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Liberalism Radicalized: The Sexual Revolution, Multiculturalism, and the Rise of Identity Politics

Kevin Slack

In the past two decades, a new, more radical form of progressivism has taken over American social and political life, even finding its way into the White House. Fresh instances of this new progressivism appear every day. For example:


  • At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, progressives officially supported same-sex marriage as a civil right and unofficially rejected the word God in their platform;
  • President Barack Obama, labeled the “First Gay President” by Newsweek for his support of gay rights, has instructed the Attorney General of the United States not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act; and
  • Vice President Joe Biden has said that discrimination against transgendered persons is the “civil rights issue of our time.”[1]


The new progressivism divides Americans into categories of race, class, and gender. It renews the specter of race conflict by rejecting the goal of civil rights, in which individuals achieve equality under the law; instead, the goal is political racial solidarity against what is viewed as an inherently racist American system.

As a former law professor, Obama has been associated with the movement called Critical Race Theory, which—according to a proponent—“seeks to highlight the ways in which the law is not neutral and objective, but designed to support White supremacy and the subordination of people of color.”[2] Race politics has taken center stage, with both political parties vying for the loyalty of the growing number of Hispanic Americans. Obama attributed his recent presidential victory to the “Latino community,” while the Republican Party, admitting that it is “too old, too white,” scrambles to court the Latino vote.[3]

Finally, the politics of gender has grown as 55 percent of women voted for Obama in 2012.[4] Rallying around the Affordable Care Act, progressives accused those who opposed the new right to taxpayer-funded contraception of waging a “war on women.”

This is not the old progressivism of 1910, nor is it the self-styled “liberalism” of the 1940s and ’50s. The term “liberals” here refers to what many in the Democratic Party and American society called themselves between 1948 and 1969. These were the heirs to the early 20th century Progressives. Economically, these are the liberals of the generation that came of age during World War II: unionized blue-collar laborers and farmers.

In 1949, historian Arthur Schlesinger,Jr., defined economic liberalism as “democratic, regulated capitalism—the mixed society.”[5] He believed that liberals were the pragmatic “vital center” between the opposing dogmatisms of conservatives like Robert Taft, who wished to repeal the programs of the New Deal, and the new progressives, who challenged Harry Truman within the Democrat Party and ran Henry Wallace as a third-party presidential candidate in 1948.

These liberals of the center were an intensely patriotic group. They supported the Cold War because they thought Communism was just as bad as fascism. Truman fired Secretary of Commerce Wallace for his sympathy toward the Soviet Union, purged the new progressives from the Democratic Party, and made bureaucrats swear loyalty oaths. These liberals found common ground with Republican President Dwight Eisenhower, who called his platform “dynamic conservatism” because it combined fiscal conservatism and anti-Communism with an acceptance of the New Deal programs. Given their progressive roots, these liberals embraced big government.

Liberals were also socially and morally conservative: Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants with big families, bigger cars, and, increasingly, homes in the suburbs, where they watched Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, and Gunsmoke. Culturally, the difference between liberals and old progressives, on the one hand, and neo-progressives, on the other, is obvious at a visceral level: One can’t imagine Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, or Lyndon Johnson chanting “om” with Allen Ginsberg at the 1967 Human Be-In, dropping acid with Timothy Leary, or inviting Jay-Z to the White House.

These old liberals did not disappear—in fact, they are today’s neoconservatives. Irving Kristol, Michael Novak, David Horowitz, Richard Perle, and Norman Podhoretz briefly supported the radicalism of the 1960s, and when they forsook their Leftist radicalism to return to the fold of 1950s liberalism, they called themselves “paleo-liberals.” Progressive Michael Harrington derisively called them “neo-conservatives” in 1973. In Kristol’s famous formulation, a neoconservative was “a liberal who has been mugged by reality”[6]—but a liberal nevertheless. This is why today’s neo-progressives, when they doubt Obama’s radical credentials, frequently call him a “neo-liberal.”[7]

The New Left, the political movement that grew out of neo-progressivism, transformed American politics. That transformation was a partial rejection in practice and a total rejection in theory of the principles and policies on which the 1950s self-styled liberals had risen to power and claimed victory in World War II.

