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Unformatted text preview: Liberalism and Conservatism: The Landscape of American Political Discourse Since the 1930s, the landscape of American political discourse has been framed by the words liberal versus conservative. In this era, U.S. commentators first began to speak of American politics in terms of the spectrum of left, right and center, words previously used chiefly to describe foreign politics or the factions of radical movements. — Geoffrey Nunberg, "The Liberal Label," THE AMERICAN PROSPECT, September 2003 To many, the term "liberal" is merely the contrast to "conservative" in modern political face-offs. Frequently, the terms are used in place of "Democrat" and "Republican" in the general lexicon. But how did those words come to be nearly synonomous? And how has their connotation changed over American political history? Read on to learn more about Defining Liberals and The Roots of Conservatism . What is Liberalism? The American liberal tradition is rooted in the 17th and 18th century English political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Adam Smith. A collective reading of their works would yield the following two major principles defining free-market liberalism: • The state exists primarily to preserve private property. • Markets, left alone, function with optimum allocative efficiency. Today, this kind of thinking is generally thought of as "classical" or "laissez-faire" liberalism and has little to do with the values associated with modern liberals. In part, this has to do with a paradigm shift during the Progressive Era, roughly 1900-1920. According to the OXFORD COMPANION TO UNITED STATES HISTORY, government emerged at this time as the "benevolent guardian of individual liberties against laissez-faire capitalism run amok." Such thinking brought about reform at the state level in child labor laws and shielded small businesses from unfair monopolies....
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