In American politics, the battle lines between Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative have come to resemble trench warfare. Politics has always been contentious, but with the rise of ultra-conservatism over the last three decades, the contrast between the two political parties seems starker than ever.
In this continuing struggle for political supremacy and the right to determine America’s future, why should Americans choose liberalism over conservatism? What arguments can progressives make for being the superior political philosophy? Of course, liberals can argue persuasively on specific issues—foreign policy, economics, immigration, the environment, and so on—but what are those positions based on? What are the core principles that make progressivism the best course for America? What do liberals stand for?
Here are four core reasons why liberals are better for America than conservatives.
1. Liberalism is the driving force of progress. It has been responsible for virtually every important social change in the history of America—and continues to be.
If there is one quality that unfailingly separates liberals from conservatives1, it is an openness to new ideas. Progressive thinkers believe it is our duty as human beings to try to make the world a better place. We believe in progress. We do not fear the future. As a result, we tend to be early adopters of new ideas, especially when it comes to social change.
This optimism in the ability of Americans to shape their own destiny and improve their society isn’t simpleminded idealism. Liberals believe we can make the world better because liberal ideas have made it better.
In fact, liberals have a long, proud, and spectacular record of accomplishments in America. Since the nation’s founding nearly 250 years ago, liberalism has been the engine that has driven the nation’s social progress.
The American Revolution itself was not just a liberal but a radical enterprise. Since then, virtually every important social improvement in American life has been championed by progressive thinkers. Since the turn of the 20th century, when the modern definitions of Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative took shape, here is just a partial list of what liberals have accomplished in America:
- The right of women to vote
- The end of child labor
- The National Park Service
- Social Security
- The 40-hour work week
- Time-and-a-half for overtime
- The minimum wage, and almost every increase in the minimum wage since it began
- Unemployment insurance
- Welfare for the long-term unemployed
- The right of collective bargaining to give workers a voice in the workplace and raise their standard of living
- Civil rights banning discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin
- Voting rights for racial minorities
- The Equal Pay Act, which prohibits paying women less for doing the same job as men
- Medicare for the elderly
- Medicaid to provide health care for Americans in poverty and those with disabilities
- The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which enforced safety in the workplace
- The environmental movement, including the Clean Air and Clean Water acts to control air and water pollution
- Alternative energy sources
- Affordable health care for people who otherwise couldn’t afford insurance
- Equal rights for gay people, including the right to serve in the military and to marry
Every item on that list represents a grand, sweeping, transformative improvement in the quality of life for Americans, and all of them were considered liberal or even radical ideas when they were first proposed.3 Every one of them has made our country stronger, fairer, and, in the end, freer. And every one of them was initially opposed by conservatives—often vehemently and occasionally violently.
In short, America would not be the country it is today without liberals fighting for change. Almost by definition, every new idea is championed first by a radical or liberal thinker, slowly wins support among moderates, and finally succeeds over the continuing objections of the most conservative thinkers. A nation that is a superpower in the 21st century—the leader of the world—must embrace progress. With the pace of change today, an ability to see the future coming is more critical than ever. If America does not move forward, it will eventually be left behind.
2. Liberals have done far more than conservatives to improve the lives of average Americans: the middle class, working class, and poor.
Looking at the long list of liberal achievements above, it is striking how much the liberal agenda has improved the quality of life for average Americans. It’s hard to imagine modern life without Social Security, the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, or social safety net programs like unemployment insurance.
Today, on issue after issue, liberals are still working to improve the lives of average Americans, while conservatives invariably side with the interests of wealthy individuals and big business:
- Democrats create a health care program for people who can’t afford health insurance. Republicans want to take it away, with nothing to replace it.
- Democrats kept the internet fair and equal for everyone. Republicans wanted to make people pay for better service.
- Democrats want to raise the minimum wage. Republicans oppose it.
- Republicans are trying to cut food stamps for people in poverty and the disabled. Democrats are fighting to prevent the cuts.
- Democrats want to enforce the Dodd-Frank financial-industry regulations following the Great Recession. Republicans side with the industry in trying to weaken them.
- Democrats pass the Credit Card Act and create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect consumers from the worst abuses of the credit and financial industries.
- Democrats support unions and the rights of workers to bargain collectively. Conservatives try to destroy unions by passing “right to work” laws and taking collective bargaining away from state workers.
- Republicans vote to repeal the inheritance tax for people who inherit $5.4 million or more. Democrats oppose more tax cuts for the wealthy, who have already received very generous tax breaks from conservatives.
- Democrats are fighting for paid sick leave for all workers. Republicans oppose it.
Time and time again, liberals and Democrats have proven themselves to be the true champions of America’s middle class, working class, and poor. With conservatives in charge, they would have no real voice in American politics.
3. Liberalism has created a freer, fairer, and more equal America. It has been the strongest voice for social justice and civil rights in America.
One of America’s most cherished ideals is that all people are created equal. Liberals have fought to make sure that principle is extended as broadly and inclusively as possible.
We believe that everyone is deserving of equal opportunities and equal treatment, and that no one should be discriminated against because of some fundamental aspect of their nature, including their race, gender, class, age, or sexual orientation.
