Politics never take a holiday. But in the months leading up to a presidential election, the rhetoric is particularly poignant, with political pundits hanging on every word.
This is Mark Brewer’s favorite time of year.
In the coming presidential campaign, the University of Maine political scientist will be parsing and analyzing the endless stream of speeches, looking for key words and phrases that have to do with the role of individual responsibility in society. In particular, he is focused on the one age-old word that has morphed into an almost four-letter word of innuendo: liberalism.
“Liberalism meant a very different thing (years ago),” says Brewer, who has presented papers on the topic and is working with Syracuse University political scientist Jeffrey Stonecash on a book about the roots of contemporary partisan conflict. “Classical liberals, in many ways, would almost be considered conservatives in contemporary American politics. A classic liberal had a strong respect for the free market and a wariness of government getting involved in that market. The classical liberal placed a heavy emphasis on individual rights and civil liberty protections, but was very wary of the state and wanted a very limited state, at least outside of national defense.”
Liberalism, as a concept and word, has undergone a transformation from the start of the 20th century, when the word was party-neutral and meant something akin to a belief in freedom of the individual from government involvement. In contemporary times, liberalism more frequently describes a belief system associated with the Democratic Party, that some amount of government involvement is good for the individual.
The historical, social and political twists and turns of the 20th century, particularly the Great Depression, the Great Society and the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s, produced changes in the concepts of liberalism and individual responsibility. Even though contemporary politicians might not make direct references to those concepts, Brewer hears many clues to how the candidates perceive individual responsibility and liberalism.
Brewer is most interested in how Democrat and Republican positions on individual responsibility have changed over the years — indeed, over the decades — and how the meaning of the word has shifted to reflect changing attitudes about individual responsibility.
“Obama mentioned responsibility several times,” Brewer says of the last State of the Union. “You could hear it in his message of a fair shake and building a new 21st century that’s built to last. Those are the themes he’s going to hit all the way through November, that not everybody has a fair chance to succeed and some people are significantly privileged while some have serious disadvantages, and it’s not only just but required that the state steps in to address this.”