The founding of America was the greatest experiment in what we now refer to as “Classical Liberalism”. From the broad plethora of intergovernmental checks & balances outlined in articles one through three of the constitution to the secular public sphere of the first amendment and the inalienable rights clarification of the ninth amendment, the liberal founders drew on the knowledge and political Overton Window available to them to create the most liberal society possible.
Doubtless, mistakes were made that rendered parts of the constitution antithetical to liberal values. The most obvious example of this is slavery. In response to the founders, early anarchist Lysander Spooner put together both a damning criticism of the Constitution’s legitimacy as well as a valiant attempt to rule out slavery on the document’s own merits.
A Republic, or a Democracy?
It is from a similar perspective that some libertarians hold disdain for for the United States constitutional system. If one wishes to search for evidence of the folly of minarchism, look no further than the descent from the founders’ liberal intentions to the vast leviathan that now intrudes on almost every aspect of American life.
Innumerable errors have led to this sad state of affairs. The Supreme Court’s consideration of the ninth amendment as non-justiciable and overturning of Lochner era economic freedom jurisprudence quickly spring to mind. There are myriad reasons for the paradigm shift in American governance. The primary issues underpinning all of the Constitution’s concessions to majoritarian centralisation are the legally binding expressions of public will that are elections.
Many liberals, including the founders themselves, have warned that too many of these public expressions is bound to counteract individual freedom and trend government toward central coalescence of power.
The Rise of Populism
Perhaps this may be an unavoidable facet of human nature. Regardless of the precise timing and nature of elections, society may well go through cycles of desires to receive something from somebody else and a willingness to attain it through central coercion. Whether it manifests as a desire to restrict movement across borders or to universalise access to healthcare.
If we follow this logic, public expressions of centralisation may be inevitable. It is therefore essential that there is an option on the ballot that espouses liberal values. From a liberal perspective, the outlook isn’t good and hasn’t been for some time.
To large cross-sections of Americans, both leftist mobs that seem to control the streets of west coast cities and the concept of a right-wing populist in the White House are nauseating. But these are symptoms of long-running trends within dominant electoral organisations. This is how the promise of a liberal America has been malinvested.
Conceived in Liberty
The history of both the dominant political parties in the United States is a complex labyrinth of triumph, embarrassment, and regret. But it is doubtless that both were forged from the ore of liberty. In the case of the Democrats, the early Democratic-Republican party was formed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to oppose the centralisation of power that occurred under John Adam’s Federalist administration. As we look back upon their staunch hostility to central banking, tariffs and federal infrastructure spending, it is easy to see the party as a radically libertarian one. But that would be to overlook the paradigm shift that has occurred in the United States; back in the 1790s, these were mainstream positions with strict deference to the founding ideals of the revolution.
Following on from its origin, the Party became synonymous with slavery. After the Civil War, Bourbon Democrats dominated the party on a more classically liberal platform. This post-war shift could only have been brought about by the legal and cultural prohibition on slavery. Few organisations played more of a role in this change than the Republican Party. At its founding, the GOP were largely committed to the liberal views of the founding. In existing to end slavery in the new territories and later the South, Republicans harnessed liberalism. This was not out of a blind deference to the Constitution itself. Rather, it was to the end of creating a more perfect and liberal union.
The Civil War and Reconstruction-era Republican Party was certainly not the behemoth of pluralism and freedom that modern culture is supposed to revere it as. However, is doubtless that the party was founded as an institution of progressive change for the classical liberal cause.
What Happened to Liberalism?
Among their historical number, both parties have had crusaders for the liberal principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence as well as those who have resembled a threat to it. But two critical junctures in history kickstarted the spiralling within both parties. And this has manifested in the anti-liberal duopoly that we recognise today.
New Deal Democrats
For the Democrats, it is well established that the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt was the end for the Party as a force for classical liberalism in the United States. Federal power had been expanding for some years before with the introduction of the income tax. However, the sheer scale of Roosevelt’s centralisation of every facet of economic movement was palpable.
The President leveraged his immense popularity at the ballot box not only to pressure Congress into legislating for his agenda but to bully the Supreme Court into abandoning Lochner-era protections for freedom of contract. Within Roosevelt’s leviathan legislative package were colossal commitments to long term non-discretionary spending, gold confiscation, mandatory collective bargaining and enormous long-term obligations.
