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Is Liberalism Back?

The Future of Liberalism (cover)

The very words “liberal” and “liberalism” have been out of fashion for decades. Even now, you don’t hear President Obama use that language.

But the budget put before the country last week by the Obama administration, and the principles articulated by the president almost every time he takes the stage, are clearly liberal.

Political scientist Alan Wolfe says it’s about time — that the country is overdue for a straight-up dose of liberalism. And he wants to remind the nation what, in his view, that means.

This hour, On Point: Back to the future. Saying hello, again, to liberalism.

You can join the conversation. Are you ready for a dose of liberalism? Do you hear it in President Obama? And what does it mean to you, today?


Alan Wolfe joins us in our studio. Professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, his new book is “The Future of Liberalism.” You can read an excerpt here.

And with us from Washington is Byron York, longtime writer for National Review and now chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner. He’s the author of “The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy.”

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  • Mike

    I wish,
    we still got this mess to clean up along with the crooks in AIG still draining our coffers, why have we not fired the top management? Along with Fix’s news station, and people who vote republican even when it is against there own interest.

  • Rick

    Def: Liberal — one who thinks individual responsibility lies with society.

    Def: Liberal — one who believes in helping the “disadvantaged” and is willing to put your money where her mouth is.

  • Edward Gawlinski

    I really liked President Obama’s saying in his Inaugural address that we should put aside ideology and focus on doing what works. In following this ideal he is neither liberal, conservative, progressive, nor libertarian … he is pragmatic.

  • http://signifydesign.com Nicky McCatty

    I think that the term “Liberal” is primarily appealing to White Americans. For many years, progressives I know, have dismissed them as conservatives who had their nap.

    For example, Bostonians love to talk about how wonderfully liberal this town is, yet most are completely unaware how much housing and employment discrimination continue to be absolutely fundamental to the experience of daily for people of color around here.

    Not only that, I associate liberals with a lack of imagination, whereas those who I consider progressive are willing to utilize a variety of approaches to social and economic problems. Liberals are well adjusted, willing to perpetually tweak things, while progressives are characteristically innovative.

  • http://www.wksu.org/ Mark Snyder

    My big complaint is that the “Liberals” always seem to want to take all of my money to give to people who demonstrate a conscious disregard for personal responsibility. Those who play by the rules get ripped off to pay for those who have learned to scheme the system. I have to give up my rights to various things for the good of society. In practice, liberalism is anti-responsibility and anti-freedom. I’m not against helping people, but am sick and tired of supporting those who take no responsibility for their actions.

  • Ben

    The author is way off in defining American liberalism. The philosophy we call “liberal” in the US is in fact socialist or social-democratic in Europe. In Europe they have retained the original meaning of “liberal,” which is closer to what we call “libertarian” in the US.

  • Alvin

    This discussion IS the problem. Trying to group all philosophical goals and practical technicalities into a single rubrik is idiotic and futile. The only way to make soc, pol, and economic progress is to deal with specific issues. Drop these stupid labels.

  • Ellen Dibble

    It does not surprise me that Obama moved from community organizing into politics. I mentored in an afterschool program located in a public housing community. My conclusion: the motivations in terms of civic participation are all off. They think the object is to plead their case for more supports, yet they do not consider themselves contributors to the public funds enough to speak up and say — as they are truly best qualified to say — exactly where the welfare money is being wasted, what programs or people to cut. In trying to get such people to speak up, they end up saying the local nonprofits should be forced to give more money to the town. To be sure, that is an idea, but a better idea is how to get grassroots businesses started for people like him. Under Bush, we have had nice loans for self-employed people like me, no questions asked, and since no one else will invest in me, it’s been fine to take my own risks, but what a bumpy ride, with the government on the side of those in families, those in self-owned homes, those with health insurance pre-supplied.
    So the lack of regulation has been a liberal spin-off, an unintended one, that has me sitting pretty but with a kind of hail-Mary pass still in the air as to my future. My friends in the public housing don’t know what to press for, whom to attach themselves to, and liberalism can’t help them without their concerted participation.

  • Dave Cave

    Did that “Martin” guy really refer to “the poor abusing the rich”…..???? Am I hallucinating?

  • Art Cohen

    Liberals recognize that Capitalism requires government. Capitalism is a creature of government. Government creates Capitalism. It provides the infrastructure, from a monetary system, courts for dispute resolution, law enforcement to control violence, and corporate structure. It acts as the referee of the capitalist “game,” and it makes sure the fruits of capitalism are fairly distributed to all working people and citizens.

  • K. Sayre

    I’d like to see this country move beyond the concepts of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. Both ideologies have failed.

