialists and communists, and as the Cold War intensified, liberals saw themselves as occupying what the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1949) called the “vital center.” Beginning with the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s, however, “liberal” acquired less positive connotations, and in the following decades, as the left faded as a political force, “progressive” gradually lost its earlier associations with the left. Many liberal political leaders and organizations then reappropriated “progressive” as a preferred label. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, “liberal” continues to predominate in general use and, unlike the vaguer term “progressive,” links the center-left to a long and rich philosophical tradition.

Liberalism as Public Philosophy.

All the variants of liberalism, as John Gray (1986) suggests, are individualist (in the sense of valuing “the moral primacy of the person against the claims of any social collectivity”), egalitarian, universalistic, and meliorist. American liberalism shares these characteristics, while also reflecting the peculiar conditions of American social and political development.

The bedrock of liberalism lies in the principles of constitutional government and individual rights shared by liberals and conservatives, though differently interpreted by them. Constitutional liberalism––that is, classical political liberalism—emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and influenced critical choices in the shaping of American political institutions. The classical liberals stood for religious liberty, freedom of thought and speech, rights of private property, the division of governmental powers, and freedom of association. They also generally upheld the value of science and education and supported the spread of literacy, knowledge, and the practical arts. The liberal commitment to economic freedom evolved in the nineteenth century into the doctrine of laissez faire (or, classical economic liberalism).

Although sometimes identified with anti-statism, constitutional liberalism served as an exceptionally effective basis for state building. The two countries most closely identified with liberalism, Great Britain and the United States, became in succession the most powerful states in the world. Constitutional liberalism has an implicit theory of power. Tolerance for religious diversity promotes social and economic cooperation. Checks and balances, freedom of discussion, and other constitutional limitations and guarantees do not necessarily create a “weak” state. On the contrary, they may prevent arbitrary, capricious, and self-interested decisions by public officials, make their actions more predictable and reliable, and thereby increase the trust and confidence in the state of citizens, creditors, and investors, contributing to the growth of both the private economy and state capacity.

The development of classical into modern, center-left liberalism is the subject of conflicting narratives. Conservatives accuse liberals of having betrayed the classical heritage by embracing an activist state, whereas liberals see their principles and policies as fulfilling the promise of freedom and equality in a more complete and realistic way. While building on liberal constitutional principles, modern liberalism has a broader, more democratic conception of freedom. While retaining the institutions of capitalism, liberalism calls for regulating those institutions in the interests of fairness, the sustainability of the environment, and the growth and stability of the economy itself. And while expanding government’s economic and social role, liberalism has stood for stronger guarantees of free speech, requirements for greater governmental transparency, and other measures to protect individual rights and ensure public accountability.

Classical liberalism failed to carry through on its promise of equal freedom. Though claiming to speak for all humanity, the classical liberals used various strategies of evasion to justify the denial of rights to women, men without property, and people of color, claiming, for example, that socially subordinate groups are irrational, dangerous, or too childlike to be trusted with the full rights of citizens. As a result of political struggles that stretched into the twentieth century, modern liberalism gave up these exclusions and excuses, and an equal right to freedom came to apply universally. Liberals also came to conceive of freedom more expansively. To the classical liberals, freedom meant, above all, an equal right to civil liberty and freedom from arbitrary power. With the advance of democracy, freedom came also to include an equal right to participate in political life as well as rights to education and other basic requirements of human development and security necessary to assure equal opportunity and what Roosevelt called “freedom from fear.”

Rights imply obligations. The right to equal protection of the law, for example, implies a correlative obligation of the state to provide justice impartially. But rights also imply obligations on the part of citizens themselves. The right to political participation is meaningless if people do not assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Similarly, a right to education and other requirements of human development is empty of significance if a nation’s citizens do not recognize obligations to one another, including the obligation to pay taxes, to ensure that every person has the opportunity for success in life. The challenge of liberalism is not only to advance rights but also to create a culture of citizenship that supports the realization of those rights in practice.

