The Fall (and Potential Rise) of Liberalism

Joshua Zeitz is a visiting assistant professor of history at Brown University.

“There are usually two general schools of political belief,” Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1941, “liberal and conservative.” Liberals, the president continued, understood that “as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them.” Conservatives, he said, believed “that there is no necessity for the government to step in.”

Rounding out his lecture on political theory, Roosevelt noted that “the clear and undisputed fact is that ... at least since 1932, the Democratic Party has been the liberal party, and the Republican Party has been the conservative party.”

With those words, Roosevelt fundamentally reinvented the American political lexicon.

Before the Great Depression, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” were rarely used to describe political ideology or party politics. It was other things that divided the parties. Electoral contests had pitted “individualists” against “paternalists,” “radicals” against “progressives.” Then came the 1930s with their unprecedented policy crises, which prompted FDR to manufacture new labels better suited to the politics of the day.

Roosevelt didn’t view the terms as value-neutral. Conservatism was something to be shunned; liberalism was to be celebrated. Yet in the 60 or so years since the New Deal, Republicans have turned the tables on the Democratic Party. They have embraced the word conservative, turning a pejorative into a positive. And for at least 15 years, Democrats have aided this effort by running fast from the liberal tag. History suggests that there is another way.


Democratic presidents haven’t always quaked at the mere mention of liberalism.

Harry S. Truman insisted that it was the only truly effective bulwark against communism. John F. Kennedy boasted that “liberalism

Surprisingly, given FDR’s intention that conservative should be a shameful label, Republicans gradually came to embrace the term. Though he lost badly in his 1964 run for the presidency, Barry Goldwater celebrated himself as a conservative and encouraged a rising generation of party activists to do the same. In 1968, Richard M. Nixon ran a campaign that gave further definition to this conservative synthesis -- one that galvanized popular opposition to taxes, inflation, government spending and regulation, and minority rights.

Although Nixon governed closer to the center than his rhetoric might have suggested, his ideological heir, Ronald Reagan, captured the White House in 1980 and completed a process that made liberalism a near-expletive. “The masquerade is over,” Reagan exclaimed shortly before leaving office. “It’s time to ... use the dreaded L-word; to say the policies of our opposition ... are liberal, liberal, liberal.” His successor, George H.W. Bush, expressed the same sentiment with equal vigor, if less clarity. “The liberals don’t like it when I talk about liberal,” he taunted.

And they didn’t. Battered by their losses in 1980, 1984 and 1988, most Democratic Party strategists began running from the term. Under the spiritual guidance of the Democratic Leadership Council, the self-styled centrist wing of the party, Democrats over the last 15 years have issued a subtle mea culpa for liberalism’s mistakes and excesses.

Bill Clinton was a primary beneficiary of the strategy. Many observers credit his rejection of the liberal label as a primary factor in his 1992 presidential win. In a bid to salvage his political fortunes after the Democratic party’s monumental losses in the 1994 election cycle, Clinton embraced the advice of his ideologically ambidextrous guru, Dick Morris, who counseled “triangulation.” That is, by claiming the center for himself, Clinton implied that congressional liberals and conservatives were equally extreme. He banked on the electorate’s seeming affection for moderation, and his strategy worked.

Aided by the likes of then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and his archconservative supporters in the congressional class of ’94, Clinton was able to convince a critical number of Americans that radicals on the conservative right were more immediately dangerous than radicals on the liberal left.

The president won reelection in 1996. But at his party’s expense.

He may have made voters leery of extreme conservatism, but he also unwittingly convinced them that there is something fundamentally wrong with liberalism.

Triangulation was never a permanent fix, and in 2000 George W. Bush threw the Democrats a curveball. He redefined conservatism. Instead of running to the rhetorical center, as the Democrats have done for more than 15 years now, he stood by the conservative label. Moreover, he successfully made the case that conservatism could be compassionate. It was safe, soft, embracing.

The strategy worked. Public opinion surveys reveal that about three-quarters of Americans agree that Bush is conservative. Yet on the eve of his inauguration, at the height of partisan division over the disputed 2000 election, a resounding 58% believed the new president would “govern in a way that is truly compassionate.” Liberalism remains discredited. But conservatism is once again a respectable tag.

Democrats are now faced with two options: They can seek to redraw the political landscape and invent a new rhetorical dichotomy, as Roosevelt did in the 1930s. Or they can try to resuscitate liberalism.

Some Democrats have opted for the former strategy. They prefer the term progressive to liberal and hope to sidestep the old Roosevelt terminology altogether. The problem is, history suggests that the winners dictate the terms only after they’ve gained critical momentum. And right now, the Democrats are flailing.

Moreover, the electorate is sensitive to the appearance of redefinition. The news media and public alike belittled Al Gore for abandoning Beltway blue in favor of earth tones. It seemed a telling metaphor for his frequent ideological metamorphoses. Democrats run much the same risk should they try to adopt new labels.

A bolder strategy would be to reclaim the liberal tag. Just as President Bush saved conservatism by making it “compassionate,” Democrats could recoup liberalism by making it “common sense.” They could take a cue from Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, who explains to Alice: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.”

On taxes, Democrats could say: If liberalism means that tax cuts should be targeted to working Americans rather than the very rich, then yes, we’re liberals.

On fiscal responsibility, Democrats could say: If liberalism means managing government spending with the same discipline that families manage their household budgets, then yes, we’re liberals. They could say: Bill Clinton, a common-sense liberal, balanced the federal budget; Reagan and both Bushes, conservatives all, racked up the largest budget deficits in the nation’s history.

On Social Security, Democrats could say: If liberalism means guaranteeing a dignified retirement for senior citizens, then yes, we’re liberals. Common-sense liberals invented Social Security in the 1930s; conservatives opposed it. Common-sense liberals extended Social Security to cover most American workers in the 1940s and 1950s; conservatives opposed expanded coverage. Conservatives want to invest Social Security revenues in the stock market; common-sense liberals want to shield Social Security from the vicissitudes of the Dow Jones industrial average.

On the environment, Democrats could say: For decades, the federal government gave away millions of acres of land and billions of dollars in precious metals, lumber and fuel to private interests. Common-sense liberals like Roosevelt, Carter and Clinton insisted that vital national resources like the Alaskan wilderness be preserved for public, rather than private, use; conservatives still want to allow private companies to exploit the public domain for profit.

The recent selection of liberal San Francisco Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader of the House of Representatives suggests that the Democratic congressional caucus intends to highlight its differences with the administration. If so, the party might do well to embrace the liberal tag rather than hide from it.

This is no easy task. It demands equal faith in the electorate and the basic logic of the party’s central ideas. But most of all, it requires leadership.

“The question,” Alice tells Humpty Dumpty, “is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question,” he replies, “is which is to be master -- that’s all.”