Everyone was a liberal

tags: liberalism

Lawrence Glickman is a professor of history at Cornell University in New York. His latest book is Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (2009). He is currently working on a history of the idea of 'free enterprise' in the United States.

Today, Americans think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal – the historic 20th-century expansion of the social state in the United States – as definitive of liberalism. At the time, however, both pro- and anti-New Dealers called themselves liberal. New Dealers accused opponents of their expanded social state of hanging on to an antiquated idea of liberalism. Opponents of the New Deal charged, as one newspaper put it in 1944, that ‘New Deal liberalism is phony liberalism.’ Although Socialists and Communists did not wish to be so defined, it did seem for a time that, as one columnist wrote in 1948, ‘every body in every party is a liberal’.

The question of the New Deal’s place in political history preoccupied the generation. Much of the debate took place in terms of a contest over how the New Deal fit into or departed from the history of liberalism. Liberal and liberalism, after all, were already old terms by the 20th century. Was the New Deal a natural evolution of liberalism or a dangerous repudiation of it, ‘the road away from liberalism’, as the former New Dealer Raymond Moley charged in 1938?

Republican opponents portrayed the New Deal as a dangerous species of collectivism that falsely wrapped itself in the banner of liberalism. They did not buy Roosevelt’s claims that he was helping to rescue the country and its capitalist system from dangerous extremism. Instead, they saw the New Deal as a form of extremism itself and a repudiation of liberalism as it was popularly understood. According to the former president Herbert Hoover, the New Deal’s pseudo-liberalism sought to ‘place the Federal government in domination over the souls of men’. In his 1940 Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech, Wendell Willkie invoked the word ‘liberal’ five times. He claimed the authority of liberalism for himself and his party, and faulted Roosevelt for having ‘distorted’ liberalism.

When, in a 1938 radio address, Roosevelt celebrated liberalism as the ideology of the New Deal, a reporter for the Times of India felt the need to clarify for the newspaper’s readership that Roosevelt’s version of liberalism ‘does not mean a man who places more emphasis on individual freedom than on group action or government control’. It was necessary to clarify because in India, like everywhere else in the world, liberal meant something different from what it was coming to mean in the US. For New Dealers, the hallmark of liberalism was active government’s ‘continuing responsibility to meet continuing problems’, as Roosevelt said. Older meanings of liberal, still predominant elsewhere in the world, saw the state as the enemy of liberty. Anti-New Dealers in the US shared with the rest of the world this more established view of what liberalism meant.

As New Dealers sought to remake the meanings of liberal and liberalism, a new term entered the political lexicon: neoliberalism. Much in vogue today among academics and activists, the phrase is usually understood to mean market-oriented approaches to structural problems. It is almost always used as shorthand pejorative for policies or programmes consonant with right-wing global capitalism. In the US, however, the term was initially, and frequently, used by critics of the New Deal to highlight its alleged betrayal of traditional liberalism. For these critics, neoliberalism did not mean a purified form of free-market mania but quite the opposite: a dangerous combination of planning and collectivism that verged on socialism. ...

Read entire article at Aeon

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