an image of Thomas Jefferson      The United States' political culture was born liberal in the eighteenth century. Liberal ideology was characterized by competitive individualism, the right to private property, limited government, and a free market. Liberalism also generated a faith in the ability of humankind to be rational. It also encouraged civil liberties and social tolerance. This ideology took hold in United States, forming an umbrella-like consensus, owing to specific historical conditions. Those conditions included the Protestant basis of the early settlements, the existence of a "Lockean" wilderness, the widespread ownership of property by white settlers and the absence of a competing feudal tradition. Liberal tenets were promoted during the American Revolution and were also incorporated in the U.S. constitution. These central traits, known as "classical liberalism," rationalized nineteenth century competitive capitalism represented by small-scale agriculture, manufacturing and commercial enterprises.

An image of a hand holding a small globe       However, since the late-nineteenth century the United States (and the world) economy has evolved to where it is dominated by monopolistic corporations which have global economic interests. The multinational corporations, by implication, subordinated the competitive economic sector, while the ownership of these firms became increasinglyconcen-trated and centralized. Further, monopoly capitalism transformed U.S. society into an urban/suburban-based political-economy, with the vast majority of citizens wage-earners and consumers. The U.S. economy was also subjected to numerous crises and contradictions. These developments, inherent to capitalism, were manifested by recessionand depression, disparity of wealth and income, irrational production (waste) and environmental pollution. The fact of capitalism's proclivity to crisis, in fact, forced the U.S. state, beginning in the 1930's, to expand and intervene into the economy guided by Keynesian policies, in an attempt to maintain the economic stability. This completely redefined the structure and characteristics of the U.S. state. Moreover, in 1945 the United States assumed global economic and military hegemony creating inter-national goals and priorities.

Martin Luther King   
herefore, during the 1930's and 1940's liberalism was redefined and adapted to adjust to the developments described above. This, in effect, caused classical liberalism to be turned inside out. The result was liberalism was remade to support the development (and expansion) of a modern welfare-capitalist state. Thus "classical liberalism" was no longer the dominant ideology in American politics. By the late-1940's "corporate liberalism" was dominant represented by two new variants which Edward S. Greenberg labels Modern Liberalism and Modern Conservatism. These positions, which identified with (and were linked to) the interests of multinational corporations and banks, promoted the U.S. state playing an active role in the economy and society in an effort to expand capitalism. During the height of the United States' post-war hegemony the major difference between the Modern Liberal and the Modern Conservative was over the acceptable degree of intervention (or reform) needed (or desired) to advance dominant capitalist interests and maintain social welfare. Inherent to this difference was the conservative's emphasis on "economic freedom" and the liberal's emphasis on "civil liberties." This underscores the unresolved (and ongoing) tension in liberalism between the values of property and equality.

A grain harvester      
he premise of this argument is that throughout United States history a specific interpretation of liberalism has the centrist position in the political culture. As Greenberg argues, liberalism was consciously woven into the constitution by the Founding Fathers and is the basis of the American political system. Furthermore, the political center has been flanked (on the right and the left) by complementary and/or competing ideologies influenced in some way by the liberal tradition. This implies that all the ideologies existent in the society are affected by mainstream liberalism. This is seen in the primacy of the centrist-dominated two-party system and the general support among most Americans for private property, a market- based economy and individualism. There is a point, however, at the extremes of the umbrella of liberalism when the respective positions are no longer liberal, either on the right becoming an American brand of fascism (reactive, illiberal, totalitarian and militarist) or socialism on the left (public ownership of the means of production, production for need rather than profit, participatory democracy, collective responses to tasks and problems, etc.)

