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American Cultural Shift and Liberalist Principles Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2022

Introduction

The way John Locke viewed politics and people’s rights has had an enormous influence on the state of American political thought, especially during its formative years. The format of liberalist policies remains pervasive in the United States’ culture, forming its basic ideas of liberty, autonomy, and independence. However, some believe that progressive philosophies challenge these notions and turn America away from its dedication to democracy.1 This essay argues that the current political shift is not a contrast to Locke’s liberalist policies, but a reimagining of what one’s natural rights are and what the government can and cannot do to support human rights to live freely and reach their ultimate opportunities in society.

First, the paper will discuss the ideas represented by Locke in his writings to demonstrate the basic concepts used in the formation of the primary American political documents. Then, it will address inconsistencies between these notions and the state of the US historically, pointing out the divide between theoretical concepts of natural rights and actual problems of American communities. Third, the idea of progressivism and liberalism will be presented to show how the interpretations of liberty have affected various groups in America and what the country may expect to see in the future.

The Political Philosophy of John Locke

First, to discuss American political thought, one has to understand the main concepts in the writings of John Locke. While his body of work is extensive, one can attempt to simplify his ideas into two statements. When talking about the government, Locke envisioned it as a body that was “limited in its powers,” existing “only by the consent of the governed.”2 This is a stark contrast to earlier versions of the government, which were dominated by monarchy. The latter is a framework in which only certain people are allowed to assume the position of authority, based not on citizens’ agreement but the inherent right of birth or marriage into the royal family. Moreover, another significant difference between Locke’s democratic government and monarchy is the fact that his idea of the ruling structure is limited – the government is presumed to have a duty before its people to uphold the laws and norms that were established by them. Thus, citizens become the center of all decision-making by indirectly or directly influencing the flow of political evolution.

The second statement outlines the foundation for choosing democracy over other types of government. Here, Locke’s thought is that “all men are born free.”3 This phrase implies that people are born with certain unalienable rights that they and other humans possess throughout their life regardless of their origin. Most of the rights are formulated as freedoms; for example, all people have the freedom to pursue any religious affiliation or make economic decisions, work, and acquire property. Here, the basis of democracy is presented, which is tied to how Locke perceived the government as an entity that was created with the explicit purpose of protecting these freedoms. It is also tied to fundamental Christian thought – “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”4 People are believed to be equal, “For God shows no partiality.”5

These two statements can be used to explain most laws and beliefs that guide the traditional political philosophy. The Constitution, and especially its Amendments, provides people with specific rights to control the government and their own lives, expressing their individual beliefs without infringing on others’ freedoms.6 It is also thought that this idea of liberal thought leads to equality in people’s opportunities and their chance to succeed as derived from their individual strive. As Locke writes, people are “creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection.”7 This is the foundational belief of equality documented in US law, and it is considered a part of the country’s belief system. However, looking at the history of the US, one cannot ignore that this thought has many caveats that have allowed its rulers and citizens to exploit certain communities and restrict their rights.

America’s Change

The belief that the introduction of progressivism endangered American democracy and its liberalist policies does not align with Locke’s basic ideas. In turn, his foundational thought on the natural freedoms of men and their participation in the government can be considered in opposition to the history of inequality in America. First of all, one should talk about the discrepancy between the Founding Fathers’ acceptance of Locke-based democracy and people’s equality in natural freedoms with their continued support for slavery. Slavery, in its nature, is a hierarchy that limits one group’s power and freedoms and gives another group unequal access to authority over human lives. Thus, enslaved people brought to the continent during and after the United States’ creation did not have the same status as American citizens. This part of history challenges the ideal of Locke’s beliefs. It exposes that people’s acceptance of natural freedoms is limited by their understanding of who was deserving of such rights in the first place.8

In turn, progressivism that, in this instance, has embraced liberty in a reimagined sense, provided enslaved people with an opportunity to reclaim their natural freedoms and return their position as free people while also gaining an additional status as citizens. Here, while the contemporary government was challenged and its laws opposed, the fundamental principle established by Locke was used in its basic form. The same can be said about women gaining the right to vote – the Suffrage movement was in opposition to the current government policy.9 Still, it was the expression of people’s right to mold the government to their idea of personal freedom and reclamation of the natural right to express their potential to the fullest extent possible.

