LIBERALISM IS DEEPLY ROOTED IN AMERICAN SOIL, so much so that in the years after World War II, many historians and social scientists regarded the liberal project and the American civic creed as more or less the same. The proposition that each of us has a right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" remains as good a definition as anyone has ever come up with of liberalism's first principle and America's historic promise.
For some time, however, contemporary liberalism has been under political siege in the United States, and even liberals have at times appeared uncertain about what they stand for. In recent decades, national political leaders who are unquestionably liberal have often been unwilling to say so and unable to articulate a compelling public philosophy, while public-opinion surveys show that many Americans who support liberal positions do not identify themselves as liberals.
Lately, though, the right has been facing its own loss of confidence. No one, not even conservatives, doubts that conservatism is now in deep trouble: divided, uncertain of itself, and with a lot of explaining to do for the fiasco in Iraq. Yet the exhaustion of conservatism is not tantamount to a liberal revival. The Bush administration's manifest failures and the Democrats' triumph in the :2006 elections have created a new opening for liberal argument. The question is now whether liberals ean make their case not just for specific policies and candidates but for an alternative public philosophy.
The Bush years have left America with more than just the disaster in Iraq to resolve. Conservative political leadership has failed to confront, and in critical respects has contributed to, some of our most serious long-term problems: growing economic inequality and insecurity, structural deficits in the federal budget, grave threats to the global environment, and increased hostility abroad toward the United States. America needs a different approach rooted in the inclusive, democratic partnerships that are central to the modern liberal tradition--a partnership at home built on the basis of a shared prosperity, and an international partnership in power built on the basis of a cooperative framework of security.
At its heart, the aim of the liberal project is today what it has always been: to build a free, fair, and prosperous society. But liberalism ought never to be confused with mere high-mindedness; it calls for a practical politics, whose ways and means necessarily evolve in response to new conditions and new understandings. A readiness to confront new conditions and absorb the lessons of experience is all the more necessary in a philosophy that asks to be judged by its real effects on human freedom and happiness and the power and peace of nations. Liberalism stands not only for the principle that we all have an equal right to freedom but also for the hypothesis that this is a workable ideal, and that a politics based on liberal principles can produce the power and wealth that make a free society more than a dream.
LIBERALISM IS NOTORIOUSLY DIFFICULT TO DEFINE. THE TERM has been used to describe a sprawling profusion of ideas, practices, movements, and parties in different societies and historical periods. Often emerging as a philosophy of opposition, whether to feudal privilege, absolute monarchy, colonialism, theocracy, communism, or fascism, liberalism has served, as the word suggests, as a force for liberation, or at least liberalization--for the opening up of channels of free initiative.
As a political philosophy in the Anglo-American world, liberalism has two primary senses. In its broader meaning, it refers to the fundamental principles of constitutional government and individual rights shared by modern liberals and conservatives, though often differently interpreted by them. This tradition of constitutional liberalism--classical political liberalism--emerged in the 17th …