  • Ama

    Is this be the return of liberalism? If public debate were based purely on the exchange of unfiltered ideas, then I believe we would never have deviated from our liberal roots. However, conservatives learned early on (generations ago) how to control the message and frame the debate. As a result the political world has become a convoluted exercise in marketing and definitions of terms like liberalism are now based not on fact, but on political agenda. Until we have a free media (free from profit driven corporations), we will never be a liberal/free society.

  • Elizabeth

    Great discussion. We need to hear from more Liberals. I’ve been around long enough to not only remember when “Liberal” wasn’t a dirty word, but our cause was noble and clear. I cannot understand how the neocons use the word as a disparaging term.

  • Schuyler Larrabee

    Conservative? Obviously not.
    Liberal? Somewhat.

    Realism? Absolutely. No more pretending that the war in Iraq is free. No more pretending that business can regulate itself. No more pretending, period!

  • richard dipeppe

    There is a sorting out going on and the terms no longer have much meaning. The perfidy of financial institutions and elected officials should lead to major systemmatic changes. People like Limbaugh, channeling Marie Antionnette, justifying greed and corruption as somehow caused by government relfect the overall ignorance of the cause and that supporting the past will somehow bring about a better future. We are a democratic republic that can choose to be whatever we want. The captialist keep selling the idea that we are a captialistic country that happens to be democratic rather than a demoncratic nation that happens to be captialistic. The world requires a different structure, we either adjust or fall behind. A vibrant third party (many may say a second party) would be interesting to allow for other points of view and create some place for the adverage citizens to seek representation.

  • N.J.

    Conservatism is perhaps the most unnatural philosophy in the universe because what it primarily attempts to do is prevent change. It attempts to allow those who have wealth and power to keep it. And this is the primary source of the kind of “Landed Aristocracy” they eliminated in the United States. However they also saw the possibility that other forms of wealth could be just as effective at creating aristocracies. Their opposition to hereditary wealth was well known in their own time, and has been forgotten in our own. Their dislike of corporations and other forms of monied aristocracies was also well known in their day and forgotten in ours.

    Not just some change but all change. The major thrust in conservatism is that there is some force that controls economics that is immune to the sort of greed we saw in the 1980′s with the junk bond scandals and the failures of the Real Estate Investment Trusts, which were repeated AGAIN with the Mortage Backed Securities and the credit Default Swaps that were associated with them. These were the exact same financial tools that existed in the late 1980′s but were simply “rebranded”.

    The founding fathers were extremely skeptical of the sort of “laissez faire” capitalism that is supported by current conservatives. The founding fathers also differentiated between the right to own property and the right to wealth.

    Capitalism itself is considered to be a “neo-liberal” economic philosophy and not a conservative one.

    Adam Smith is frequently cherry picked by neo-conservatives, however they often leave out the fact that Smith, in his observations of capitalism in his own time insisted that the owners of businesses should NOT conspire to keep wages low, but in fact, for capitalism to work, wages must be kept as high as possible. Next Smith also said that employers should hire as many people as possible, not as few were needed to create profit. Because for a free market to expand, as many consumers as possible were necessary.

    Finally, Smith also stated that excessively high profits and low wages were the sign of an economy that was approaching collapse.

    The founding fathers saw many faults in Smiths ideas, because they were well aware that people often act in ways that are motivated by personal greed, and will often act in ways that are harmful to the overall economy out of that greed.

    Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison beleived that free market laissez faire capitalism and the use of corporate wealth to control government would create another aristocracy based on personal wealth, and that this aristoracy would replace the landed aristocracy that they had developed their new ideas of government to eliminate.

    Madison, in 1887, argued that the government should attempt to eliminate extremes of wealth, without leveling incomes. He very clearly stated that progressive taxation should be used to all citizens to an income that was somewhere around the median, without completely “leveling” incomes.

    The founding fathers closely studied the various types of governments that existed in the past, and the primary conclusions that they based their ideas for the formation of our government on were that the caused of tyrannical societies and other dictatorships revolved around two economic states. The first was extremes of poverty and wealth. Where these extremes exist, tyrannies come into existance. The next thing they opposed was “entrenched wealth”. That is to say, they opposed inherited wealth.

    The elimination of these two conditions lay at the heart of the American revolution. They did not beleive in what was called, during their time, “leveling” which we would now call communism, but they also did not believe that anyone in our society should be allowed to accumulate unlimited wealth. Jefferson, Madison and Franklin called for some progressive form of taxation to prevent such wealth.

  • Rick

    One (that includes me) needs to distinguish economic liberals and economic conservatives from their social counterparts. The social liberals and conservatives concern themselves with whether one should meddle in your personal freedoms. Both claim to support freedom of speech and religion conservatives want gun rights, “property rights” and freedom of association (as in the freedom to discriminate in hiring ) rights. Liberals sexual freedom(so do conservatives for them selves but won’t admit it), voting rights, etc.