Thus, in each of these instances, people used progressivism in order to uphold Locke’s ideas of government and humanity, changing the boundaries of what “man” was. While the word “men” in the statement “all men are born free” was supposed to include all humans, its meaning truly excluded many groups of society, including women, non-White people, and other minority groups. Progressivism expanded on the liberalist idea of unalienable freedom, providing an increased number of people the freedoms that were supposed to be given to them by nature.10

Racial Liberalism

However, even such movements have only contributed to a part of the legal policies that the US has changed. According to Ranganathan, America is plagued by so-called “racial liberalism” – a movement which, while creating a mythology of racial progress and liberal principles of individual achievement, continues to disenfranchise people and deprive them of equal opportunities.11 As such, people who are not included in the liberal ideology of people with natural freedoms are cut off from the capitalist wealth, which further implies that their life becomes dependent on the decisions of those who operate the system. This, in turn, takes away people’s freedoms to provide labor, acquire and maintain property, and even protect themselves and their families. Thus, Ranganathan concludes that such use of “racial liberalism” is actually a system of illiberal legacies that do not align with Locke’s fundamental thought and continue to propagate a narrow understanding of equality for a limited number of people.12

A response to the Flint water contamination crisis explained in the paper by Ranganathan is people’s communal uproar against the unfair treatment of a large segment of American citizens. This theocratization of capitalism (a liberalist economic system that propagates the idea of personal achievement and market relations) through the lens of racial liberalism demonstrates that people are still being denied freedoms dictated by natural law. People are not underachieving by living in Flint or other areas with poor infrastructure – their unalienable right to limit the government’s power and decide what it should do to protect them is taken away.13 Thus, they are not truly free in this system to achieve a better outcome for themselves and future generations.

Economic Evolution

Another need to reinterpret liberalist policies arises from the expansion and progression of people’s labor and resource use. When Locke was writing about men’s right to property, people lived in a different world regarding population, resource use, economy, and land access.14 First, his idea that people were entitled to private property that they could use for their own needs did not account for the expansive growth of people’s numbers. Second, it did not include the rights of corporations, which exploited the idea of the natural right to property to acquire enormous amounts of resources and wealth, which later shifted the balance and took away people’s freedom to provide labor on terms that they wanted.15

Here, the idea of progressivism went against the liberal principle of the government being unable to decide how people gave their labor to corporations. While initially, people were free to use their opportunities in order to provide for themselves, the evolving relationship between companies and individuals required the latter to give up their autonomy and balance survival and personal freedom to make money on the industrialized corporate market.

National Identity

Finally, one has to address the idea of the unique national identity that America possesses and its connection to Locke’s idea of men’s equality before the natural law and government. As many believe, American values support people’s individuality, allowing them to pursue any religion or have any ethnicity, place of birth, or any special skills.16 Liberal democratic ideals, as authorities note, is the only characteristic that unites American citizens and leads to the harmonious existence of the country and its growth. However, the actual legal requirements for citizenship throughout history demonstrate this belief to be untrue. One can recall the long periods of racism against enslaved Black people as well as limitations put on immigration rooted in racism, colorism, and general disregard for other cultures and languages other than those presumed to be acceptable. As the boundaries for what was deemed positive for the US has continued to shift, the liberal principle of American citizenship as described by Locke became closer to its idealistic portrayal.

Nevertheless, America continues to propagate its citizenship as not influenced by ethnic, class, or religious identity, while at the same time introducing laws that directly oppose this idea, and basic liberalist principles, by extension. As recently as in 2019, many Muslims and people who were in any capacity related to Islam were persecuted legally in the United States.17 The freedom of religion discussed by Locke as natural freedom of every human was challenged by the government and some groups of people who did not treat Muslims as equal citizens with their right to worship God as they chose to do. Here, the movement of progressivism once again does not undermine the liberalism principles of the US but reinforces its understanding of liberty as the right to express oneself without encroaching on others’ freedoms.

