Learned Optimism: Liberalism, Human Rights, and American Progress

A reader of Armchair Mutineer will know I’m not an optimist by nature. In fact, people who know me probably think I’m a “glass is half-empty and quickly draining” kind of guy. I bring both skepticism and cynicism to studying U.S. history, and I’ll readily admit a fondness for debunking popular American mythos, whether it is wars to protect freedom, the intrinsic goodness of democracy, or arguments for American exceptionalism. Yet when I consider U.S. history since Reconstruction, one wide-ranging story “that unif[ies] past, present and future”[1]stands out above others—and it’s not a cynical tale. Thanks to being a fundamentally liberal democratic society, the U.S. expanded the depth and breadth of human rights within its liberal democracy from the late 19thcentury through the early 21stcentury. This expansion of human rights emerged from historical processes—at times violent, ugly, and showing the worst features of humanity—yet it resulted in additional individual freedoms and greater societal justice. From Reconstruction to today, U.S. society materially increased its standards for human dignity and maximizing human potential. Indeed, this is a story of American progress.

Personality traits aside, it is important to note influences on, and potential biases in, my historiographical approach. First, it will be obvious I have a fondness for anarchism and consider myself an anarchist. Second, I’m an internationalist and opposed to nationalism, and this affects how I study history: I believe the study of U.S. history needs to be interwoven with histories from the rest of the world. Finally, I try to tread in “the terrain of pragmatic truth” in studying history, inspired by James T. Kloppenberg’s description of a middle way between “old fashioned realism and new-fanged nihilism” that distinguish positivist objectivity from postmodernist relativism.[2]Thus, I strive to form “hypotheses, provisional syntheses, imaginative but warranted interpretations, which then provide the basis for continuing inquiry and experimentation.”[3]

I would argue the liberal efforts detailed herein were all important steps to showing how a society could maximize human freedom. The value of the individual was paramount. Although often involving state intervention, these were important experiments in countering worse versions of statism. Historically, this is a story of why the American experiment was key in developing ideas of individualism.

Liberalism and Human Rights

Telling this story requires us to understand liberal societal values. Arising out of Enlightenment and modernity, societies shifted their values to “freedom over security, diversity over uniformity, autonomy over authority, creativity over discipline, and individuality over conformity.”[4]Liberal societal values undergirded political movements promoting individual rights and democracy. By the 19thcentury, aristocratic hierarchy and theocracy gave way to the liberal democratic state in most Western countries. The social contract of the liberal democracy “grant[s] recognition to all citizens because they are human beings” by “granting and protecting their rights.”[5]

Of course, history proves that theory falls well-short of practice, especially when it comes to the promise of rights. In fact, gaining the array of human rights we have today was a long, arduous process for liberal democracies like the U.S., France, and Great Britain. On this point, Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights provides us with a useful framework for understanding how the depth and breadth of human rights expanded over time. The liberal zeitgeist of 18thcentury Western Europe was one of greater individual autonomy and increased societal empathy, with concepts of natural rights theorized by intellectuals in moral philosophy and law. Revolutions leading to new governments in the U.S. and France made use of rights theory, promulgating the rights of citizens in the Declaration of Independence and the Declarations of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Of course, those initial declarations only granted rights to certain privileged individuals in the nation-state. However, once human rights are declared in a liberal democracy, an ongoing societal discourse is initiated on what having rights means, who possessed such rights, and how rights are translated into a state’s legal framework. Once the door to human rights is opened, there is an expansion of those rights to people previously exploited, outcast, and downtrodden.[6]While slavery, colonialism, nationalism, and racism practiced by nation-states undermined the meaning and practice of universal rights, by the end of World War II the founding nations of the United Nations had reached a consensus in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which “crystalized 150 years of struggle for rights” and “set the standard for international discussion on human rights.”[7]While aspirational and largely unenforceable, the Universal Declaration raised the bar on liberal values and challenged all nation-states, including the U.S., to live up to higher ideals.

American Progress    

Post-Reconstruction, liberal democratic values were no longer confounded by the abhorrent practice of slavery, a victory for liberalism that opened the way for other efforts to expand human rights, freeing imaginations to consider the full promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. From the late 19thcentury through the early 21stcentury, the dynamic process Lynn described took place in the U.S. as it expanded the depth and breadth of rights within its liberal democracy. This expansion of rights was in six essential areas: (1) political participation across society, (2) government reforms to improve working conditions and provide a social safety net, (3) rights of women, (4) ceasing colonialism and maintaining a “softer” empire, (5) ending Jim Crow and creating laws against both state-sponsored and private racism, and (6) rights of privacy. In Armchair Mutineer’s view, these were all important historical steps on road to a world which maximizes human freedom.