Historically, conservatives resisted both the extension of rights to subordinate social groups and the enlarged scope of an equal right to freedom, including its implied obligations. No one any longer defends explicit barriers to full citizenship based on property, race, or sex, but liberals and conservatives continue to disagree about what measures are needed in practice to overcome socially entrenched inequalities and whether individuals have rights to basic requirements of human development and security such as health care. Ideological differences also persist about how to resolve conflicts among rights, such as conflicts between property rights and civil rights. Conservatives have generally given greater weight to property rights and, accordingly, to the rights of those with property, while liberals have given greater weight and broader scope to other constitutional liberties and civil rights, often of the historically disadvantaged.

At the heart of these differences is a disagreement about whether inequality is even an appropriate matter for public concern. Conservatives tend to revere both the free market and social traditionalism and to view the inequalities arising from them as natural and inevitable. But while believing that those inequalities can and should be reduced, liberalism is not committed to eliminating all economic inequality. There is no disagreement from liberals that those who work harder, take greater risks, or develop their talents to a higher degree should be able to recoup a return from their efforts. Liberal concern is focused rather on providing all citizens minimum protection against risks beyond their control and equal opportunity in the making of their lives, though not equal results from the choices they make.

The liberal case for an activist state also rests on an assessment of the realities of the capitalist economy. The rise of the modern corporation has created concentrations of private power that cannot realistically be checked through the workings of the market. Individual workers cannot bargain with employers on an equal basis; labor needs rights of to collective bargaining to put itself on a more equal footing. As a long history of panics and depressions shows, financial markets have inherent tendencies toward instability. Government intervention is necessary to save capitalism itself from periodic collapses with devastating human consequences.

In the liberal view, property has its rights, but it also carries obligations, and liberty rightly conceived does not include a right to harm others. Regulation aims to control harms (“negative externalities”) such as environmental contaminants that go unpriced and therefore unchecked in the market and to prevent short-term interests in profit from outweighing such long-term interests as public health and confidence in financial markets. The liberal discipline of corporate power rests on the idea that private corporations, like the state, need checks and balances and transparency. Hence, liberals support the countervailing power of labor unions, consumer organizations, and environmental groups, as well as limits on the ability of corporations to use the enormous resources under their control to buy political influence.

Liberal backing for state intervention—in particular, intervention by the federal government--also partly reflects the distinctive path of American political development. The United States developed out of radically different social systems in the North and South, and from the Emancipation Proclamation to the civil rights movement, federal intervention has been the means of overcoming racial inequalities. Even now, in economic and social policy, states in the South show the influence of their traditions, providing far less support than states in other regions for the living standards of their low-income—and disproportionately African American—populations. In the interests of equality, therefore, liberals continue to prefer vesting responsibilities for minimum standards of social provision as well as enforcement of civil rights at the federal rather than the state level.

Modern liberalism does not, however, call for greater government activism across the board. While favoring an enlarged role for the state in regulating the economy and overcoming entrenched inequalities, liberals have also insisted on a diminished role for the state in regulating moral behavior, culture, and political dissent. Stronger constitutional protections of freedom of expression and other civil liberties not only safeguard individuals in the exercise of their rights, but also shield entire institutional fields from state supervision. Liberalism has sought thereby to strengthen the autonomy of the arts and sciences, the press, the professions, and the nonprofit sector. These institutions now supplement the classical liberal system of checks and balances within government by providing sources of information and judgment in civil society that are relatively independent not only of the state but also of commerce.

Liberalism has also become more committed to cultural diversity. While liberals have consistently opposed nativist hostility to immigration, many liberals long believed that the path to equality for immigrants lay in full cultural assimilation. To become an American meant assuming all the trappings of Anglo-American culture. But in recent decades, liberals have moved toward greater emphasis not only on a Euro-American cultural pluralism but on multicultural ideals that call for integrating the history and traditions of non-European groups into American national identity.

Like classical liberalism, modern liberalism has an implicit theory of power—that is, of how to create power as well as how to control it. Treating historically excluded groups with equal respect and investing in their health and education frees up talents and abilities that traditional social hierarchies squelched and squandered. A nation that welcomes and celebrates diversity will be the stronger for it. The free development of science, the arts, and civil society will foster innovation and growth. Liberalism, in short, can be a source of comparative national advantage, potentially even with benefits for both the “hard” and “soft” power that the nation is able to project in international conflict. This is not to say that the foundational principles of liberalism derive their rationale from power politics, but neither are they inconsistent with the demands of war and international conflict.

