The History of American Political Liberalism and Social Activism

Social activism is a proactive attempt to right the societal wrongs of society through the centralization of marginalized voices through various liberation movements. Social justice work mirrors the myriad of political, economic, social and spiritual ideologies coalescing in various manifestations without one central school of thought dominating discourse. However, political liberalism has melted into social justice work, especially in the last hundred years of United States history where this ideology supports hegemonic power structures that continue to denigrate vulnerable populations. As a consequence, white liberalism, neoliberal economic policies, neoconservative foreign policies, white feminism and other stained political creeds dominate social justice spaces with neither our conscious awareness nor our consent. It is time we shined a light upon American political liberalism and revealed how much damage was committed within our liberation movements.

As a consequence, we must understand the modern two party system’s origins. The Republican Party was born in 1854 amid the most contentious debate on westward American expansion allowing any new slave states in which the northern faction of the ailing Whigs rebranded itself as the Republican Party. After Abraham Lincoln’s ascension into the Party and the Union’s victory in the Civil War, political liberalism found refuge in Republican ideology. The Republican Party provided for Presidential and Congressional leaders that argued for what we would today consider “liberal” positions on various issues, from the abolition of slavery to environmental protection.

Through Teddy Roosevelt, social progressivism made way for federally protected national parks, the Food and Drug Administration and a renewed spirit of “trust-busting” against the monopolization of private capital ownership. Through Eisenhower, we were granted a federally funded interstate highway system and through Nixon, the Environmental Protection Agency was born. However, with each new Republican president, big business interests took a larger hold on the Party since the Reconstruction Era of 1866-77 in which black rights, including federal protection of African American communities in the South, were losing favor to moneyed interests in the Republican Party.

In the Compromise of 1877, Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was allowed into the presidency as federal troops stationed in the American South left, which only helped vitalize the Ku Klux Klan’s violent reign over communities of color through domestic terrorism and intimidation on the practice of social and economic rights like voting. Liberalism in the Republican Party waned and waxed for almost a whole century until the Civil Rights Era triggered a political platform switch in which Democrats under Lyndon B. Johnson’s leadership became the more normalized faces for social and economic liberalism, whereas the Dixiecrats had immersed themselves into the Republican Party. To highlight this, the Nixon and Reagan Administrations were enjoying higher voter turnout of rural whites, farmers and other voting blocs once held by Democrats, since F.D.R.’s reign.

With the Reagan ‘80s, social conservatism bloomed in full spring, especially in the inhuman lack of proactive response from the administration during the AIDS crisis and the perpetuation of the sociocultural drug war which disproportionality demonized and marginalized communities of color, especially through privatized mass incarceration increasing exponentially. With Bush Sr. and Jr., we got neoconservative foreign policies inspired by Reagan in which preemptive warfare with a fully funded military complex helped spread American imperialism further than ever through self-justified war rhetoric. With Donald Trump rising quickly in the Republican primaries and overtaking Hillary Clinton in the presidential campaign, we get the most removed version of anti-liberal sentiment in the Republican Party since its inception.

But we must not forget the birth of the Democratic Party under the explicit reign of white supremacy with the most notable figure of Andrew Jackson, a political outsider who ascended to the presidency through populist sentiments. He even reclaimed the jackass political cartoon as the insignia for the new Democratic Party, while his administration expelled multiple Native American tribes through what is now notoriously known as the “Trail of Tears” authorized under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In the 1840s, the Democratic Party adopted the Manifest Destiny doctrine in which a white supremacist vision for the United States justified full expansion of white Americans into the remaining territories of the North American continent, explicitly at the expense of African slaves, Mexican citizens, East Asian labor and Native American nations.

The secession of the South and Civil War were further antagonized by Democratic political leaders, such as Jefferson Davis, as white southerners were the stronghold base of the Party at the time. Within the early 1900s, the role of big government was transitioning from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, especially with Woodrow Wilson’s presidential win in 1912. It was really with F.D.R. that government activism became formalized as a Democratic Party ideal which even White voters by the droves were in support of, especially blue collar workers and farmers facing extreme poverty.

With the inspiration of Keynesian economics manifesting in F.D.R.’s “Brain Trust,” the largest package of government programs was an example of early liberal economic theory attempting to alleviate poverty and other societal ills through justified government action. The Democratic Party became increasingly socially liberal with each of its presidents entering the White House. With Lyndon B. Johnson’s signature on the Civil Rights Act and Medicare/Medicaid legislation, political liberalism on the social and economic front were further cemented into the Party. Democrats lost elections by huge margins in the South and rural areas as White voters increasingly preferred nativist rhetoric echoed by Republican leaders into the modern era; however, with President Clinton, we get neoliberal economic and social policies such as the Welfare and Crime Bills. Even at the peak of social liberalism in the Obama administration, neoconservative foreign policy accelerated with an increased focus on black ops military conduct and the very vague executive branch policy on drone strikes.

The Democratic Party now faces a crisis of liberalism as younger, diverse generations call for more inclusive domestic policies and a politically moderate foreign policy in opposition to aging elders who hold the line on liberalism for the fear of losing votes to rural, white and religious conservative populations. Political liberalism in the context of the two-party system has found refuge in both major parties in different eras and circumstances, however, modern times reflect a political liberalism that is stained by liberal leaders in the Democratic Party who are not really addressing the younger demographic of the nation in terms of several issues. Democrats were too scared to defend Obamacare in the 2010 mid-term elections, losing the House to Republicans. Internal party struggles since the Obama presidency have made for mixed results in election outcomes. Sexism in Bernie Sanders’ circles and racist policies supported in Hillary Clinton’s show a much more complex picture of liberalism within the primary season of 2016.

Currently, political liberalism barely has the Democratic Party to call its home and social justice movements are threatened just for asking either party to address the needs of the marginalized. As referenced in my earlier articles on white feminism and white liberalism, political liberalism attempts to melt into social activism, yet fails to acknowledge its own contribution to the problems at hand. For every time Planned Parenthood comes to the center of conversation, we place a straight white woman’s face and needs over any mention of intersectional women of color’s identities. The heroin epidemic and other drug-related circumstances only get their story heard when it is a young, white suburban teenager who lost his/her/their life to drugs rather than the influx of cheap narcotics that have been freely allowed to flow into communities of color for decades without anyone raising a hand to help on the national level. We pride ourselves on the best education possible for our children when we navigate through gated communities and white suburbia, but fail to acknowledge the lack of diversity in the teaching population, let alone educational segregation based on housing districting.

Social activism is rooted in an ocean of social, economic and political ideologies regardless of origin. No historian, let alone modern practitioner of social justice work, can trace liberation movements to a single creed or school of thought. It is that reality that allows us to appreciate the nuance of social justice work, which doesn’t owe itself to political liberalism as the only stakeholder in the fight to empower the powerless.

Just so we make this clear, I’m not a conservative. I painfully make this critique as an American liberal because I know we only improve as a nation and a people once we are aware of our history. In the same light, American novelist James Baldwin once said, “I love America more than other country in this world, and exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It is because I believe in liberalism and social activism that I look for every hidden fault so that every ignored voice has a chance to be heard again.