Political Participation Across Society

The Populists laid the groundwork for mass political participation in the 20th Populism crossed class lines and engaged groups that had been apolitical, particularly an emerging middle class of farmers and laborers (both urban and rural, particularly miners and railway workers). Populism was largely a reaction to the concentrated political power held by wealthy individuals, banks, large corporations and trusts. In relative terms, Populism was a “bottom up” movement to expand political participation and influence government policy in order to improve the conditions of its farmer-laborer consistency.[8]Government and major political parties were no longer provinces of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon eastern urban elites (“Mugwumps”), newly wealthy elites, and the traditional petite bourgeois—merchants, store owners, professions. Populism’s intervention was to “reshape government as an agency of the majority rather than a corporate and wealthy minority.”[9]

Though the People’s party failed, Populism was arguably the first part of a “Long Progressive Era,”[10]as Democratic and Republican Progressives adopted Populist policies, providing a clear proof of concept for broad-based retail politics. Populism brought more Americans (granted, mostly white males) into the political system to exercise voting rights and rights of free speech, making them full stakeholders in liberal democratic traditions.

Government Reforms to Improve Working Conditions and Provide a Social Safety Net

The Progressives enacted new laws and used state power both to check corporate economic power as well as improve working conditions for laborers. To Richard Hofstadter, the new founded concern for social justice among elites came from a desire to avoid “social disintegration and ultimate catastrophe” that would result from the status quo: a failure of liberal democracy and a movement toward radical socialism.[11]Thus, Progressives “heighted the level of human sympathy” in the U.S.[12]Antitrust laws and new workplace regulations were refinements to liberal democracy’s free market system, introducing normative ideas about capitalism and what kinds of business practices were acceptable in a liberal democracy.

An even greater refinement to liberal democracy occurred in the New Deal. Elected by overwhelming popular mandate—crossing ethnic lines and enfranchising recent immigrants (as Lizabeth Cohen demonstrates in her history of the labor movement in Chicago[13])—President Roosevelt’s administration set out to address the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression. Pragmatic and willing to experiment, New Deal reforms instituted a social safety net by making the Federal government responsible for “social security, unemployment insurance, wages and hours, and housing.”[14]Additional government healthcare insurance and poverty relief programs would come 30 years later in the Great Society, putting the U.S. on par with European liberal democracies. As a result, the Long Progressive Era and Great Society added economic security and labor rights to the array of human rights in the U.S.

One could argue the historical value the historical value has been eclipsed by the destructive and distorting effects of redistribution. And, of course, as of today these programs have gotten out of hand and outlived their usefulness, but that is not the point. These reforms were essential to counter socialist and communist political movements, more insidious forms of statism. Although mandated the state, these laws and reforms raised the standards of American civilization and offered competition to private concerns, upping the game of those of us who stand against the state. I argue the regulatory and welfare state was a necessary, failed experiment in collectivization on a path to a freer society.

Rights of Women

Adherence to liberal values allowed for women to gain added rights of citizenship and take steps towards more equality. In the 19thcentury women had been slowly increasing their participation in society and gaining a more equal status. Women had served as leaders in the Abolition Movement and, more broadly, woman experienced greater self-reliance during Civil War. Women were active participants in the Farmers Alliance, with some women leading the movement as activists and journalists.[15]By the turn of the century there were full-fledged women’s movements organized to expand women’s influence in U.S. society.[16]Women’s movement mandates went beyond temperance/alcohol prohibition and the right to vote, and included support for Progressive government and social reforms—at times, crossing racial divides. For example, both white and black women’s societies were successful in advocating for female convict leasing reform and the institution of parole programs.[17]Winning the right to vote through the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 was a critical human rights expansion for the U.S, beginning a process of social and political progress for women.

Ceasing Colonialism and Maintaining a “Softer” Empire

As quickly as the U.S. engaged in colonialism, liberal democratic values led to rethinking and retrenchment. Indeed, the U.S. populace saw itself as a republic and not an empire, and was reluctant to acknowledge, much less support, imperial behavior.[18]The world wars of the 20thcentury, followed by the Cold War, reified liberal democratic values in the U.S. and forced a more human rights-oriented policy agenda—though often more rhetorical than substantive.

Following World War One, President Wilson advocated for greater self-determination and popular sovereignty for national groups at the Paris Peace Conference.[19]This was a first step in evolving away from a traditional colonial empire and towards a softer version of imperial power. Although self-determination policies were not applied to Western colonial possessions due to racialist beliefs (which ultimately resulted in an expansion of British and French colonial holdings),[20]the U.S. itself took no new territory after World War One. Furthermore, Wilson’s Fourteen Points became a politically influential position both domestically and internationally (particularly among colonial independence movements). Perhaps even more remarkable, after World War II the U.S. willingly surrendered occupied territory, including making the Philippines independent, adding Alaska and Hawaii as full-fledged states,[21]democratizing Japan and West Germany, and forcing its European allies to grant independence to their colonial possessions.[22]While still maintaining a global military presence, the U.S. shifted away from traditional colonialism as advances in military technology enabled a less intrusive “pointillist” system of military bases.[23]By and large, the U.S. effort of globalization was a softer brand of imperial power applied through influencing international institutions, engaging in trade and commerce, supplying foreign aid, and exporting cultural influence. The Cold War led many glaring exceptions (military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and support to anti-communist dictatorships in the Third World), but nevertheless U.S. globalization policies were highly consistent with liberal democratic values and, on net, favored human rights.