Conclusion

The ideas expressed by Locke created a relationship between the government and the person, in which the latter possesses natural freedoms and establishes which of them can be regulated and should be protected by the government. Here, the focus on one’s equal opportunity for personal achievement is upheld as an ideal society. However, America’s history exposes many inconsistencies in people’s use of these principles in shaping the law and governmental structure of the country. Such issues as racism and gender inequality are among the major sources of contention between the government’s understanding of equality and people’s ability to access their rights. Therefore, progressivism, a movement to change the status quo and highlight the injustices and underlying structures propagating inequality, is not a contender that wishes to uproot liberalist policies. In contrast, it is an extension of fundamental American beliefs and a tool to establish a democracy that truly moves towards ensuring that all people possess freedoms that allow them to live their best lives.

Bibliography

Collingwood, Loren, Nazita Lajevardi, and Kassra AR Oskooii. “A Change of Heart? Why Individual-Level Public Opinion Shifted Against Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’.” Political Behavior 40, no. 4 (2018): 1035-1072.

Congleton, Roger D. “A Short History of Constitutional Liberalism in America.” Constitutional Political Economy 29, no. 2 (2018): 137-170.

Cooley, Alexander, and Daniel H. Nexon. “(No) Exit from liberalism?” New Perspectives 28, no. 3 (2020): 280-291.

Deneen, Patrick J. Why Liberalism Failed. London: Yale University Press, 2019.

Ikenberry, G. John. “The End of Liberal International Order?” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (2018): 7-23.

Jahn, Beate. “Liberal Internationalism: Historical Trajectory and Current Prospects.” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (2018): 43-61.

Pabst, Adrian. “Trump’s Triumph: The Failure of Clinton’s Progressive Politics and the Demise of Liberal World Order.” Telos 177 (2016): 192-197.

Ranganathan, Malini. “Thinking with Flint: Racial Liberalism and the Roots of an American Water Tragedy.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 17-33.

Smith, Rogers M. “The ‘American Creed’ and American Identity: The Limits of Liberal Citizenship in the United States.” Western Political Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1988): 225-251.

Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey, eds. History of Political Philosophy. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Footnotes

  1. Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (London: Yale University Press, 2019), 18.
  2. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), chap. John Locke.
  3. Strauss and Cropsey, chap. John Locke.
  4. Gal. 3:28, ESV.
  5. Rom. 2:11, ESV.
  6. Roger D. Congleton, “A Short History of Constitutional Liberalism in America,” Constitutional Political Economy 29, no. 2 (2018): 141.
  7. Strauss and Cropsey, chap. John Locke.
  8. Beate Jahn, “Liberal Internationalism: Historical Trajectory and Current Prospects,” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (2018): 47.
  9. Jahn, 48.
  10. Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon, “(No) Exit from liberalism?” New Perspectives 28, no. 3 (2020): 285.
  11. Malini Ranganathan, “Thinking with Flint: Racial Liberalism and the Roots of an American Water Tragedy,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 27, no. 3 (2016): 20.
  12. Ranganathan, 27.
  13. Ranganathan, 25.
  14. G. John Ikenberry, “The End of Liberal International Order?” International Affairs 94, no. 1 (2018): 11.
  15. Adrian Pabst, “Trump’s Triumph: The Failure of Clinton’s Progressive Politics and the Demise of Liberal World Order,” Telos 177 (2016): 194.
  16. Rogers M. Smith, “The ‘American Creed’ and American Identity: The Limits of Liberal Citizenship in the United States.” Western Political Quarterly 41, no. 2 (1988): 237.
  17. Loren Collingwood, Nazita Lajevardi, and Kassra AR Oskooii. “A Change of Heart? Why Individual-Level Public Opinion Shifted Against Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban’.” Political Behavior 40, no. 4 (2018): 1035.
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