Book: Liberalism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Liberalism in America: two instances

In the United States, early 20th century progressivism developed a reformist impetus of its own, though with notable overlaps with British left-liberalism. Its supporters displayed an energetic activism focusing on the removal of municipal corruption and on a deepening of the democracy, efficiency, and accountability of governments. They also backed trust-busting in order to expand the equal opportunities for individuals and reduce concentrations of capital that were hampering the growth of competitive markets. Separately, the intellectual movement around the influential weekly, the New Republic—an outlet for progressive liberals such as Herbert Croly (1869–1930), Walter Weyl (1873–1919), and Walter Lippmann (1889–1974)—explored the links between liberty and community, a rare theme in American liberal discourse. Appealing to American conceptions of the ‘people’ as a whole, Croly developed an organic view of the national interest similar to that of the British new liberals. The philosopher John Dewey, as will be noted in , took some of those ideas forward. However, in Croly’s thinking the idea of a nation was allotted a greater role. He wrote: ‘American nationality has been created by virtue of the binding attempt to realize certain common political and social purposes …the aspiration for social righteousness or betterment …was thoroughly, comprehensively, and constructively national’.

In Louis Hartz’s classic but controversial The Liberal Tradition in America, he suggested that the American way of life was fundamentally liberal, an import from the English world of Locke and other European sources. The absence of feudalism had permitted the spread of an American liberalism unchallenged by class antagonisms. As Hartz saw it, ‘America created two unusual effects. It prevented socialism from challenging its Liberal Reform in any effective way, and at the same time it enslaved its Liberal Reform to the …dream of American capitalism’. He had little sympathy for the ‘welfare liberals’, seeing in Croly only a rather agonized supporter of democratic capitalism. Hartz’s approach lacked understanding of the range and complexity of the plural ideological beliefs a large society such as the USA would entertain. It took less than ten years after the book’s publication for racial and ethnic awareness to explode on to the American liberal scene through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, belying the consensual homogeneity in which 19th and early 20th century liberals preferred to believe.

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