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The “L-Word”: A Short History of Liberalism

  • Terence Ball (a1) and Richard Dagger (a2)

Are these good or bad times for liberalism? On the domestic front, after eight years of the Reagan administration and a presidential campaign in which liberalism became “the L-word,” they seem to be bad times indeed. The same can be said of Margaret Thatcher's Britain. But elsewhere, especially in the Communist world, events and regimes seem to be moving in a liberal direction. China after Tiananmen Square presents a notable exception, of course, but the Communist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are generally moving towards market economies and a greater concern for individual rights and liberties—two of the hallmarks of liberal societies.

Hence the question: Are these good or bad times for liberalism? To answer, we shall need a broader perspective than a survey of contemporary developments can provide. We shall need to look back, that is, to see what liberalism was in order to understand what it has become. Only then can we assess its current condition and prospects—and appreciate how politics in the United States is largely an intramural debate between different wings of liberalism.

Liberalism did not begin as a self-conscious social and political movement. This is evident in the fact that “liberal” did not enter the vocabulary of politics until the early 1800s, at least a century after what we now call liberalism became an important force in political thought and action.

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* Thanks to Jack Crittenden for comments on an earlier draft. Portions of this article are drawn from Ball, Terence and Dagger, Richard, Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal (New York: Harper & Row, forthcoming).

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PS: Political Science & Politics
  • ISSN: -
  • EISSN: 0896-0828
  • URL: /core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics
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