Benjamin Franklin, not a Christian, who answered a questioner about his religious beliefs thusly: "As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."
Since the founding of this country, the great events have almost always been forged by persons whom we in modern times would have no trouble distinguishing as "liberals," as compared to their contemporaries.
In 1776, it was "liberal" to espouse throwing off the yokes of monarchy in exchange for representative government. The "conservatives" of the day were the Tories loyal to the British Crown, many of whom ended up emigrating to Canada when they lost the war.
In 1787, the "liberals" forged the new Constitution for the infant republic. Many liberal ideas were included: a ban on "ex post facto" laws which allowed governments to criminalize and punish past behavior, and a ban on "bills of attainder" which punished the descendants of criminals (both in Section 9 of Article I). And, most relevant to modern discourse, a ban on "religious tests" for holding public office. No government could require any candidate for public office to espouse any particular religion- or even a belief in a deity ("no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States" is in Article VI).
By 1860, the liberal party in America was the brand new (six years old) Republican Party, which wanted radical change, to wit: the eradication of slavery (or, more accurately, a beginning to its end by curtailing its expansion into the new Western territories destined to become States). The "conservatives" sided with the South, to preserve the "peculiar institution" which had existed for hundreds of years.
The 1865 argument in the Congress over the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to permanently abolish slavery was won by the "liberals," as the movie Lincoln
, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals
, portrayed. The conservatives who opposed used many of the same arguments made in modern times to expand voting rights or the rights of immigrants.
And so on, down through the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 which banned discrimination in voting on account of sex and the Brown v. Board of Education
Supreme Court ruling in 1954 which ended legal racial discrimination and reversed the "separate by equal" doctrine of the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson
Throughout our nation's history, every major advance was because of an argument, a debate, a court case, won by "liberals," and every time, the self styled "conservatives" were on the wrong side of moral right and the wrong side of history, which inevitably traveled on the path of increased freedom and increased inclusion.
Ronald Reagan foretold the end of America as we knew it if Medicare was passed into law in the 1960's- he predicted we'd end up with a "socialist dictatorship" if the law passed, (it did and we didn't). Civil Rights laws under Lyndon Johnson were opposed by bigots traveling under the fig leaf of the Constitution . The pernicious phrase "State's Rights" was coined in the 1820's most notably by John C. Calhoun, and it resonated with bigots in the 1960's and again in 1980 with the kickoff of Reagan's campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Fortunately for America, the "liberals" won those political and court battles, giving us bans on government and private discrimination on account of race, gender, religion, and national origin in voting, employment, accommodations, and housing by the end of the 1960's decade.
So why is it that for the past 34 years, since Reagan was elected president, that "liberal" is somehow a dirty word that most politicians- even many Democrats (who prefer "centrist" or "progressive" or "realist" or "pragmatic") flee at any cost?
Probably because propaganda works: in George Orwell's book 1984 the government propaganda machine could turn words into their opposite: "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength." All of these word reversals and the deliberate distortions of and rewriting of American history by Fox News, right wing radio, the Tea Party, and Republican media machines have created a significant minority of not just ignorant but misinformed viewers and listeners. Ignorance can be cured- especially if the ignorant realize they have a lack of knowledge or understanding of an issue. People who are misinformed (our founding fathers were Christians who created a "Christian nation," global climate change is a hoax, The Affordable Care Act is a job-destroying law that takes away the right to choose one's doctor, Obama is a Kenyan born Socialist who hates America, he's a tyrant overriding the rule of law with executive orders, he's a weak President giving away American power in Crimea, Syria, and Iraq) will cling to their beliefs, no matter how self contradictory or how little they are based in fact. Ironically, the powerful media types who purvey misinformation regularly attack the "liberal, mainstream media," another fiction created by their bloviators in chief.
And it is the cowardice of those who know better but lack their convictions or any semblance of pride or courage that allows it to continue.
Not me, though. I was probably somewhat conservative at age 17- when I stood in front of a large auditorium at an anti-war (Vietnam) rally circa 1970 and tried to explain the domino theory and why it was necessary for us to be there. I was 100% wrong at the time, as history proved and I learned in much more detail later after reading A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam
, a 1988 book by Neil Sheehan. By the time I hit law school in my 20's, down through the decades, I've been a social liberal, the right to be left alone by the government so long as we are not hurting others being paramount.
The voice of that ideology can be found in the opinion of Justice William O. Douglas in the 1965 Supreme Court decision in Griswold v. Connecticut
which overturned Connecticut's ban on women using contraceptives-- Douglas wrote that the right to privacy was found in the "penumbra"of the First and Ninth Amendments to the Constitution (the Ninth Amendment provides: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."). That case was followed by Loving v. Virginia,
a 1967 decision which was the most aptly named Supreme Court case in history, as it overturned government bans on interracial marriage. Decades later, state laws criminalizing sodomy were ruled unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas
, a 2003 Supreme Court decision, and the Orwellian named Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA- which prevented loving gay couples from enjoying the same legal marital rights as heterosexual couples) signed into law by that "liberal," President Clinton, was overturned in 2013.
I would love it if people who have values which are unmistakably liberal would at least give their world view the label it so richly deserves. I'm talking about people who want all eligible citizens to vote (no bogus voter ID laws); they want all people to be able to enjoy affordable health care; they want to end government torture, imprisonment without due process, and capricious capital punishment; they want people to be left alone and not have their phone calls tapped, their e-mails read, or their private lives opened up to the government; they want the ability to worship whatever deity they wish- or none at all- in whatever fashion they want, and not have a majority scapegoat them, brand them, or exclude them from participation in public life. In other words, American values; values created and enhanced in a consistent line going back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence, with the famous words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Try to get an ardent follower of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh to explain why those words don't mean what they obviously say- that "all men"-- not just white Christian males-- have the right to life and liberty. And as for nomenclature, those people aren't "conservatives," and their label needs to change. Those people are the "willfully ignorant," the "willfully misinformed," the "hypocrites." They are the "anti-freedom, anti-democratic (with a small "d"), anti equality" party. And those are the labels which should be attached to them, just as those who believe in the meaning and spirit of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Amendments to it, should be not just be labeled "liberals," but also as "Americans." Because those are our American values.