The Transformation of Liberalism, 1964 to 2001

By Powers, Thomas F. | The Public Interest, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Transformation of Liberalism, 1964 to 2001


Powers, Thomas F., The Public Interest


We are engaged in a great adventure--as great as that of the last century, when our fathers marched to the western frontier. Our frontier today is of human beings, not of land.

Lyndon Johnson, Message on the Civil Rights Bill

TODAY, Americans take for granted, at the level of policy and principle, a commitment to fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of unjust discrimination. But the idea of anti-discrimination is in many ways a remarkable discovery in the history of modern democracy. The depth and seriousness of our commitment to this effort, despite its novel and even unprecedented character, is perhaps a large part of the reason we do not probe too deeply in thinking about it. But if we wish to see the full meaning of democratic citizenship in America today, we must become more fully conscious of this new pillar of our political order. Though a term of negative construction, anti-discrimination defines the positive meaning of equal citizenship today, and debates about it are at the heart of our civic and moral self-understanding. Above all, we must gain a more accurate view of the relation between anti-discrimination and America's liberal democratic tradition.

For very good reasons, Americans are devoted both to the liberal political framework of politics and to a policy of fighting discrimination. But in ways that we do not adequately appreciate, anti-discrimination transforms and at points even breaks with the liberal tradition. Thus American politics today orients itself by two competing moral and political polestars--anti-discrimination and liberalism--and this explains a great deal of the confusion surrounding our political debate on a number of divisive issues.

Is it possible that one innovation in public policy--the commitment to overcoming discrimination in the private as well as the public sphere--could have had such a dramatic impact on the contours of American democratic life? Certainly, the standard interpretation holds the fight against discrimination to be no more than the culmination of liberal principle, not a deviation from it. Most would agree with Daniel Patrick Moynihan's view that the civil rights revolution of the 1960s did nothing more than "at last redeem the full promise of the Declaration of Independence." The leading historian of the civil rights era, Hugh Davis Graham, maintains that the 1964 Civil Rights Act enshrines only "classic liberalism's core command against discrimination." In current debates, defenders of liberalism look for the cause of troubles not in the civil rights movement and its great political achievement but in seemingly alien intellectual developments or other social trends.

Clearly, something new and different is at work reshaping the basic logic of American politics. Despite its victory in the Cold War, the liberal tradition in America is under renewed attack in a culture war. Multiculturalists, Afrocentrists, radical feminists, postmodern advocates of a new "politics of difference," and a host of other activists (gay-positive, ethnic, linguistic, differently abled) have created a new political dynamic that has largely supplanted struggles that used to take place along class lines. In the current debate, even liberalism's highest principle--the commitment to free speech--is not immune to challenge.

To begin to see anti-discrimination more clearly, in all its power and importance, it is necessary to examine it from a number of different vantage points. First, the history of anti-discrimination's rise and ultimate victory makes clear the ways in which it was a correction to a blind-spot in the liberal framework, a remedy necessarily going beyond the confines of traditional liberalism. Second, and perhaps most important, anti-discrimination challenges the liberal understanding of the relationship between politics and morality. Against the liberal inclination, anti-discrimination makes the legislation of morality an open and explicit part of American politics, shaping a new ideal of democratic citizenship. …

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