For more than twenty years, the word “liberal” seemed to have disappeared from the political world. But President Obama’s speech appears to have revived it—even though the word did not appear in his inaugural address.
In the aftermath of his speech, "liberal" was suddenly everywhere—by the right (with derision) and by the left (with relief). Most interestingly, the word appeared prominently in the mainstream news outlets that have typically avoided using a term that had evolved from being a basic political descriptor to a loaded piece of jargon used as an epithet by Republicans as avoided as a liability by Democrats.
If anyone found the usage inappropriate, they didn’t make much of a fuss. What made liberalism alive was not the word, but the many issues that liberals have waited for decades to hear from a president: inequality, poverty, illegal immigration, gay rights, and many other liberal promises that have been ignored or overlooked for years. Obama may not have said “liberalism,” but he made it possible for others to start talking about it again. In his inaugural address, he painted an America that has not been seen in many years:
. . . our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law . . . Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.
Whether the president succeeds in these bold efforts, he has attempted—even if somewhat belatedly—to restore our lost liberalism. Already, conservatives have derided Obama’s inaugural address, calling his statements socialism and saying his speech was obsolete. It remains to be seen whether the president can sustain his policies and the liberal ideas he presented in his speech. But for liberalism to become part of our time again, we need to know what liberalism means—in the past and today.
Over a century ago, liberalism meant civil liberties, political freedom with limited government, and laissez-faire economic policy—not making an effort to change the nation. That idea lasted through the nineteenth century. One early twentieth-century scholar, remarking on the history of the Bill of Rights in the nineteenth century, described it as “140 years of Silence.” Only the wealthy and powerful supported those rights.
Before World War I, liberalism—then called “progressivism”—tried to build a broadminded government reaching out to people across the nation. But the growing power of corporations and massive inequality in the nineteenth and early twentieth century made liberalism almost meaningless. Not until the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal used the word, did Americans—and their government—make a more powerful “liberalism." The New Deal was an effort to give ordinary citizens rights that had been almost forgotten. That definition of liberalism remained powerful from the end of the New Deal into the 1960s.
The turmoil of the late 1960s—the battles of civil rights, the fiasco of Vietnam, the unraveling of the American economy—created a new radicalism of the right and a left that made liberalism seem obsolete to many people. Liberalism has not yet fully revived from that era into our time. If liberalism remains an ideal, it still remains a weak one.
But the liberal creed remains one that even many conservatives, if they thought about it, might agree with. Modern liberalism means liberty for speech and the press. It means freedom of religion and a separation of church and state. It provides equal rights under the law. Other elements of liberalism have begun to emerge in our own time: protecting the environment, securing social security and health care, stopping unnecessary wars, supporting the poor, feeding the hungry, helping the homeless.
Most of all, liberalism in our time means the support of equality. For many years, liberals ignored economic and social inequality—certain that their efforts would fail. As in the nineteenth century, the twenty-first century has produced the greatest inequality in the history of our nation. That is why Obama’s speech sent many people talking about liberalism again—happily for many, outraged for others.
Some liberals have shown arrogance. Some have given up. Others have over-reached. But at its best, liberalism has been a pragmatic system that could help create a society that helps those in need and works against our growing inequality. Four years after Obama became president, he may have finally launched—at least for now—a robust fight for what most liberals believe.