There is no single liberal view of international relations and foreign policy. The core disagreement among liberals is whether liberalism is to be practiced only at home or can become the basis of international order. Some liberals take the “realist” position that the international system is inherently lawless and that the task of foreign policy is accordingly to protect one’s own nation through alliances and diplomacy if possible and military force if necessary. Doubting that democracies act any differently from other states, realists are not just skeptical but often contemptuous of “moralistic” crusades for human rights and democracy around the world. That skepticism does not necessarily mean realists are any less committed to liberal democracy where it has already taken root; they just doubt that liberal institutions can serve as the basis of international security.

The alternative view is that the international system can be subjected to the equivalent of a constitutional discipline, carried out through international law and institutions and alliances of liberal democracies. Liberal internationalists, unlike realists, assume that the ideology and internal structure of states influence their conduct toward the world. As authoritarian regimes rule by force, so they are likely to resort to force in their foreign relations. Persuaded that democracies are more likely to be peaceful (at least toward each other), liberal internationalists argue that policies supporting the spread of free institutions are a matter not of altruism but of self-interest. By expanding the zone of peace among liberal states, the citizens of liberal democracies reduce their own risk of war. In its visionary, global form, the liberal internationalist project takes on breathtaking proportions: the establishment of liberal democracy as the prevailing pattern of government in the world and of liberal norms of human rights, self-determination, nonaggression, and free trade as the framework of international order.

Today, center-left liberalism has a strong internationalist element, often identified with a tradition exemplified by Woodrow Wilson. But those Wilsonian tendencies have been tempered by realist concerns, especially when liberals have been in power. That point applies more generally: liberal policy making has been derived not merely from high principle but also from hard-won experience.

Liberalism as Policy and Law.

Liberals see society as improvable through government, a disposition that separates them from conservatives, who warn that government efforts to relieve poverty and other social ills are typically futile or counterproductive. But while liberals are committed to a search for public remedy, the leaders of the major episodes of liberal reform in the past century—the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society—have not followed any theory or plan. Policy innovation has been predominantly ad hoc. Liberals have never had a general theory comparable to free-market economics or Marxism that provides them an answer to the full panoply of public issues. They have responded to crises, adjusted aims to circumstances, emphasized the gathering of empirical data, and sought to find workable solutions, often mixing state and market together in ways that neither libertarians nor socialists approve. And partly through better knowledge, partly by trial and error, liberal reforms have shown that certain forms of limited state intervention can bring the promise of a free and just society closer to fulfillment.

The view that markets have both limits and advantages is characteristic of the liberal disposition. While liberals have sought regulation to correct market failures, they have generally opposed the nationalization of industry, and many liberal regulatory measures—such as antitrust rules and requirements for companies to disclose information to consumers, investors, and employees—aim to increase both the fairness and efficiency of markets. Liberal policies sometimes use regulation to create entirely new markets to serve public purposes, as in legislation to limit greenhouse gases by establishing a mandatory, declining cap on carbon emissions with tradable emission permits (“cap and trade”).

Similarly, liberals see the public sector as having both limits and advantages, to be weighed against each other in decisions about whether to rely on governmental or private institutions. Rather than using federally run services, for example, many liberal social policies call for supporting locally controlled or private nonprofit organizations because of their independent, community roots. Liberals are often wary, however, of conservative efforts to transfer government functions to private firms such as private military contractors, private prisons, private schools, and private health insurers. Some forms of privatization may endanger public accountability, as in the military, or the private alternatives may actually be more costly, as in health insurance—but each case must be considered on the merits.

The liberal differences with conservatives on taxation and public finance are clear-cut. In the raising of revenue, liberals favor a greater reliance on progressive taxation on the grounds that fairness demands not equal rates, but equality of sacrifice, which calls for those with higher incomes to pay a relatively larger share of income. Nonetheless, liberals also support social insurance programs financed by flat payroll taxes levied on both employer and employee, in the interest of giving contributors a firm sense that rather than getting something for nothing, they are earning an equitable entitlement to benefits during unemployment, disability, sickness, and old age. As a result of that understanding, Social Security and other universal, contributory programs tend to have a broader base of public support than do means-tested programs for the poor alone. Yet because of progressively structured benefits, they have been the single most effective antipoverty policy. And by enabling people to continue living on their own at times when they might otherwise become destitute and dependent, these programs contribute to their freedom as well as their security.

