How has liberalism changed over the course of the twentieth century? — Neelam Shah

Since the 17th century liberalism has been the source of political progress in the Western World. 

The ideas that rights set a limit on the legitimate power of government is a liberal idea. The idea that government must respect the freedom of individuals is a liberal idea. The idea that religious groups should be tolerant of each other is a liberal idea. Modern democracy is an outgrowth of these ideas. 

Capitalism is a liberal idea. Building a government strong enough to be a countervailing power to wealth to protect workers, consumers, and the environment from excesses driven by the profit motive is a liberal idea. The belief that all people in an economically successful nation should have the opportunity to lead a decent life is also a liberal idea. The belief that society should assure the security of children, old people, disabled people, and people out of work for reasons not of their own doing is a liberal idea. Civil rights is a liberal idea. Limiting the intervention of government into our private lives is a liberal idea. The universality of human rights is a liberal idea. Addressing global poverty is a liberal idea.

Liberalism is the center focus of creating social conditions that make it possible for people to become free individuals. 

It is about a form of liberty which goes beyond a “legal fiction”. It is about the creation of real equal opportunity, about quality education and about an end to the kind of poverty that robs most people of a real chance. Second, liberalism is not about violent revolution. Yes, liberalism is about social action and is not content to wait for a better society to evolve on its own. And yes, liberalism arose from revolutions undertaken to overthrow the aristocracy. And yes, liberalism should sometimes support revolutions in despotic nations. But liberalism believes that revolution is neither necessary nor justified in a democracy. Third, liberalism is inherently pluralistic. It recognizes that social values shift over time and that different people and groups of people have different values and interests, which need to be woven together into a nation which functions well enough, though not perfectly. Perfect rationality does not exist, and a perfect political structure is not possible.

The Cold War tempered the international dimension of liberalism that had emerged during and immediately after World War II. Western democracies had to confront the fact that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime, and this provoked a crisis for those liberals who sympathized with the hopes and dreams symbolized by the Russian Revolution if not with the heinous government which had formed in the wake of those dreams. As a result, for a time American liberalism focused more on domestic issues. Slowly in the 50’s and then rapidly in the 60’s, the face of liberalism changed again.

By the end of the 20th century liberalism was in turmoil. It had suffered such extensive political losses that the term “liberal” had become politically dangerous. Many of its ideas had been appropriated by New Democrats, who merged them with some important conservative observations to create a powerful form of centrism, which they characterized as a “third way,” neither liberal nor conservative.

The chaotic state of liberalism at the moment makes it critical to try to distill from the history of liberalism its underlying spirit—a spirit which can create a sense of unity of purpose and sweep liberalism into a new period of vitality.

The history of liberalism reveals an abundance of important and powerful values. They include democracy; liberty; equality; rights; individuality; tolerance; capitalism; economic growth; social utility; social progress; overcoming poverty; protection of the environment; government as a protective, countervailing power; labor rights; humane workplaces; social security; meeting basic needs for housing, food, and healthcare; education; entitlements; fairness; civil rights; privacy; human rights; and more.

Clearly not all of these values are solely owned by liberalism. It is the cluster of values, not each of its components, which distinguishes liberalism from other political perspectives. The values in the cluster are to some extent complementary and to some extent in dynamic tension, and balancing them through a democratic process is part of the essence of liberalism. But it is the commitment to social action designed to realize these values that sets liberalism apart and unites it in all its incarnations.

Liberalism’s underlying spirit is commitment to improving the lives of people through social action. In each of its major phases, liberalism has recognized a group of people who were have-nots in comparison to the haves of their society and who were to a large extent cut off from political influence. Liberalism has pressed for changes in government which would help these people to have basic economic security, to rise from poverty, to have equal rights in practice as well as rhetoric, and to participate meaningfully in the deliberations and choices of our democracy.

Liberalism evolved by asserting fundamental values of democracy, liberty, rights, equality, individualism and tolerance thus breaking the hegemony of the aristocracy and enabling landowners to empower themselves. 

Laissez-faire liberalism merged capitalism and democracy and generated wealth and power for industrialists and businessmen. The Progressive movement grew out of the perception that unregulated capitalism perpetuated unjust poverty and jeopardized the natural environment. It called on government to serve as a countervailing power to big business; to humanize the workplace; to assure safe food, water, and drugs; and to conserve nature while at the same time preserving the capacity of capitalism to promote economic growth. In the process the working class began to rise out of poverty. The New Deal provided social securitya safety netfor people who want to work but cannot find jobs; for people who are too old to work; for mothers with children who are not expected to work; and later for people with disabilities who are unable to work. The New Deal also recognized a significant new role for government–to stimulate economic growth. World War II fostered a commitment to spreading democracy and to promoting transnational human rights. The civil rights movement ended legal segregation and began to open the doors of opportunity to blacks and other minorities. The concept of civil rights was later extended to women, people with disabilities, and to people who are homosexual. The War on Poverty attempted to create a minimum standard living in the United States and to confront the reality of unequal opportunity with a mix of affirmative action and human services designed to help people become able to take advantage of opportunities. Medicare and Medicaid—created during the Johnson administration—provided health coverage to people who are poor, old, and/or disabled. The determination to overcome poverty combined with the decision to communitize care for people with mental and physical disabilities, the frail elderly, and orphaned and neglected children fueled a great growth of government supported health and human services. The liberal Cultural Revolution gave impetus to a more expansive right to privacy and freed us from smothering restrictions on lifestyle—sexual and otherwise. The War in Vietnam called into question the legitimacy of the Western economic and military hegemony and gave fresh impetus to the concept of transnational human rights. Lately, people with liberal inclinations have turned their attention to poor and powerless people in the developing world.

