Smile, You’re a Liberal After All!

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 10-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.

Steven Conn is Professor of History and Director of Public History at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

September, 2010