We believe that freedom is defined by more than how little you pay in taxes. It also includes the freedom from want, the freedom to be fully human, and the freedom of everyone to more fully participate in the American way of life. Most important, liberals believe we have duty as a society to rectify significant inequalities.
For all those reasons, liberals have taken a very expansive view of civil rights. Progressives have been the driving force behind every major advance in freedom and equality for specific groups of people.2 Those efforts include:
- Civil rights for African Americans and other minorities
- Equal rights for women
- Voting rights for women and people of color
- Gay rights and gay marriage
Liberal ideas have allowed millions of Americans to more fully participate in American society and to reach their full potential.
4. Liberalism has created a more compassionate and more economically just society.
As an outgrowth of our belief in social equality, liberals have a natural, heightened empathy for the nation’s underdogs: the poor, minorities, workers, and the politically voiceless.3
We believe that as individuals and as a society, humans have a moral, civic, and religious duty to alleviate poverty and hardship. We believe that a failure to do so is inexcusable in the greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth. America has a proud history of individualism, which liberals wholeheartedly embrace. Yet America is not just a collection of individuals, we are also a society. As Americans—indeed, as human beings—we are responsible not just for ourselves but also for others.
As a result, liberals take a very active role in trying to improve the quality of life for Americans—and especially for those at the margins of society. And again the list of liberal accomplishments is long:
- Social Security for the elderly
- Medicare for the elderly
- Medicaid to provide health care for the poorest of the poor
- Affordable health care for those who don’t have health insurance
- Relief programs such as unemployment insurance
- SSI for the mentally and physically disabled and long-term unemployed
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps)
- Head Start early-childhood education programs for low-income children
- Raises to the minimum wage
These policies have improved the lives of millions of Americans and rescued many from impoverishment. For them, liberals and Democrats remain their only voice in government. Liberalism’s century-long record of helping people in poverty is in stark contrast to the utter indifference—if not antipathy—shown by conservatives.5 Especially in this Fox News era of neo-conservatism, Republicans openly mock poverty and health care programs as the soft-hearted liberalism of a “nanny state” (in blatant contradiction, by the way, of their oft-professed Christian faith).
Americans are a compassionate people and a nation of faith. We are a country that looks after its own. Showing care and support for people in need is one of the noblest endeavors of humanity, a tenet of every major faith, and a hallmark of a great nation. And it is liberals who have made it possible in America.
The Best Course for a Great Nation
Liberalism—meaning progressive thinking, the welcoming of new ideas, and a belief that society has a duty to alleviate hardship and inequality—is the only course for a great nation. Conservatism is not a philosophy of greatness. It is not leadership to say simply, “America is a great country, so let’s just keep it the way it is.” America is a great country, but it is great precisely because its citizens have been brave enough to tackle its challenges, to imagine a better life, to move forward, and to expand on its founding principles of freedom and equality for all.
Liberalism is the belief that America’s best days are ahead of us, not behind us. Liberalism’s optimism for the future, its passion to improve society, its commitment to freedom and equality, its compassion for others—these represent the highest and noblest aspirations of humankind. Making the world a better place requires action, new ideas, and an ability to imagine the future. Greatness will never be achieved or maintained by a society afraid of change. America is a superpower with the means to shape its destiny. Our goals have always been—and will always be—accomplished only through the liberal, progressive politics of ideas. America must lean toward liberalism.
1 Just for clarity, and because the definition of liberal has changed over time and has a different meaning in Europe than in America, these Webster’s definitions are a good start at defining our terms:
Liberalism: “A political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class).”
Conservatism: “A political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (as retirement income or health-care coverage).”
2 Admittedly, though, history can be messy, and it doesn’t always divide neatly between liberals and conservatives or along party lines. For example:
- Women suffragettes were often religious fundamentalists, many of whom also championed the regressive cause of Prohibition.
- Civil rights legislation was opposed primarily by conservative southern Democrats, not northern Republicans (although Southern Democrats were certainly not liberals, and after civil rights were granted soon began voting Republican).
- The Clean Air and Clean Water acts were signed into law by Republican Richard Nixon, as was the Occupational Safety and Health Act (although Democrats were the prime movers of all of them, and conservatives were the chief opposition).
- Minimum wage increases often have had strong bipartisan support, although they are usually proposed by Democrats.
- And so on.
And yet, while many of these ideas eventually enjoyed bipartisan support, they were all conceived, proposed, and fought for primarily by Democrats. And all are examples of progressive thinking: an ability to imagine a different future; a willingness to change the status quo; an openness to extending rights to new groups; and a concern for the oppressed or disadvantaged.
3 Of course, this isn’t to say that every conservative has opposed these advances—only that liberals were the prime movers of each movement, and the staunchest opposition came from conservatives.
4 To be clear, this doesn’t mean conservatives individually are less empathetic than liberals. It does mean that the Republican Party’s national policy and political philosophy, in its rhetoric, legislative proposals, tax policies, and regulatory laissez-faire, seem perversely lacking in concern for the poor and inordinately deferential to the wealthy.
5 Again, conservatives haven’t universally opposed all of these programs, but they also didn’t propose them, and their most fervent opponents were universally conservatives.