Were the Liberals Right? 

(2002, 2003) A survey of social and governmental progress in the 20th century reveals a simple pattern: overall, liberals were right.

When I grew up, it seemed pretty clear that the liberals were right and the conservatives were wrong. The liberals wanted racial equality and the conservatives wanted blacks kept in their place. On this issue, the US populace has pretty well decided that the liberals were, indeed, right. It seemed clear to me, as a 10 year old, in 1975. It still seems pretty clear. Conservative Christians, for example, once opposed "race mixing" but now tout racial harmony as God's plan. Even Elohim (the Mormons say) came around and, in 1978, forgave blacks for their poor showing in the pre-existence. In an ironic twist, creationists sometimes cite the racist past of evolutionary theory to discredit evolution. At least as far as that issue is concerned—should blacks have rights equal to whites—liberals were right and conservatives were wrong.

But let's look at the US in the 20th century as a whole. While the liberals scored a major PR victory with civil rights, can the political progress of the 20th century be seen, overall, as a vindication of liberal ideas? Let me make the case and see how far I can get. It's a liberal habit to try to see both sides, so my reflex is not to believe that the liberals were right. But to investigate an intriguing possibility, one tries to make the case.

There are plenty of issues in the US that are still highly contentious. It would be premature to say that one side or the other was right about an issue that, while currently resolved, is subject to being overturned. For example, it would be overstating the point to say that liberals were right about abortion just because a right to abortion is currently the law of the land. That issue is contentious enough, and a woman's right to abortion precarious enough, that if that case for liberal rightness can't be made without such examples, then it's not a compelling case. Let us limit ourselves, then, to political progress in the US in the 20th century where that progress is no longer in contention. And then let's see whether that progress was the result of liberal or conservative thought and action.

Here's established political progress I see in the 20th century:

blacks' rights and racial equality
women's rights
religious rights
Social Security and
rights of the accused
labor rights
business regulation
legalization of pornography
legalization of birth control
regulating pollution

Still in contention is liberal progress that I'll set aside for this argument (since the progress is still in contention):

gay rights
abortion rights

Open to question are various changes in the US political scene that are difficult for me to analyze in light of competing liberal and conservative ideas:

prohibition of alcohol and other drugs
the Vietnam "police action"

So let's take these one at a time. Overall you'll see that the current state of affairs, approved by the populace of the US, is the result of liberals striving against the resistance thrown up by conservatives. While civil rights may be the clearest case, the overall outlook is that we have liberals and their ideals to thank for the political progress we've made in the 20th century, despite the best efforts of the conservatives. Contrary explanations are provided at the end of this rant.

Racial Equality
This is the liberals' big score. It's what made the federal government look
broad-minded and forward thinking, as opposed to the backward and provincial state governments. The ideal (if not the reality) of racial equality is so much a part of the US political psyche now that this is hands down a victory for the liberals. At the beginning of the century, my marriage (a white man to a black woman) would have been illegal in many states. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, in the progressive Pacific Northwest, the worst she and I suffer is that hostesses at restaurants occasionally assume that we're not together. ("Table for one?" the hostess asks one of us.) But if this victory is all the liberals have going for them, it could be ascribed to good luck.

Conservatives claim that the liberals have gone too far. For example, while they acknowledge that liberals were right about the whole "blacks voting" thing, they oppose affirmative action. The idea that liberals have taken us too far is a recurrent theme, but one that at least acknowledges that liberals have taken us in the right direction.

Women's Rights
The failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 70s was a shock to us egalitarians and an indication that the
ideals of equality only went so far. Even so, gender equality (or at least fairness) is a clearly held ideal. People tell girls that they could grow up to be president (however unlikely that may actually be). While women are not granted total equality by law, they come pretty close, especially in employment. Any politician who thought that women shouldn't vote, get an education, and work in a professional career would likely keep such thoughts private. While we're still struggling as a nation with how equal we want women to be, the major advances for women in the 20th century (voting rights, job and education equality) are well established as in line with US ideals.

Religious Rights
At the end of the 19th century, Native Americans were forbidden to practice their own religions on their reservations. Christian missionaries had won a federally-sanctioned monopoly on Native Americans' relationship with the divine. In the 50s (maybe earlier, my source is anecdotal), Christian churches would hold worship services in public schools for religious holidays. By now, however, the idea of favoring Christianity as the religion of the nation has been reduced to the point at which conservatives struggle just to get the Ten Commandments posted in courthouses, and our national response to a
terrorist attack by Islamists is either secular or ecumenical. When would-be theocrats try to get prayer back into public schools, they call for prayers to "God" instead of "Christ" because they know they have to appear inclusive to non-Christians.

Teaching Evolution
While conservatives file the serial numbers off
Genesis and try to slip it into public schools as science, the idea that teaching evolution would be illegal is no longer mainstream. Scopes, remember, lost the monkey trial because he had broken the law against teaching evolution. The creationists, however, lost the PR battle and Scopes has been vindicated by popular acclaim.

Social Security and Welfare
While the conservatives won a recent victory in
scaling back welfare, the state of government providence on behalf of citizens is leagues ahead of where it was in 1900. Sure, the feds no longer guarantee you cash for life if you're poor, but they guaranteed you nothing in 1900. While there may be debates about what to do with Social Security, you don't see people who actually want to get elected calling for its abolition. (That message is left to the Libertarians.)

Rights of the Accused
The major development in US law in the 20th century was the new understanding that the US Constitution's restrictions on government action apply to state governments as well as to the federal government. A secondary development is that rights are construed as positive rather than negative. Not only, for example, must a defendant not be denied a lawyer, they must now be provided with one. The greater rights of the accused is an example of the
modern respect for process, as opposed to result, but that's another rant.

