Before we can save liberalism, we must first know what it is

Before we can save liberalism, we must first know what it is
© Emily Birnbaum

Every day the warnings grow more emphatic: Around the world, liberalism is in retreat. Populism, authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise, and American hegemony is in decline.

At home, too, liberalism seems threatened in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. The Economist reported that a third of Americans under 35 say that it is vital to live in a democracy; the share that would welcome military government grew from 7 percent in 1995 to 18 percent last year. At the same time, half of Americans between 18 and 29 have a positive view of socialism. 


It is not just that liberalism is under attack or losing adherents. It’s also that liberals are divided and that there is considerable confusion about what being liberal means. 

The term “liberal” is often used to describe members of the Democratic Party. But Democrats today are not of one mind. Some are “moderate,” others are “progressive,” while still others call themselves “democratic socialists.” A recent poll divided Democrats and likely Democrats into “very liberal” “somewhat liberal” “and conservative.” 

Let us also not forget that Libertarians, who tend to vote Republican, often call themselves “classical liberals.” There are also the “neoliberals.” What do these different labels mean, and can they all get along? 

History can shed some light on this conundrum. It can also lead to some surprising discoveries. 

We tend to think of liberalism as an Anglo-American tradition with deep roots in English history. But this is false. The word “liberalism” was coined in the wake of the French Revolution, as late as the 1810s and for most of the 19th century, liberalism was seen as a French, not an Anglo-American doctrine.

It referred to principles for which the French revolutionaries fought, namely civic equality, constitutional government and a number of individual rights, like freedom of the press, freedom of religion and of property.

Until the 20th century, “liberal,” in its political meaning, remained a rare word in both Britain and America and, when it was used, was sometimes spelled “liberale,” or rendered in italics, to indicate its foreignness.

The root of the word “liberal” is the Latin term liber, which meant both freedom and generosity in ancient Rome. These were the virtues required of a good citizen, the love of freedom but also generosity and commitment to the common good.

Nineteenth-century liberals continued to view these virtues as indispensable. No liberal polity could survive on the basis of individualism, which the French theorist, Alexis Tocqueville, author of "Democracy in America," said was just a modern word for selfishness. The right moral and civic values were essential to the survival of a liberal polity. 

While the French Revolution gave birth to liberalism, German thinkers reconfigured it. As the Industrial Revolution advanced, it generated both prosperity and extreme inequality. Many liberals now argued that governments were morally obliged to intervene to help the poor. Individual generosity was not enough; the problems were systemic.

Receptive to the German ideas, many liberals called for a “new,” “constructive” or “progressive” liberalism more concerned with improving the lives of the poor. How much and what kind of policies was much debated.

Some liberals became friendly to “socialist” ideas and the term “liberal socialism” was born. It triggered spirited debates about the nature of “true liberalism.” Those who objected to the new trends began calling themselves “classical” or “orthodox” liberals.

In the second decade of the 20th century, it was the “new” form of liberalism that arrived in America. It came via a group of thinkers and politicians who were Republican progressives in 1912 and Wilsonian Democrats in 1916. Woodrow Wilson called himself “progressive” in 1916 and “liberal” in 1917. 

Once again, however, not everyone agreed with this use of the term. “True liberalism,” they insisted, stood for individual rights and strictly limited government. Individuals should be generous, not governments.

During Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, when the word was used to describe the New Deal, the argument became heated. Eventually, however, the New Dealers won the battle, which is why liberalism today means “big government” in colloquial parlance.

It was only in the mid-20th century that the idea of an “Anglo-American liberal tradition” was invented. It came about as the result of the two World Wars followed by the Cold War. Liberals of both varieties now came to stress individual rights to an unprecedented degree.  

Duties to the collectivity receded to the background and the contributions to liberalism of France and Germany were largely forgotten.


The rise of populism that we are seeing today would not have surprised 19th-century liberals. In general, liberals were always very wary of democracy. Horrified by crowd activity during France’s successive revolutions (1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871), they associated democracy with mob rule.

The masses had proved themselves to be ignorant, irrational and prone to violence. Unaware of their true interests, they were easy prey for demagogues, who appealed to their lowest instincts. To exercise the vote responsibly, the masses first had to acquire “capacity.” Tocqueville argued that it was necessary to “educate democracy.” 

Throughout their history, liberals have debated many things, from the size of the electorate, to the merits of socialism. But one thing they learned the hard way: When faced with authoritarian rulers, they were always strongest when they stood together.

Helena Rosenblatt is a professor at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York and the author of "The Lost History of Liberalism" (Princeton University Press, 2018).