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American Liberalism in the Twentieth Century

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American Liberalism in the Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, the concept of liberalism changed a lot, deviating further from the original classical understanding of nineteenth-century liberalism. Today, it is very important to distinguish peculiarities of the 20th-century liberalism. The paper will track the splitting points judging the main governmental policies of the period and their core ideas. Modern American liberalism, in fact, is a mixture of social liberalism and governmental support implying a mixed economy.

Starting with the New Nationalism shaped by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, initially, modern American liberalism insisted on the governmental need to protect the property and welfare of all U.S. citizens. At the same time, Theodore Roosevelt did not put property rights as a primary concern but debated for human welfare to be guaranteed by the government as a foremost benefit. The New Nationalism stated that only with the help of effective social welfare, it is possible to regulate and improve the level of the national economy and overall development. Social justice and equality, along with a strong economy can be supported only by an influential federal government. At that time, certain attention was focused on heavy industry as a key to success. Theodore Roosevelt implied that non-governmental independent federal agencies should regulate and control business activities, to maintain stability.

The New Freedom policy was "broadcasted" in the same presidential election campaign as the New Nationalism; however, it was represented in the speeches of Woodrow Wilson. Although his ideas offered less governmental influence, Wilson suggested the introduction of more regulating agencies, such as the Federal Reserve System and the Clayton Act prohibiting anti-competitive activities in the American business. The latter one followed Sherman Antitrust Act that forbade creating monopolies, trusts, and other customer-unfriendly unities. Wilson won the elections and became the USA President for the period 1913-1917. During his presidency, Wilson concentrated on three major reforms: business transformation that was reflected in Federal Trade innovations designed to cut unfair and cheating practices, tariff changes that were reflected in the Underwood Act decreasing protectionist power, and bank reform that embraced the establishment of the Federal Reserve System and farm-oriented policies.

Later, between 1933 and 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt passed a range of national economic projects that, actually, were a good example of a liberal fight against the consequences of the Great Depression (Best, 1991). It mostly worked for the benefits of the working class, labor unions, ethnic minorities, and democrats. It was also supported by the liberal part of the Republican Party though they still wanted some perfection to the existing reforms (O’Brien, 1998). The New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt helped Americans survive the severe consequences of the Great Depression. From now on the government was perceived as a helpful force but not as a restrictor or controller.

Liberalism is often associated with progressivism, and really progressives made a significant contribution to the improvement of working conditions. Alfred E. Smith was elected governor of the New York State and became a leader for the city progressivism movement which was especially interested in labor efficiency and social justice. Al Smith tried to resist prohibition and actually won the sympathies of the electors three times. He managed to introduce many reforms due to his active position.

The New Frontier of John Kennedy that was accepted in the U.S., in 1960, extended the existing advantages of the unemployed and ensured infrastructural shifts, such as improved transport and housing conditions, environmental and farmers’ protection. The social liberalism of the New Frontier was reflected in legislation to the favor of the lowest social layers. Regional politics and minimum wage level was established to improve the life quality for all American citizens.

Herbert Hoover was a powerful leader who fought for the Efficiency Movement and believed in the rise of the Leaders' Generation. The Great Society, introduced by Lyndon Johnson, focused on racial tension and discrimination elimination. The political course continued educational, medical, housing, and transportation reforms; however, at the same time, it was a lot different from the previous measures (Milkis, & Milieur, 2005). Lyndon B. Johnson was also interested in a stronger federal government that protected the American citizens and had strong positions in domestic life and international relations. He wanted to get gather governmental forces actively involved in the lives of Americans. The executive power should grow, as well as autonomy.

Other important examples of the American liberalism of the 20th-century peculiarities include:

  • Protection of gay rights;
  • African American segregation and voting rights;
  • New Abortion policies;
  • Healthcare and education access for all citizens.

In conclusion, unlike the 19th-century understanding of liberalism, the modern approach of the 20th century sets government as a primary guarantor and protector of liberalism, especially in social issues. Today, liberalism means granting people some additional benefits and rights and not merely opening new unrestricted opportunities for them. The federal government has transformed into the force that not only “lets off the leash” but provides citizens with support and infrastructure for enjoying those new changes and instruments. 

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