Improving the lives of people! Liberalism has always been an active effort to extend liberty, opportunity, material well-being, and power to people who are disadvantaged by their position in society. Liberalism has never sought human perfection and thus has avoided the dangers of utopian ideologies. Instead, liberalism has engaged in social actions to bring about simple forms of progress; and in each phase of liberalism, people who were cut off from the basic goods of society have at last improved their lot in life, becoming freer and more affluent (or at least less poor).

This sense of the spirit of liberalism suggests a clear vision for its future.

In the United States, poverty, economic insecurity, and limited opportunity persist. Liberalism should work to address these problems more effectively.

America’s health system is bedeviled by the combination of the world’s highest costs and relatively poor health status. Healthcare reform addresses the terrible fact that 50 million Americans have not had health insurance, but it is questionable whether it realistically addresses the issues of health status and health costs. It is time for liberalism to take this issue on realistically rather than ideologically.

The civil rights agenda has not been completely achieved. That a black man was President of the United States demonstrates great progress. But the color of those who suffered most from the floods in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina as well as masses of data that show continuing economic and health disparities between minorities and whites make it clear that the civil rights agenda has not yet been completed. Liberalism should work towards its completion.

Traditional moralists continue to try to make sexual behavior the defining moral issue of our time and to limit individual freedoms accordingly. Liberals must respond (1) that the fundamental family value is caring for one’s family members and accepting responsibility for their well-being, (2) with an active defense of privacy and pluralism as fundamental moral values, and (3) with an insistence that the overcoming profound poverty, eliminating discrimination, protecting the environment, and opposing unjust wars are the real defining moral values of our time.

Democratic process is troubled by poor participation in elections and the excessive influence of wealth. In addition, the effectiveness of government is limited by over-regulation in some areas and under-regulation and enforcement in others. Liberalism should commit to the improved functioning of democratic government.

Fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, the right to know—and for the public to know—why one is arrested or denied a passport, and the right to a speedy and public trial—have been limited because of a pervasive fear of terrorism. Liberalism needs to reject fear mongering and the panicked imposition of unnecessary limitations on civil liberties.

The global environment is at risk. Numerous international conferences and treaties have identified a mix of national and international activities to protect the environment. Liberalism should work to build the global political will needed to follow through on plans to reduce risks to the environment.

Poverty and lack of human rights in most “developing” nations are shameful, and efforts to improve the quality of life of people in impoverished nations are clearly fundamental to a liberal agenda for the 21st century.

And finally, it is critical to redefine the role of America in the world and to develop a stance regarding the use of its military power which is realistic both about the dangers from which our military can protect us and about the extent to which it should be, or can effectively be, used to protect the rights of people in other nations.

The challenge to contemporary liberalism is to address these major domains of social injustice and risk, not to defend the list of common liberal positions which has become fodder for liberalism’s critics. Indeed, liberalism needs to subject this list of positions to the kind of open-minded scrutiny that has always been at the heart of liberalism’s commitment to use the best available knowledge as the basis of social action. Every contemporary liberal position needs to be questioned. Does it contribute or impede progress for people in the United States? Does it contribute to or impede improving the lives of the vast majority of people in the world whose lives leave a great deal to be desired?

What will it take to confront the major social issues of our time and to make as much progress in the new century as was made in the past? Ultimately it is in determination to extend liberty and economic well-being to the people who need them most that liberalism can find the vision and inspiration it needs to revive itself in the 21st century.


Neelam Shah has a Masters Psychoanalysis Kingston University and is currently a temp freelance Researcher/reporter/Analyst for Fintech Pharmaceuticals and a freelance Academic Health Researcher/Writer for Knowledge Links, Freelance Proof Reader for London Skills Network and Adhoc Ranstad Disability Support Worker/Specialist Note Taker. In her spare time I genuinely enjoy tutoring online, baking, painting, drawing, travelling, photography, dancing, playing the keyboard, In addition to her passion for writing blogs and articles, creative writing poems and short stories, she relishes in reading novels and visiting historical and art exhibitions, she is also an e-activist, Global Citizen Leader, Campaigner, and political lobbyist for PETA, Walk for Freedom Slavery Activist and End Global Poverty, Unicef Children’s Champion, Greenpeace and Climate Reality activist and GQ Transforming Mental Health Supporter/Campaigner.