    OTOH economic liberals and conservatives differ in which corporate and lobbying interests they serve. Liberals serve organized labor even at the expense of non-organized labor despite their claim to be for workers. Econo-cons worship or pretend to worship the free market but game the system when it hits them in their pocket. They’re really economic libertarians.

    Watch out when the two come to bipartisan agreement. Massachusetts mandatory health insurance law is an example. Econo-liberals saw an opportunity to offer cheap insurance to low income people giving them insurance while forcing middle income uninsureds to help subsidize them. Those forced to buy unsubsidized private insurance lack the free income tax benefits of those workers with employer paid health insurance premiums but do suffer tax penalties if they can’t buy or refuse to buy these private business services.

    And yes I’ve heard all the shallow arguments about if we don’t force the healthy to buy insurance they will get sick, go to the emergency room, get treated and won’t pay their bills. This doesn’t explain why states like Massachusetts force insurers to cover such elective medicine as expensive IVF treatment or Viagra; and these are the tip of the mandate iceberg. The econo-liberals in Massachusetts support their medical corporate interest via wealth transfer from the working class. If there is class warfare in this country it is econo-cons and econo-liberal warfare on the W-4 class.

  • Isernia

    I have often thought that in a conservative’s mind, the “l” word is translated as LIBERTINE! LIBERAL connects to l960′s Woodstock mentality, the drug culture and sex education for right-wingers.

  • Mike

    I agree with ricks statement especially about mass health-care created my this econ liberal and romney. I konw many even with health-insurance cant go to the doctor, because of the cost and nickel and dime routine the HMO play, As This Econ liberal sounded just like a right-wing conservative, when responding to it. the controller was on NPR a few weeks ago, and asked about people who loss there jobs, would they still get fined, he said “hopefully there do the right thing and get health insurance” than the follow up about the fines he replied they should have the money to pay for it, and its there fault they dont”

    I truly hope Pres obama does not do the mass health care system, that punishes middle class workers for not being able to afford it, and when u get it u cant use it cause of the co-pays and fees, charges,

    But these econ liberals dont care if u can afford it or not, there buddys in the health systems have a captive market, like they do with the Auto insurance requiring u to pay, pay, pay and if something does happen u pay some more, look up what the health care CEO’s are making, and as higher prices in heatlh care in mass, quality is still far below par.

    most think mass. is one of most liberal state, maybe true except taxes, and minorities, as for the south u can see it up front, but here there just look the other way and act as if it doesn’t happen,

  • Robert Aboie

    Liberalism is back temporarily with the election of a liberal (who didn’t run as a liberal, isn’t it funny that liberals seem to be ashamed of the moniker?)

    America is in a Atlas Shrugged moment. The non-producers in society are spending the money of the producers; the non-producers (community organizers) are voting themselves money out of our treasury). Theses democrats are ruining American for our children and grand-children. In the Obama-world-view, producers are evil and should have their earnings confiscated. In the liberalspeak, the private sector is evil.

    This too will pass. Obama’s legacy will be worse than Clintons. Obama will definately damage America. But America will rise up, communism will once again be defeated, innovation and individualism and accountability will come back in fashion, and the nanny state of the democrats will lie in ashes.

    The liberal democrats do not have a system, it does not scale. Its a dead-end. Conservativism will be the answer again. Small government means less corruption. Smaller government means less taxes. Smaller govement means fewer pensions/percs for lazy pols. Smaller government means more freedom for our citizens.

  • David

    Place a liberal and a conservative on a high pinnacle with one demand. Do not go close to the edge. Three things will happen.
    1. The liberal will be dead because he can not stand the thought of being told not to do something. He will will make the excuse that you are denying him his liberty. So he will go to the edge and fall off.
    2. The liberal will drag the conservative over with him, because he can not stand being alone in his quest for freedom from rules.
    3. The conservative will remain, because common sense tells him that rules are there for a reason, even though he may not like them. It is not in man to direct his own steps. History proves that!

  • Mike

    4.your example is crap, the conservative would be the first one to jump, thinking god will save him, and force the liberal to go as well otherwise he’ll push him. either way there both screwed due to one-sided thinking from the conservative .

  • John Earl

    Hi Tom

    Alan’s idea that we as a people are free to pursue whatever we desire without any interference or restrictions regarding out genetic makeup is why the term “Liberal” gets scoffed at. One only has to sit in a shopping Mall to see the limitations imposed by nature. The seven deadly sins govern many. Can anyone imagine choosing to be an obese blob walking about, knowing (ignoring) the consequences. Drug addiction, blind faith, phobias, mental illness, stupidity, etc, etc.
    I am a liberal, which means I respect all who do not hurt or impose their personal values on me or my loved ones. I choose to not hurt anyone, obey reasonable laws, and be a responsible human being.
    I also prefer to live a healthy life, But I do not claim to know how to convince others to do the same (given I have not walked a mile in their moccasins) — I just wonder why some people do not care for others as well as themselves or think they know the answers.