he centrist position, during a period of relative economic stability, represents a political project which has consensus support among dominant interests in, and around, the U.S. government. These interests include multinational corporations and banks, policy planning organizations and "think tanks," and the establishment media. Nicos Poulantzas has called these combined interests a "power bloc." The centrist position also defines the legitimate (acceptable) boundaries of debate within the political arena. For example, it is not acceptable in the United States to advocate public ownership of corporations or socialized medicine, although in most Western industrialized countries these policies have been commonplace since World War II. Nor in the area of foreign policy is it acceptable to claim that the United States is an aggressive imperialist state with global designs; although many people through-out the world believe, from first-hand experience, that is the case. On another level, in the 1970's and 1980's, the acceptable debate in the United States was over what percentage the military budget should be increased or decreased and the legality of covert methods used in the Third World, rather than whether U.S. military spending and its global presence is necessary or, for that matter, truly in the interest of all of its citizens. The writer further suggests the center of the liberal spectrum can be shifted depending on political and/or economic exigencies caused by disruption/s and/or crises. This implies that the consensus political project and the parameters of acceptable discussion or/and debate changes also. However, it must be recognized that the extreme edges of the umbrella basically stays in the same place. Thus, the center can be shifted, either to the right or the left. This dynamic can be observed by examining post-war U.S. policies.

     Since World War II there has been six distinct phases of liberalism in the United States, and in each phase the center was situated at a different point along the liberal spectrum. The first phase was between 1945 and 1968, when there was a period of consensus support in the United States for the further expansion of the U.S. state (government) and the pursuit of domestic and international policies based on the "open door" and anti-communism. The second phase was between 1968 and 1979 and was characterized by instability and transition. This was reflected in a breakdown of consensus, which witnessed the emergence of struggles among interests in, and around, the U.S. state over the direction and form U.S. foreign and domestic policy should take. This instability was caused by political and economic crises, which challenged Washington's domestic authority and global dominance. The struggles for influence over U.S. policy persisted until 1979 when a third phase occurred. A new consensus was adopted, positing the center significantly to the right of where it had been situated before 1968. This, by implication, redefined the ideological positions flanked to the right and the left. This represented a fourth stage dominated by the Reagan administrations control of the White House. That administration was supported by a loose coalition of both Eastern Establishment forces and the ultra-conservative Sun-Belt interests. The major objective of Reagan was to “roll back \”nationalist regimes throughout the world through military destablization and the implemention of neo-liberal economic policies (deregulation, privatization, etc.)

     A fifth phase began in 1986, causing the unraveling of the previous consensus and creating a new transitional period dominated by the Rockefeller-dominated Eastern Establishment. The most significant domestic development was the collapse of the stock market in October 1987. However, economic matters were put on hold as the United States orchestrated the “management of the ends of the Cold War” leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European regimes. The objective of the United States was the institution of “free market” neo-liberal economic policies in those societies. As a means to assert United States global hegemony in the immediate “post-Cold War” period the Bush administration carried out the “Gulf War” designed to contain the Iraqi government headed by Saddam Hussein and to signal to the rest of the world the United States was still the global hegemon. Despite Bush’s popularity, the economy went into recession and he was defeated in the 1992 Presidential elections. This period signaled a fifth stage in the post-War “liberal”arrangement. Here we would like to lay out the range of political-ideological positions in United States starting in 2000.


Suggested Reading:

John Locke Two Treatises of Government, (Many editions);
Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations, (Many editions)
Joseph Schumpeter Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, (1942)
Carl Polyani The Great Transformation, (1944)
Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition, (1948)
Louis Hartz The Liberal Tradition in America, (1955)
Harry Girvetzk The Evolution of Liberalism, (1963)
Barrington Moore Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, (1966)
Nicos Poulantzas Political Power and Social Classes, (1968)
James Weinstein The Corporate Ideal and the Liberal State, (1969)
G. William Domhoff Who Rules America?, (1968)
Philip Slater The Pursuit of Loneliness, (1970)
Richard P. Young "Liberalism: The American Creed"
Edward S. Greenberg and Richard P.Young American Politics Reconsidered, (1973)
Anthony Arblaster The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism, (1984)
Robert N. Bellah Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Contentment in American Life, (1985)
Edward S. Greenberg "The Cultural Milieu: Liberalism"
Edward S. Greenberg The American Political System, (1989), pp. 36-51.

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