Labor Rights
There was a time when labor unions were considered dangerous to the powers that be. Private soldiers, such as Pinkerton agents, were hired to engage in gun battles with them. In the 20th century, labor unions gained legitimate political status, to the extent that employers are now forbidden to interfere with union-building activities. Plenty of people say the unions have gone too far, but no mainstream politicians advocate returning to 1900 and its anti-union laws.

Business Regulation
Here's another case where there's an ongoing debate, but where the liberals were basically right. Mainstream conservatives argue there should be less regulation of business, but they don't call for the repeal of truth in advertising laws, nutritional information on food, repeal of workplace safety regulations, elimination of the
minimum wage, and so on.

Legalizing Pornography
Conservatives try to restrict pornography, such as trying to criminalize drawings of adults having sex with children, but they don't call for making pornography illegal again. Cable channels now cablecast material that would have been illegal 35 years ago.

Legalizing Birth Control
Women are no longer put behind bars for passing along pamphlets to other women about how to avoid becoming pregnant. The Christian conservatives have lost their battle to classify birth control information as contrary to God's plan and husbands' rights. Teenagers now learn in public classrooms information that used to get activists thrown in the slammer.

Regulating Pollution
Environmental laws have made the nation's air and water
cleaner. Environmental concerns continue to be popular among voters.

Gay Rights and Abortion Rights
These issues are still contentious, but they're part of an overall pattern and worth considering in light of the broader discussion. Maybe in 50 years we'll be able to look back and see that the liberals were right about these issues, too. For now, opposition to these rights is too strong for liberals to claim this progress as instances of their foresight. In some sense, the abortion issue can be seen as simply an extension of the broader issue of contraception. The liberals have largely won the battle over contraception, with abortion the last and least certain territory occupied in the battle.

Prohibition of Alcohol and Other Drugs
Here's where the progressives failed. Prohibition was rightly repealed, relegating this "advance" to the status of historical footnote. It's not entirely clear how much of the call for Prohibition was liberal (the progressives challenging the status quo and enlarging the role of the government in an attempt to improve people's lives) and how much of the call was conservative (Christian Temperance ladies combating the demon rum and wicked saloons).

The laws against other drugs (even those being used medically) carries the same ambiguity. Calling on the government to alter private citizens' habits for the betterment of society is a progressive tactic. Using the law to enforce morality, especially against the darker skinned citizens, is a conservative tactic. Can we blame one side or the other for drug laws? It's not clear.

Vietnam and Other Wars
While our war in Vietnam is largely seen as a bad thing, there's no consensus as to why. Liberals say the government shouldn't have persecuted the war. Like maybe when Vietnam petitioned to become a protectorate of the United States, we shouldn't have supported post-World-War-II France's imperial desires to reclaim control over "its" colony. The conservatives, however, can say the government should have persecuted the war more enthusiastically. Back in the mid-80s, when it looked like Reagan was going to invade Nicaragua, the liberals and the conservatives were saying the same thing: not another Vietnam. The liberals meant not another pointless war in a third world country. The conservatives meant not another war in which we don't bring down the full might and fury of the US military. Opposition to the war in Vietnam doesn't count as a score for the liberals.

Liberal Victory
While conservatives can call into question issues that liberals would like to count as victories, there are other victories where
vox populi declares the liberals to have been right, and thus ahead of their time. In fact, the major social and political advances in the US of the 20th century were all championed by liberals and opposed by conservatives.

Conservatives Rebuttals
I can think of a few possible rebuttals.

If the liberals have the enviable task of seeing a better world in the future and pushing the society toward it (as they did with civil rights, etc.), then the conservatives have the equally valuable role of keeping the liberals from getting carried away. Without the conservatives holding the liberals back, the US would have been turned into a Soviet-style state. This explanation sounds fair and balanced, but when it gets translated into details, it loses some of its charm. Like, "it's a good thing that legal racism survived so long into the 20th century." Furthermore, the moderates have a better claim to reining in the liberals' excesses than the conservatives do, since moderates can at least claim not to have opposed the liberal successes that are now roundly acknowledged.

Another angle would be that the conservatives and liberals agree on the general direction to take the nation but disagree about the means and the timetable. But that's a load of crap, so forget it. Bull Connor and Martin Luther King, Jr., didn't disagree about how soon it should be legal for a black man to marry Connor's granddaughter.

A third way that the liberals could turn out not to have been right is that the successes I cite are actually failures. While racial harmony is a firmly established ideal, it's wrong, and we should go back to a segregated society. While Social Security is fiercely protected by the populace, it should be scrapped and people should be told to make their own retirement and insurance planning. While women have been given the vote, in a better world they'd relinquish it and go back to raising kids as God intends. Addressing these issues is beyond the scope of this rant, and if this rant only makes sense to the majority of the population that's bought into the modern US outlook, that's enough for me. To meet objections of those who don't buy into the current political imagination of the US, I'd recast my premise as "the current, widely-held political beliefs of the US populace are the result of liberal action in the face of conservative resistance (whether you happen to share those widely-held beliefs or not)."

A fourth objection is that liberals did a lot of good things, but so did conservatives. The conservative force in the 20th century can't be depicted as merely resistance to liberal initiatives. But when I try to think about how the US is different politically from what it was like in 1900, I don't see a lot of improvements resulting from conservative thought. Conservatives added "under God" to our pledge of allegiance and the Confederate cross to several state flags, and they granted citizens' rights to corporations, but their victories pale compared to those of the liberals.

Finally, one could concede that the liberals were right about most things through most of the 20th century, but that they're not right any more. I'll let that rebuttal slide since it concedes the rant's key point: the history of social and political progress of the 20th century is the history of liberal foresight and victory.

November 2002, July 2003











Ryan on Democrats and Republicans: partly a response to this rant.