Liberal: What Does It Mean? – The Rise And Fall Of Modern Social Liberalism

In May of 2011, I asked the question “What does it mean to be a liberal?” The question and the blog post that followed were written months before the launch of what is now called The Left Call. Apparently I was not alone in asking the question as that post from nearly two years ago is now the 3rd most popular on this blog. And because of that, I feel the need to expand.

Later on, I’ll close this article with my refined explanation of what I think it means to be a liberal, but let’s now examine the minds of some great liberals past and present. But before we begin, I want to say that I’m focusing on modern social liberalism. The word liberal, and the political philosophy of liberalism have no singular definition. I’m not so much concerned with what liberal meant 200 or 300 years ago as I am with what it means to our political and social discourse in the past century, a time that saw both the rise and fall (or partial retreat) of social liberalism.


Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was the 32nd President of the United States, and the most prominent early figure of modern social liberalism in America. It was his policies, known collectively as the New Deal, that shaped the thinking of social liberals who followed.


The New Deal — At the heart of the set of programs and initiatives known as the New Deal was FDR’s concern for the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

The term “New Deal” was coined during Franklin Roosevelt’s 1932 Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech, when he said, “I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people.” Roosevelt summarized the New Deal as a “use of the authority of government as an organized form of self-help for all classes and groups and sections of our country.” – United States American History

The New Deal was a set of executive orders and laws passed by Congress in response to The Great Depression. But some of these programs were much more than economic stimulus. The New Deal put great emphasis on relief for the unemployed and the poor, and it helped embolden the rise of the labor movement through its reforms designed to avert another financial collapse. Later on, the New Deal would be expanded with the Second New Deal, where the impact of social liberal thinking really began to take shape with the creation of Social Security, a social safety-net for senior citizens, later expanded in 1965 with Medicare.

Social justice is what drives FDR’s New Deal. It’s the idea that a just society is a more free society. A healthy society embraces equality and values the rights of not only the majority, but also the minority.


Our 35th president, John F. Kennedy (JFK), served for less than three years, his life cut short by an assassin’s bullet, but his impact on modern social liberalism runs deep. And it didn’t hurt the cause that he was one of the most quotable presidents in American history, along with fellow Democrat, FDR.

JFK — I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future. (Speech at Amherst College, 1963)

And to put to bed the notion that social liberalism is about fostering a nanny state mentality, where there are makers and takers, I offer one of the most famous quotes of any public figure, anywhere in the world (in extended form):

JFK — In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility — I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man. (Inaugural Address, 1961)

This is how you motivate a citizenry to make something greater for all human beings. Contrast it with an inaugural quote from another popular U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, when he said, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Negativity can be an effective tool of motivation, but it is not a tool to advance a civilization.

John F. Kennedy

Arguably Kennedy did not achieve sweeping social change during his short time as president, but his oratory impact continues to drive modern social liberals. And many liberals would need look no further than the following quote when describing what it means to be a liberal.

JFK — If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.

It was Kennedy’s vice president, and successor Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) who oversaw the biggest social liberal legislative achievements of the 20th century in what he called a “Great Society.” The biggest examples being the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the expansion of the Social Security Act with Medicare in 1965. The overall philosophy was social justice, including an eradication of racism, and an end to poverty. And LBJ knew what the political implications were when he reportedly told an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation,” which was in response to the Democratic Party’s adoption of civil rights as a political platform pillar.


Moving to present day, former Harvard Law School Professor and now Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren, embodies the modern social liberal. Her background is in bankruptcy law, but she is best known as a consumer advocate, gaining prominence in the documentary Maxed Out. It could be argued that her life’s work culminated with the founding of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she had a hand in establishing. But that was not enough for Warren, as she led a successful campaign to win the Massachusetts Senate seat, long-held by liberal Democrat, the late Ted Kennedy, by defeating its temporary occupant, Republican Scott Brown.

There are not many people in modern American politics who better defend the social contract. In an election (2012) that saw many liberal achievements, including marriage equality winning popular votes in Maine and Maryland, Elizabeth Warren said in her victory speech, “This election was about making sure the United States, the federal government, honors equal marriage. This election was about opportunity, not for some, but for all, and that’s the core of liberalism.” And we should applaud Warren for invoking liberalism in her speech as modern social liberalism has been on the decline, at least in the political power center of this country, Washington D.C.

Elizabeth Warren - photo by

Warren believes firmly in the idea of paying it back as part of the social contract. If you’ve had success in this country, you did not do it on your own. This takes away nothing from your achievement, but those who think they live in a vacuum are violating a basic social contract that makes for a more free, fair and equitable society.

Elizabeth Warren — There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.


Chris Hayes hosts the most important political show on television. Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC regularly enlists a panel of smart and compassionate guests, and you are rewarded with engaging and intelligent dialog on some of the country’s most important social issues. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that for liberals, Chris Hayes has nearly, if not, reached national treasure status.

