Answering The "Social Question": The Progressive Remaking Of American Liberalism.

1639 words - 7 pages

In his article "The Liberal Spirit in America", Peter Berkowitz discusses the factors that have contributed to the triumph of Liberalism in the United States. The core of his thesis is that in order for Liberalism to be successful it was necessary to reconcile the two often contradictory traditions of the theory in its application as a state ideology, specifically, the twin concerns of individual liberty and social justice. These traditions were reconciled, according to Berkowitz through the development of a sort of 'Progressive Liberalism' that in many respects, diverged from Classical Liberalism in many key tenets (Berkowitz, 2003: 27-47). In light of this apparent divergence from Classical Liberal theory, can American Liberalism today, as informed by Progressive Liberalism, really be regarded as Liberal, or has it strayed so far that its only resemblance is etymological? This essay will endeavour to answer this question by focussing on the emergence of Progressive Liberalism, and examining whether attempts to reconcile its conflicting traditions in fact morphed Liberalism in America into something largely unrecognisable as Liberalism in the Classical sense.The post Civil War era, or the 'Gilded Age' as Mark Twain famously dubbed it, was a time of unprecedented social change. Like Western Europe before them, the US was facing the dynamism of industrialisation and subsequent urbanisation, unlike the European experience of the mid to late 19th century however, the US had to quite literally reunite its nation after the disastrous schism of the Civil War. Moreover, American cities were also being filled with an influx of immigrants from a wide range of national, religious and linguistic backgrounds, fundamentally altering the composition of American society, as homogenous rural communities were replaced by heterogenous urban communities as the centres of social, economic and political power. American society was in short, confronted with an entirely new set of social and political circumstances; challenges which were utterly unique to anything pre-existing in the American historical experience (Taylor, 2004: 19). Despite the national enthusiasm for egalitarianism, there existed a deficit between the rhetoric of the nation's founding principles and the actual experiences of its citizens. The first stirrings of Progressivism can be traced back as early as 1884, with one writer commenting, "This battle between State-interference and laissez-faire is now upon us; it will be waged through all the near future" (Quoted in Fine, 1956: 373). However it was not until 1912 that the Progressives became politically dominant, exemplified by the bi-partisan subscription to Progressive Liberal philosophy in the Presidential election of that year. Perhaps the most high profile political proponents of Progressive Liberalism, 1912 Presidential candidates Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were heavily influenced by Richard Ely, leader of a school of young...

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