Ending Jim Crow and Creating Laws Against Both State-Sponsored and Private Racism

Like slavery in the 19thcentury, Jim Crow laws were a human rights calamity and the greatest challenge to the credibility of the U.S. brand of liberal democracy. Legal and political activism of the Long Civil Rights Movement saw success: first in the Smith v. Allwrightdecision in 1946 (banning the white primary) followed by Brown v. Board of Educationin 1954 (outlawing segregated schools), and then waves of protests, boycotts, and marches that eventually brought public opinion against segregationist laws.[24]International perceptions of the U.S. created further pressure on political leaders to improve civil rights for black citizens. Eventually Congress was forced to act. The monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—laws only passed thanks to moderate Republican support over southern Democratic opposition[25]—ended Jim Crow laws and provided further protections and enhancements to the rights of black citizens and other minority groups, including outlawing private forms of racism in hiring, housing, and public accommodation. Consequently, though long overdue, by the mid-1960s the human rights of black Americans were improved, with blacks “scor[ing] more gains in the preceding two decades than any period since emancipation.”[26]While racism continues to be a consistent problem in U.S., we should not overlook the societal achievement: After nearly 200 years, the U.S. disconnected the power of government from those who would use it for explicitly racist ends.

Rights of Privacy

The 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut began a wide-ranging societal discourse about privacy rights. Though limited to the right to use contraception, the Griswold decision paved the way for other reproductive and sexual rights. However, given liberal democratic values favoring individualism, many used the Griswold decision to advocate a broader “right of privacy” read into the Bill of Rights. As Sarah Igo describes, Griswold created a new line of reasoning on where privacy began and where public space ended—an increasingly fraught topic in a rapidly changing society. Beyond sexual behavior and reproduction, application of a right of privacy was debated and litigated in a variety of circumstances: electronic surveillance, healthcare, and welfare recipients.[27]While the boundaries of a right of privacy remain ambiguous, and while Americans may voluntarily wish to be known and have privacy struggles with other private interests (credit reporting agencies, Google, etc.), there is an individual right to privacy vis-à-vis government thanks to Supreme Court decisions of the 1960s through the 1980s.


The U.S. made remarkable progress in human rights since the end of Reconstruction, materially increasing its standards for human dignity and maximizing human potential. However, defining and protecting human rights is an ongoing process, best accomplished by “the feelings, convictions, and actions of multitudes of individuals, who demand responses that accord with their inner sense of outrage.”[28]So there can be no end to the story when it comes to human rights. While the U.S. also made progress in LBGTQ rights and the rights of disabled/special needs persons, it has yet to face the injustices created by drug prohibition, lack of immigration reform, and broken public educational systems.

Being true to myself and the spirit of continuing inquiry, I will not end this on an optimistic note. Paleo-conservative critics accuse liberal democracy of being a “mass society and the cult of the common man” potentially undermining cornerstones supporting Western civilization.[29]I disagree with this, but it is dangerous to simply dismiss conservative arguments that caution us about mob rule and short-term thinking. Consider that the expansion of rights described in this post had a cost: rights of private property and rights to engage in commerce held by others were subjugated, adjudged as less important. Alas, the cheerful tale of expanded human rights is also accompanied by an ambiguous story of an expanded and all-powerful Federal government. Clearly the entity that grants rights can also remove those rights. Furthermore, the hybrid economy—mixing a free market with regulation, taxation, social welfare and redistribution—that evolved during the post-Reconstruction period is highly susceptible to the perils of liberal democracy. Considering the calcified state of national politics while the U.S. government faces record debt and deficits, with no plan on long-term funding for Social Security and Medicare, one has to see danger to the welfare of Americans in the future, fear societal instability, and worry about the future state of human rights.


[1]Lendol Calder, “The Stories We Tell,” OAH Magazine of History27, no. 3 (July 2013), 7, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23489726.

[2]James T. Kloppenberg, “Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing,” The American Historical Review94, no. 4 (Oct., 1989): 1011-1030, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1906593.

[3]Kloppenberg, 1030.

[4]Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now:The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (New York: Viking, 2018), 224.

[5]Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 201-202.

[6]Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007).

[7]Hunt, 205.

[8]CharlesPostel,The Populist Vision, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 223-225.

[9]Postel, 288.

[10]RebeccaEdwards, “Politics, Social Movements, and the Periodization of U.S. History,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era9 (October 2009), 461-473.

[11]Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R., (New York: Vintage Books, 1955) 238.

[12]Hofstadter, 239-244.

[13]Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

[14]Hofstadter, 307-308.

[15]Postel, 69-101.

[16]Lisa McGirr, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016) 9-10.

[17]Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 119-155.

[18]Daniel Immerwahr, How to Hide an Empire, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

[19]Robert Gerwarth, Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 173.

[20]Gerwarth, 215-216.

[21]Immerwahr, 227-241.

[22]Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 180-182.

[23]Immerwahr, 342 – 344.

[24]Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street, (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).

[25]Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012),98-105 and 138-142.

[26]C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 187.

[27]Sarah Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 144-182.

[28]Hunt, 213.

[29]George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976), 42.

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