Up with Chris Hayes - photo by MSNBC

He displays relentless passion on climate change, and his driving force is economic and social equality. In his book, “Twilight of the Elites,” Hayes writes, “This is the cycle of a dynamic society. Equality is never a final state, democracy never a stable equilibrium: they are processes, they are struggles. Our task is now to recognize that that struggle is ours.”

Our society is not something that happened by accident. It took great men and women before us to shape our democracy and to strive for a more perfect union. Hayes has a gift at explaining social inequality and struggles of minorities like no other young, white male in his profession. He is unafraid to state what should be obvious, but many are reluctant to say.

Chris Hayes — The basic reality of American politics to me…in the post civil rights era…you have to choose as a political party whether you are going to have black voters or the white racist vote. And you can’t have a coalition that has them both together. I mean, that’s just the reality of American politics, I’m sure people will be offended by that. And I just want to be clear, I’m not saying that all Republicans are white racists, I’m saying that the white racist vote is going to go to one side and the black vote is going to go for the other. Because why would you have a political coalition that had both of those elements in them?

Hayes might be a cable news host, but there is a rawness and an honesty that is refreshing, and it makes Up with Chris Hayes must watch TV for modern social liberals.


It could be argued, and has been argued that President Johnson took the idea of social justice and economic equality too far, too fast. While many social liberals reject the idea of too much equality, society is usually slow to adopt a new paradigm.

Conrad Black — Liberalism saved America and led it to its greatest days under Roosevelt and Truman. And it essentially continued under Eisenhower, a nonpartisan war hero who pretended to be above politics. Under Kennedy and Johnson and their inept Democratic successors, liberalism ceased to be perceived as helping the deserving and instead became taking money from those who had earned it and giving it to those who hadn’t in exchange for their votes. – The Decline of Liberalism

We should not overlook the role played by a successful re-branding of the Republican Party, led by the conservative movement, which reached its pinnacle with the election of actor, turned California governor, Ronald Reagan, as the 40th President of the United States. His election coincides with a three decades long decline of liberalism and an embrace of unfettered free-market capitalism. Cause and effect notwithstanding, we find ourselves in 2013 with a liberal brand that many see as advocating big, corrupt government programs at the same time that Americans are experiencing income and wealth inequality not seen since before the Great Depression.

It might be a stretch to say we are witnessing the fall of modern social liberalism, but the word liberal has fallen out of favor. Many liberals are so afraid to use the word they instead call themselves progressives. But just as conservatism was in decline during the middle of the last century and then saw a resurgence, the same can and will be true of liberalism. But liberals need to embrace the term, not hide from it.


I think the best way to answer the question of what it means to be a liberal is to define the main tenets of modern social liberalism.

  1. Government as a source of good. — Government is an extension of the community. Liberals do not implicitly trust government or people in positions of authority, but liberals give deference to expertise beyond their own scope of understanding. This is how a society works. Nobody has all the answers. But liberals believe that most people are good and that we have a common goal to treat each other with respect. If that is true, then a government of, by, and for the people is not something to be demonized, it is something to be used for the common good.
  2. Tolerance, respect, compassion and empathy. — These are the hallmarks of modern liberals. In the words of the Declaration of Independence — We hold these truths to be self-evident. — There are some things in life which you know and feel at your core. There are guiding principles that all good and decent human beings understand innately. It does not need scripture or piety. All human beings should be treated with respect and everyone should have the same rights and protection under the law.
  3. Rational and reasoned thought. — All human beings have their beliefs, but the big decisions that guide society should be subject to logic and reason and the scientific method. Nobody’s religion should dictate the rule of law. Liberals, contrary to conservative attempts to disparage, are not by default atheists. Liberals believe in religious tolerance, and liberals understand that freedom from religion is required to have freedom of religion.
  4. Freedom, liberty, and individual autonomy. —  Liberals should not allow conservatives to redefine freedom and liberty for their purposes. The idea of a people governing their interests instead of rule by monarchy was born out of the Enlightenment period and was very much a liberal idea for its time. Liberals recognize that freedom should be universal, and that economic and social injustice must be tackled if we are to meet that goal.
  5. Progress. — This is the driving force of modern social liberalism. Human beings are always looking to improve life on this planet. Liberals believe this is a common goal for all of humanity.


To be a liberal is to believe rights are not subject to negotiation. No matter your religion, your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual-orientation, or your economic situation, we all enjoy the same rights together.

To be a liberal is to believe that the job of building a more perfect union has only just begun. Arguments against progress in favor of traditional authority structures simply will not suffice. Doing nothing out of fear of a slippery slope is unacceptable. We must strive to achieve equality and equal opportunity for all. We might fail, but we try again.

And to be a liberal is to believe we are all in this together, and the common goals of humanity should unite us. Yes, at times liberals can sound a bit naive, but if most people are honest and decent, then we should give them the benefit of the doubt and not assume the worst when shaping our social and economic policy.


Now that I’ve explained what it means to be a liberal, do you agree? Are you a liberal? How do you define liberalism? Do you believe liberalism is in decline? I now open this article up to discussion in the comments section below.

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