  • Shaun

    This show was a waste of my time. I thought it meant “Liberalism” in the Adam Smith sense. The show barely touched on the origins of the term, and instead sloshed around in the muddy waters of left vs. right.

    Neither the Democrats or Republicans accomplish, or have accomplished, anything “liberal”, economic or social, in at least decades. To say that liberals “give” you rights, is to say that liberals have the moral authority to give and take your rights. What true liberalism means: you are born with rights. No one has the authority to give or take them.

  • David

    5. My example is true. History will prove this, I have always been a conservative and it has served me well. I know liberal thinking people in my area, their boats are sinking due to their liberal beliefs. Yes, by majority, conservatives do believe in God. I have full faith in God and Jesus as my Savior. Yes, they have saved me from a world of troubles. It is also by their guidance I have been saved from being alone on top of a pinnacle with a liberal.

  • Rachel

    Ideologies, political parties, that we feel a need to belong to a group of people or thinking is exactly the same psychology as being religious. Not to say that being religious or belong to certain group of religion is wrong. But choosing sides would always blind us when the good and bad are not so obviously displayed. But we all feel sense of comfort to finalize our decision by labeling our thinking. And this troubles me.

    And these politicians are smart enough to understand this human nature, they sure know how to use it to win our votes based on certain needs of certain time era. Therefore all the ideologies were and still being packaged, then repackaged from left to right, right to left. (may I say some of the church pastors are also good at this by getting what they want in the church, they have one thing in common, they know human weakness, and sure know how to utilize it to advance themselves)

    It’s time to use our common sense and intuition, and advance knowledge would also help to be critical thinkers. Whatever it works, of course within moral measures, we should adapt and change ourselves to finally benefit most of the people.

    Throughout all histories since mankind, as a known fact, a unstable and unsustainable society with concentrated wealth on small % of population, this society would fall and be turned over by rebels and revolutionaries, with democracy or without democracy. Look at some other countries, their governments are so corrupted and yet they do have democracy.

    When majority of people are not happy, they can be very powerful force. We do want government to invest on people by at least providing tools to lift them. And most people don’t believe in society parasites either, so a tight monitoring regulation need to be placed to prevent free rides for slackers. Government should constantly updates records and stats to prevent loopholes. Funny thing is slackers usually are pretty smart for their own good. But we shouldn’t abandon the whole idea to stable and sustain a society just because of some bad examples, how about those who really are struggling. Same thing goes to free market, just because we believe in free market, doesn’t mean let greed runs free.

    Let’s practice common sense and adapt, within basic moral sense (not these extreme imposed religious value), then maybe we will survive, uh, if you believe in evolution.

    Forget those useless ideologies, they are only political tools, worth half penny to me.

  • David

    I don’t understand why the liberals keep trying programs that just don’t work. If you give a person food stamps, give them a job application too. If you give a person section 8 housing money, give them a notice to go back to school. End the problems with the poor rather than keep them poor.

  • Jon Fraud Carry

    Well, we have just received that shot of Liberalism that you wanted, Mr. Wolfe. And how is it working for you? From outside your echo chamber of arrogant, effete, NPR listeners it is a disaster. Liberalism is designed to enslave people on the welfare plantation. It is designed to share misery, not share equality. It is designed to destroy wealth. So far, your Liberal moonbat ideology is once again proving to be an Epic Fail.

  • Lando

    Liberalism is a stupid word – I consider myself progressive and it’s irritating being grouped in with those of the “L” word. It’s dated.

  • Coby

    Finally listened to this on a podcast. This book sounds like it should’ve been titled “A Bewildering Series of Contradictions.”

    Wolfe tries to have it both ways on everything under the sun. Liberalism means a profound respect for individual autonomy, but it also places supreme value on communitarianism. It’s all about seeing people not as they are, but as what they could be, but it’s also intensely grounded in reality (tack on here his statement that “We are the government,” which has to be one of the least reality-based things I’ve heard in a long time). The election was certainly about a groundswell of support for liberalism, but it’s understandable if Obama isn’t able to put his agenda into place because of domestic opposition.

    I was left feeling that the definition of liberalism is All Good Things, while the definition of conservatism is Everything That Fails.

    I also think Mr. Ashbrook missed some opportunities to probe both Professor Wolfe and callers. He must’ve asked, “Do you think Obama’s a liberal?” half a dozen times in slightly different ways. Why didn’t he just ask, “Is water wet?” over and over again?

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