With all the rhetorical heat and hyperbole of modern American politics, it’s easy to get caught up in the hot-button issues of the day—immigration, abortion, economics, foreign policy. But as liberals fight to persuade voters why their politics are superior to conservatives’, they must not forget to also talk about the values and core principles that are the moral foundation of their politics.

Conservatives seem to do this reflexively. They are only too happy to tell you what they stand for: lower taxes, less government intrusion, traditional moral values (as they define them), and personal accountability.

But what do liberals stand for? Somehow it seems harder to define, because liberals have been awful at making the case for their beliefs. The problem is, when liberals discuss only issues and not values, they let conservatives define their values for them—as big spenders, bleeding hearts, and moral libertines.

None of that is true, of course. Liberal policies are based on the highest principles of humankind and bedrock American values. So what are the core principles that make progressivism the best course for America? What do liberals believe?

1. Liberals believe in progress.

  • If there is one quality that separates liberals from conservatives, it is the liberals’ willingness to embrace and initiate change.
  • Liberals are open to new ideas. We are forward-thinkers who are not afraid of social experimentation or new ways of doing things.
  • Liberals believe we have a moral duty as human beings to make our nation and the world a better place. The only way that can be accomplished is by progress.
  • As a result, liberals believe in taking an active role in shaping society. We tend to be early adopters of new ideas.
  • In that way, liberals are idealists, not cynics. We believe we can make the world better. Idealism is not the same as naivete; liberals understand thoroughly the realities of the world. We believe we can make the world better because liberal ideas have made it better. Liberals have been the driving force behind most of America’s most important social changes: the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, equal rights for women, minorities, and gay people, and so much more. (See the essay “The Case for Liberalism.”)

2. Liberals believe in the founding principles of America: freedom, equality, and individual rights.

  • Liberals believe in the fundamental American value that all people are created equal. We believe that principle should extend as broadly and inclusively as possible, and that no one should be discriminated against because of some fundamental aspect of their nature, including race, gender, class, age, or sexual orientation.
  • Liberals believe that everyone is deserving of equal opportunities and equal treatment.
  • We believe we have a duty as a society to try to rectify significant inequalities.
  • We believe in personal freedom. However, we don’t define freedom as how little we pay in taxes or how little business is regulated. True liberty includes:
    • freedom from want
    • the freedom to be fully human, no matter your race, gender, sexuality, or age
    • freedom from discrimination
    • and the freedom of everyone to more fully participate in American way of life
  • Liberals believe that freedom includes the right of self-expression. We are tolerant of others’ beliefs and accept a broad diversity of views.
  • We believe that in a free society, values and even morals may differ, but within reason and the rule of law, we all have a right to live according to our own natures and our own consciences.

3. Liberals believe in helping others, especially society’s disadvantaged and marginalized.

  • As an outgrowth of our belief in social equality, liberals have a heightened concern and compassion for the nation’s underdogs: the poor, minorities, workers, and the politically voiceless.
  • Liberals believe that as a society, no less than as individuals, we have a moral, civic, and religious duty to help improve the lives of the less fortunate.
  • We believe (along with most of the world’s major religions) that it is a moral and ethical imperative—one of the highest aspirations of humanity—to help alleviate poverty and hardship. We believe that a failure to do so is inexcusable in the greatest, richest, most powerful nation on earth.
  • We believe people come before money. That’s why liberals are generally willing to pay for social programs if they are shown to improve people’s lives.

4. Liberals believe in peace and nonviolence.

  • Liberals thoroughly understand the harsh realities of the world, but we also understand that war is the darkest blight on humankind. Military force must only be used when every peaceful option has been exhausted, not just for geopolitical expediency.

5. Liberals believe in self-government.

It is probably true, as conservatives claim, that liberals are more open to government involvement in society. But why is that so?

  • Because liberals believe that we must work to create a more equal society and to improve the lives of the disadvantaged, we view government is one of the most effective tools we have. No other social entity—not private enterprise or religious groups or nonprofit agencies—has anywhere near the power, reach, and immense financial resources of the federal government, nor the ability to create coordinated, systemic solutions to nationwide problems.
  • Liberals believe wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in the free market, yet we also understand that the Founding Fathers couldn’t possibly have imagined the power, scope, wealth, and influence of the modern multinational corporations and their armies of lobbyists. Private enterprise, like every aspect of power in our society, needs checks and balances. Liberals believe that to maintain a healthy democracy, the government is our citizens’ only tool large and powerful enough to provide the modest but necessary checks and balances to the oversized influence of big business.
  • Liberals believe we do not need to fear a government that is truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” But liberals also acknowledge that as a free people we need to keep a close eye on government. We strongly agree with the maxim that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Transparency is critical in a democracy.
  • Liberals believe that for the last 250 years, all things considered, Americans have done a pretty good job of governing themselves.

Because liberals believe in progress, and because of our natural optimism about self-government, we believe America’s best days are ahead of us, not behind us. If America is to continue on its path of greatness, if it is to continue making a better life for its people, our nation must not be afraid of new ideas. Liberalism is the best course for America.