That is not to say, however, that there was no connection between neo-progressivism and the earlier progressive and liberal movements in America. Neo-progressivism was a continuation of progressivism and liberalism in that it rejected the Founders’ teachings on natural rights, limited government, and constitutionalism.[8] And while there was a vast difference of both ends and means between the goals of LBJ’s Great Society and the neo-progressive radicals, the early Progressives to a certain extent did pave the way for both through their withering critique of the old order inherited from the Founding and their embrace of “progress” in both political and cultural terms.

The New Left combined what they called personal politics (the idea that American citizens have a right to all forms of self-expression) and cultural politics (the idea that cultural groups are entitled to special status) together as the twin pillars of a new identity politics. In the first, citizens today have more, not less, freedom from government in the realm of sexual expression; in the second, neo-progressives fractured the American electorate into various groups: the 1 percent, the 99 percent, the African American “community,” the Hispanic “community,” the white male vote, the white female vote, etc. These insular groups were no longer to be assimilated into a common American culture; they were to be given special status as oppressed or oppressor groups in a larger, more hostile view of the Western tradition. This view, commonly narrated in school textbooks, places America, Christianity, and capitalism at the vanguard of a colonial, exploitative, racist, sexist, homophobic imperialism.

The clear goal of the sexual revolution and the politics of race, class, and gender was to oppose the American liberal establishment and bring about a new kind of society founded upon a new standard of right. The personal politics of the New Left was intended to deconstruct the old liberal, progressive order to allow for a return to nature that would promote happiness and personal fulfillment in contemporary America. This, of course, meant something wholly different from the earlier conception of nature in which the Declaration of Independence, with its appeal to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” was grounded.

This essay will return to the origins of neo-progressivism, which emerged in the 1950s as a revolt against liberalism across almost all academic fields. Two of those fields, psychology and sociology, provided the theories for sexual revolution and multiculturalism that would mobilize the New Left and so dominate and motivate liberal theory and politics today.

The Sexual Revolution

Free-love movements in America go back to the mid-19th century. The first sexual revolution, which began in the 1920s and was associated with the Progressive thinkers of the time, was confined to small bohemian groups, literati, and radical psychoanalysts that gathered in places like Greenwich Village. While it began to undermine the old moral order, it did not penetrate the mainstream as the sexual revolution of the 1960s did.

Some of the key thinkers behind the sexual revolution in both the 1920s and the 1960s can be traced to Freudo-Marxism within the field of psychology. Freudo-Marxist thinkers posited that American capitalism was akin to a disease and that the destruction of capitalism required the destruction of the moral underpinning that sustained it. Ironically, the Freudo-Marxists rejected fundamental teachings of both Marx and Freud. They abandoned crucial Marxian concepts: the labor theory of value, the rejection of private property, historical materialism, and the idea that mind is the byproduct of the mode of production. They also abandoned Freud’s theory of sublimation.

Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis, had taught that the foundation of a civilization and its citizens’ ability to reason was an education in moral asceticism, or the renunciation of one’s instincts. The human being is initially controlled by a desire for pleasure—called the pleasure principle—and only by painful necessity does he adopt the reality principle, in which reason mediates between the impulse to pleasure-seeking and the reality that only some pleasures are attainable and compatible with civilization.

Freud described the trade-off in Civilization and its Discontents (1930): Repression—the thwarting of sexual desire—which made all human beings to a certain degree neurotic, was simultaneously the foundation of civilization, in which neurotics channel their nervous energy into other pursuits such as art and science. Self-denial was, in this understanding, the necessary basis for the higher pleasures of educated society.

Freud’s teachings appealed to liberals, who were interested in freedom from economic necessities and not sexual liberation. They wanted economic, not sexual, reforms and adopted Freud’s teachings as the best defense of the American economy and sexual morality. Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, who worked as a propagandist in the Wilson Administration, used Freud’s theory to justify state capitalism: Americans’ natural aggression could be channeled by advertisements toward consumerism, which he called “propaganda for peace.” People who were obsessed with buying things might be less inclined to fight wars. Corporations employed psychoanalysts to create advertisements that titillated their viewers’ sexuality and turned their unconscious sexual desires toward various products.

Liberals in the 1950s, appealing to Freud, openly taught sexual gratification, often in campy sex education videos, but still within marriage and traditional sex roles. Sex within romantic marriage would diminish neuroses. Sexual morality was grounded on the premise that sex was higher, or more “human,” when associated with duty. Without this sense of duty, they believed, humans abandoned reason and were led by pleasure itself to pre-marital sex, promiscuity, and adultery.