Ever since, the Democratic Party in some way has been devoted to maintaining and building on Roosevelt’s legacy. Without the “New Deal coalition” of white working class voters, the poor, racial minorities and unions, the Democrats would have struggled to compete at a national level. Post-war Republicans such as President Eisenhower and Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller also accepted the premises of the New Deal. However, this was perhaps to a slightly lesser degree.
It was that acceptance that signed the death warrant of liberty within one wing of the GOP. But it is plain to see that they have not dominated the party for many decades. It has been a rag-tag coalition of Reaganites and populists who run the show today. With Trump, we see the zenith of disregard for small government in favour of hot-button culture war issues. But there may be an argument to be made that Ronald Reagan himself triggered a big government movement within the GOP.
While President Reagan’s rhetoric was one of individual freedom and the American dream, his Presidency was anything but. Economically, the federal government continued to expand and budget deficits did not always fall. Reagan’s OMB director David Stockman even almost admitted that Reagan’s plan was to cut taxes and in doing so intentionally inflating the deficit for political points. This type of sacrificing principle for one-upmanship in the wedge issue war has been endemic within the GOP ever since.
While the “shining city on a hill” rhetoric is associated with Reagan’s Hayekian economic views, his social policies were anything but. Social issues and Christian morality were as much at the core of Reagan’s GOP as slashing taxes or regulation. Reagan needed to do this to attract a new evangelical base to the GOP. This has been essential in winning the narrow elections of 2000, 2004, and 2016. A GOP pivot to social liberalism would completely alienate these excited and motivated voters.
Consequently, there have been few voices within the GOP who have raised objection to the government gun being used to enforce certain moral principles. This has been done while decrying big economic government as authoritarian. It has culminated in extreme attempts to edit the Constitution to enforce morality on flag burning and same-sex relationships.
Can Classical Liberals Afford to Have Any Hope?
It is no coincidence that the two modern parties run so hard on big government issues. Democrats love big government programmes; Republican go to the polls to get policies and judges which aid their views on social issues. Consequently, elections are a matter of one big government party vs the other. This has almost reached a zenith in regard to the upcoming election.
Joe Biden won his nomination by promising a moderated tone but a policy platform that is very expansive in practice. Public education, healthcare and childcare would be expanded with a Biden legislative programme. With Donald Trump, we already know that the culture war style triumphs over economic substance. His administration will continue to erode regulations at the edges. But he would likely be keen to take on tech companies, continue various trade wars, and build that wall at taxpayer expense.
Moving into the future, a battle between Populist Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be the peak matchup of the opposing cultural perspectives on bringing about big government. But there is some modicum of hope for liberals to hang on to. It may not seem it but America is becoming more culturally open and liberal. The majority of American favour both legalisation of marijuana and a path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers”. Long running culture war topics such as same-sex marriage and women’s legal equality seem well behind us.
The Few Defenders of Liberalism
In certain states, more liberal governors such as Charlie Baker (R-Ma) and Jared Polis (D-Co) are putting into practice policies with the general aim of maximising personal freedom and optimising smaller but more efficient government. Both governors ran on the values of liberalism. Baker represented the small “socially liberal, but fiscally conservative” wing of the Republican Party, along with Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland.
Long-term however, it seems that Trump’s America and AntiFa’s America will override the liberal but suppressed instincts of most American people. One of the very few who could be described as a “classical liberal” in Congress, Rep. Justin Amash (L-MI) has attempted to plough a lonely furrow after deeming the GOP to be a lost cause. He will be leaving Congress in January, likely replaced by a Republican.
For as long as the party duopoly plays divide and rule with voters, particularly in narrow swing states like Florida and Wisconsin, the window for liberalism in American elections will be slight and almost impossible to navigate. It is easy to see that constitutional constraints can easily melt under the weight of public opinion and political advantage. Therefore, as things stand, the only hope for old liberals may be the ballot box.
With the Libertarian Party a slowly growing non-entity, liberals must hope that Americans increasing social liberalism can be harnessed in conjunction with a post-COVID embrace of economic liberty in one or both parties. The evidence for this becoming reality is scant at best. One thing is for sure: liberalism has not been in control of the country for quite some time.