Liberals also favor public spending for both economic stabilization and economic growth. Short-term increases in spending augment private demand during recessions to prevent a self-reinforcing downward spiral, while expenditures on roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure as well as on scientific research and other intangible assets represent long-term investments. Likewise, spending on education contributes to a society’s human capital. Indeed, much of what liberalism calls for on grounds of equal rights to human development and security also provides a return in economic productivity. The core of liberal domestic policy is dual purpose because it serves both the macroeconomic aims of economic growth and the egalitarian aims of social inclusion—the goals of a broadly shared prosperity, raising up the middle class and the poor together and strengthening the base of support for other liberal values. Among the good things that broad-based growth buys, as Benjamin Friedman (2005) argues, are tolerance and generosity.

Policies that were unsatisfactory on liberal grounds from the beginning have created some of the most persistent difficulties for liberal politics. Health insurance and welfare illustrate the problem. After failing to enact a general program of health insurance in the first half of the twentieth century, liberals supported a series of compromises—the tax exclusion of employer-paid health benefits, Medicare for the elderly, and Medicaid for some groups among the poor—that included concessions to interest groups which helped to make health care vastly more expensive in America than elsewhere. But by satisfying enough of the public, enriching the health-care industry, and concealing the system’s true costs, these measures constricted subsequent possibilities for reform.

In the case of welfare, the traditional policy provided assistance to low-income mothers and their children only if the women had no husband or paying employment. The resulting incentive problems could have been minimized, as they are in other countries, through universal child allowances that parents do not lose by working or getting married. In this respect, the perverse incentives of the American welfare system were the result of its limitations, not its excesses. A new way forward began to emerge in the 1990s with the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, the decoupling of Medicaid from welfare, and other changes creating an “earnings support” system for the working poor. But as a result of a long-term rise in income inequality and the variability of social policy among the states, minimum protections for the poor have remained weak and uneven.

It is characteristic of the United States that disputes over national policy have often taken the form of constitutional arguments. As laissez faire was losing political influence in the early twentieth century, it still held sway in the courts. Only when judicial opposition to economic regulation gave way in the 1930s could Social Security and other programs become firmly established. During the mid- to late-twentieth century, the effort to advance civil rights and civil liberties relied heavily on judicial intervention. Much of liberalism’s progress turned on Supreme Court decisions in such notable cases as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Baker v. Carr (1962), and the Pentagon Papers case (1971). Liberals do not support an activist role for the courts in every sphere; they support it specifically to deal with laws or policies that violate the Bill of Rights, restrict the political process, or harm minorities who cannot count on electoral recourse. Democracy is not merely majority rule; it requires that all citizens, including minorities, be able to make themselves heard and receive the law’s equal protection. Judicial intervention for those purposes extends democracy rather than limiting it.

While sympathetic to efforts to spread democracy abroad, many liberals have become more skeptical about foreign involvements in the name of democracy since the end of the Cold War. Conservative foreign policy has emphasized unilateral action by the United States and a ready resort to military force, whereas liberals have tended to favor more emphasis on multilateral action and diplomacy. The liberal hope has been to shift from military to domestic priorities in spending and address festering social inequities at home.

Governments can achieve some ends more effectively than others, and that recognition must enter into all decisions about political priorities. Whether at home or abroad, liberal policy has to match commitments to capabilities and earn majority support. If liberals are concerned to make policy work in practice, they must also see that those policies work in politics.

Liberalism in American Politics.

For the center-left, the political challenge is to build a bottom-up majority, bringing together low- and middle-income groups in a multiracial coalition that can advance liberal policy over the obstacles it is certain to meet. Liberals draw support from some elements of business and many middle-class professionals, but no party that favors progressive tax rates, regulation of business, and the struggle for equality by race, gender, and sexual orientation can escape intense interest-group and ideological opposition. Liberal coalitions are also so inherently diverse and prone to divisions that just maintaining unity is difficult.

