Toward the beginning of the Reagan Administration James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, remarked that though he used to think there were two kinds of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, he'd now become convinced that we were divided into American and liberals. Just a few short years after that neofascist invocation, Mike Dukakis fled from the "L word" as though he had been accused of card-carrying Communism; and now Bill Clinton is doing the same. Liberal-baiting has replaced redbaiting as the favorite pastime of venomous conservatives.
How has it come about, this curious phenomenon of liberalism on the defensive in a cultural milieu that Louis Hartz famously described, in his The Liberal Tradition in America, as wholly and uniquely liberal? More curiously, why does liberalism seem to have, at least in the United States, such a self-annihilating history?
As Hartz pointed out, liberalism is an import from Britain, where it developed on the historical stage as a doctrine of individual property right (John Locke); unencumbered business enterprise (Adam Smith); utilitarian social reform to increase the general happiness (Jeremy Bentham); and equal civil liberty for all, individuals as well as collectivities, minorities as well as majorities (John Stuart Mill). In the United States it reached its modern apotheosis in the New Deal, but its direction can be seen as early as 1848, in Mill's Principles of political Economy, in which, after countless encomiums to the "free market," he concludes with a discussion of "the grounds and limits of the laisser-faire or non-interference principle" that virtually lays out a complete theory of the contemporary welfare state.
Although it's sometimes said that the reformism and egalitarianism of Bentham and Mill have displaced the private-property, free-market orientation of Locke and Smith, what has always remained central to liberalism is the notion of social order in which individual liberty will be able to flourish equally for all to the limit of their capacities, regardless of an one's membership in a social group other than the one that defines itself as "the majority." The great statements of this tradition have become classics, and deservedly so:
On any of the great open questions ... if either of the two opinions has a better claim than the other, not merely to be tolerated, but to be encouraged and countenanced, it is the one which happens at the particular time and place to be in the minority. That is the opinion which, for the time being, represents the neglected interests, the side of human well-being which is in danger of obtaining less than its share. [Mill, On Liberty]
The entire history of social improvement has been a series of transitions, by which one custom or institution after another, from being a supposed primary necessity of social existence, has passed into the rank of a universally stigmatised injustice and tyranny. So it has been with the distinctions of slaves and freemen, nobles and serfs, patricians and plebeians; and so it will be, and in part already is, with the aristocracies of colour, race, and sex. [Mill, Utilitarianism]
If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate. [Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., dissenting in U.S. v. Schwimmer, 1929]
Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. [Justice John Harlanm dissenting in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896]
Why, it seems reasonable to ask, should this tradition of equal citizenship for all be so much on the defensive in a democratic culture? Most obviously, liberalism stands in a very uneasy relationship to democracy, which enshrines majority rule. …