Smile, You’re a Liberal After All!

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Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. Email him at Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution of this article.

The story line for the upcoming November elections has been that conservatives are angry, motivated and poised for a major electoral triumph.  Fuming, they promise to return America to its traditional values, which they say have been hijacked by liberals and progressives.

But here’s the dark secret conservatives don’t want you to know:  America is a progressive nation.  Americans have always embraced progress and liberal change, rather than stasis.  Chances are, you are a liberal, too.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s do a quick history lesson and compare the conservative position on issues over the last one hundred years with the liberal position and you can decide for yourself.

Think ten-year-olds should work in coal mines?  One hundred years ago conservative business interests and their allied politicians certainly thought so, and they fought efforts to enact child labor laws to protect children from the dangers of coal mines, textile mills and dozens of other hazards.  Progressives got those regulations passed and kids don’t work in coal mines anymore. 

Ninety years ago American women finally got the right to vote.  It was a close call, however, because of the fierce opposition of conservatives and traditionalists who thought women ought to be subservient to men. So any of you conservative guys reading this, I want you to go tell your wife or your sister or your mother that they really don’t deserve the right to vote.  See how that one goes over! 

Fifty years ago African Americans were routinely denied the right to vote (and forced to sit in the backs of buses and attend segregated schools, and were refused service in hotels and restaurants) by Southern states ruled by conservatives.  That changed only when the liberals in the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 over the protests of conservatives waving the states’ rights banner.  Fifty years later, how many of you think states ought to be allowed to strip people of their votes purely on the basis of their race? 

How many of you think that when you retire you ought to be left with nothing?  In 1935 the United States was the only major industrialized nation without an old-age pension.  That year President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act over the howling objections of conservatives in Congress.  The next year, the conservative Republican Alf Landon ran for president vowing to repeal Social Security.  FDR won one of the biggest landslides in American history, and few remember Alf Landon anymore. 

Likewise, as Americans began to live longer many faced their old age with rising medical costs and no health insurance.  Then President Lyndon Johnson and his liberal Congress created Medicare, and seniors now have some of the best medical coverage in the country.  Raise your hand if you want to take Medicare away from the senior citizens in your life. 

As we struggle out of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, it’s worth remembering that conservatives have always opposed attempts to regulate our financial system.  In the 1930s they fought the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and they stood unanimously against the recent bank regulation bill.  But who among us really believes that the Great Recession was caused by too much oversight of the banking, insurance and mortgage industries? 

So it has gone across the last hundred years.  If we had followed the conservative path during those years, we’d still be a nation with legalized racial segregation and gender inequality, our senior citizens would be poor and sick, banks would be free to do whatever they wanted to us, and kids would still be mining coal.  Conservatives have gotten it wrong over and over again.

The funny thing, of course, is that conservatives know this about themselves. They have been against everything I’ve just described.  Until they supported it.  When Tea Party darling Rand Paul suggested repealing the Civil Rights Act, conservative Republicans in the Senate smacked that idea down; when President Obama proposed reining in some Medicare costs, conservative Republicans positioned themselves as the great defenders of the program. 

Over the last century conservatives have consistently been on the wrong side of history, and Americans have demonstrated that they don’t want to live in a conservative nation.  So smile: You’re really a liberal after all.  And in November why not go and vote that way too. 

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Edmond Dantes - 10/3/2010

Steven Conn's article should make you wonder about the value of HNN. Do partisan sermons not generate partisan effluvium?

Tim Matthewson - 10/2/2010

Reading the above makes me wonder about the value of HNN. If this is all it produces, I say get rid of HNN.

Edmond Dantes - 10/1/2010

"It will be really difficult to one up the dumbness of this one..."

...but you pulled it off, Arnold. Bravo.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/29/2010

<Criminal enterprise known as a State>?
It will be really difficult to one up the dumbness of this one...
Without that "criminal enterprise" all other of no less (if not more) "criminal
enterprises", such as US Constitution,
Wall Street, and corporate capitalism as a whole would cease to exist a century ago.

Lewis Bernstein - 9/28/2010

George Norris, Bob LaFollette, Fiorello LaGuardia? All Progressives. Perhaps you're thinking of people like Burton Wheeler or Hiram Johnson who opposed an internationalist foreign policy.
The Progressive Movement was not monolithic.

William J. Stepp - 9/27/2010

To the extent that life is better today than it was in 1930, it's not because of the criminal entity known as the State, but because of the development of markets, capital accumulation, and innovation.
All this has happened despite the cekatS, not because of it.

Paul Siff - 9/27/2010

Progressivism died during or shortly after the first WOrld War. The surviving progressives tended to oppose the New Deal. The resurrection of Progressivism for ideological purposes is an artifact of Glenn Beck's febrile imagination.

Edmond Dantes - 9/27/2010

Fine, chastise them for it now if you prefer, but remember your history, progressives pushed imperialism early in the twentieth century. Conservatives opposed foreign adventures. I just wanted to point out some flaws in the author's premise.

Edmond Dantes - 9/27/2010

Did Mr. Beatty say that America in 1930 was better than life today? Without being too presumptuous, I think he is inquiring on progressivism's final destination. What is the ultimate goal?

Paul Siff - 9/27/2010

Part of the problem in assessing Americans' mindset is the disjunction between the way many think in the abstract and how they respond to concrete situations. Thgus, Tea Partiers rail against government and government spending, yet seniors among them want to keep their entitlements: witness that irate oldster down South who thundered in a 2009 town meeting, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" Similarly, a young woman Tea Party activist, inverviewed by the New York Times, saw no incompatibility between her advocacy of replacing Medicare and Medicaid with "charity" and the fact that she attended a public university and thus received a highly subsidized education. In other instances the phenomenon works in reverse: when asked a survey question pertaining to free speech in the abstract, Americans will staunchly support it; when it comes to a concrete example that tests such support: "Let a communist (or today, an Islamicist)speak in public?" the response is apt to be very different.

Paul Siff - 9/27/2010

Do you seriously think life in the U.S. circa 1930 is preferable to life today? Now, that's a laugh.

Paul Siff - 9/27/2010

No - we should chastize them for embracing it now.

Edmond Dantes - 9/27/2010

I nearly forgot about imperialism and its progressive roots in America. Was it not the progressive mindset that propelled America towards imperialist endeavors in the early twentieth-century? How did that work out in Cuba, the Philippines, and other island nations? Should we chastise conservatives for opposing that foreign policy?

Edmond Dantes - 9/27/2010

...conservatives have consistently been on the wrong side of history."

The author left out many key issues, such as social Darwinism, eugenics, prohibition, and socialism. Should we scold conservatives for combating these as well? Progressivism, like any other movement, needs to be checked once in a while.

John D. Beatty - 9/27/2010

Will someone ever tell me exactly what goal "progressives" are "progressing" towards? The ideal society with no strife, want or need? Does anyone really thing we can get ther ans say so with a straight face?