The liberal political challenge is also complicated by the dual character of public opinion in the United States. Conservatives enjoy an advantage at the symbolic level: more Americans self-identify as conservative than as liberal, a pattern that has been true even during periods of liberalism’s peak influence. But many self-identified conservatives favor liberal positions on major issues, and as a result, liberals have an interest in framing political choices in clear and concrete terms to win over the portion of the electorate who are symbolically conservative but operationally liberal—a group Stimson (2004) calls “conflicted conservatives.”

Even when liberals win elections, they face the deep status quo bias of American government, with its many veto points along the journey to law. The Democratic victories under Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 and Lyndon Johnson in 1964 created rare opportunities for liberal reforms because of the Democrats’ lopsided congressional majorities. The 1930s and 1960s were also exceptional because of the scale of popular movements prodding governmental action. But at other times, without the benefit of overwhelming margins in Congress or high levels of popular engagement, liberal administrations have had limited ability to initiate change, and liberal constituencies have regularly been disappointed by the presidents they helped elect. In recent decades, the need to win a filibuster-proof supermajority in the US Senate for all but budget-relevant legislation has raised an especially steep impediment to policy innovation.

As electoral victories and popular movements make possible changes in policy, so changes in policy affect politics. The New Deal created a durable but uneasy Democratic political coalition that included the white working class and minority groups while holding on to the white South. Measures such as the Social Security Act and the Wagner Act (securing rights to collective bargaining), both adopted in 1935, fortified the Democratic base. For the next thirty years, the center of gravity of American politics moved to the left, and liberalism enjoyed support among many Republicans as well as Democrats. Thanks to judicial appointments by presidents of both parties, the Supreme Court shifted in a liberal direction.

The policies of the 1960s, however, contributed to the breakup of the New Deal coalition. Decisions by the Court and civil rights legislation passed under President Johnson secured rights for African Americans but cost the Democrats the support of the white South. The liberalism of the 1960s brought about an immense moral and political transformation that rectified long-standing injustices and helped to realize America’s promise of opportunity and a decent life for millions of its people, but the era’s social and political changes also stirred a sharp backlash in the North as well as the South, moving the center of gravity in American politics back to the right and leading to a new ideological and partisan alignment.

Since the 1970s American politics has been an ideological and partisan tug-of-war. Expecting the advent of a new, long-lasting political majority, observers have sometimes trumpeted a big electoral victory by one of the parties as evidence of a definitive realignment. Yet neither side has been able to achieve the kind of durable power that Republicans had from the Civil War to the early twentieth century or that Democrats had during the decades of the New Deal coalition. Still, the tug-of-war decades have brought important changes. On the whole, liberals have gained ground on issues relating to tolerance, culture, and free expression, while conservatives have gained the edge on issues relating to taxation and the economy. In some respects, social equality has advanced (for example, with regard to gays) even as economic inequality has become more extreme.

Through most of the twentieth century, both the Democrats and the Republicans were ideologically mixed coalitions tethered to the center. With the shift of the South to the Republicans, however, the GOP has become a more conservative party and the Democrats a more liberal one. The ideological alignment of the two major parties is not exactly symmetrical. At the national level, the Republicans are outspokenly conservative; liberal Republicans are extinct, and moderates are on the endangered-species list. The Democrats, though, still include moderates and some who insist they are conservatives, and many Democratic politicians eschew any ideological identification and prefer to be known as practical problem-solvers. With the shift of the Republicans to the right, liberals have more to fear from Republican victories and have consequently become more dependent on the Democrats without being able to count on them. Liberals confront other difficulties as well, including the diminished membership and power of unions and a public opinion environment low in trust, particularly trust in government. But political attitudes among the young and long-term demographic trends are moving in a more favorable direction. The conservative political base is chiefly an older, native-born, white population that represents a shrinking portion of the electorate. Liberalism has a long-term demographic advantage. But if liberals are to make the most of that potential, popular social movements will have to exert pressure from below, creating the productive tension with elected leaders that has been a critical element in every major era of liberal reform.


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