[Editors’ Note: ADA was founded in 1947 by New Deal liberals, trade unionists, business reformers, and civil rights activists who sought to work largely within the Democratic Party to promote full employment, national planning, and social justice. Among its early leaders were Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, Reinhold Niebuhr, Hubert Humphrey, and John Kenneth Galbraith.
The document we share below, “Liberalism is a Demanding Faith,” is excerpted from the Statement of General Purposes drafted by the ADA Organizing Committee. It was by no means a timid agenda. Although it omitted more contemporary issues such as gender equality, identity, and climate change, and it uses the gendered language of the era, it remains a powerful statement both for its time and for today.]
Liberalism is a Demanding Faith (1947)
As Americans for Democratic Action we stand for a liberalism that moves with the times.
Our objective is to show that American progressivism is not dead: that it is the only standard under which the United States can rally the free peoples of the world against totalitarianism, of the right or of the left. We believe that where men are faced with hunger, with homelessness, with all the cruel whims of an impersonal business-cycle, and above all, with fear of atomic war, political freedom may all too easily be compromised and deformed. Demagogues will step in and offer security in exchange for a liberty that has lost its meaning.
Our program is directed toward this one goal: a society in which each individual enjoys the highest degree of personal liberty compatible with the liberty and economic security of his fellows. By liberty we mean the literal assurance of our traditional American rights based on a profound belief in the dignity of the individual: equality before the law and freedom for all persons to speak, to write, to worship and to vote as they choose, without regard to race, creed, color, or economic status.
By economic security we mean freedom from want and an equitable distribution of the fruits of labor. More concretely we mean the guarantee of full and steady production and full and steady employment; the protection of labor’s right to organize democratically and bargain collectively; the security of the farmer in his farm and his production; the protection of the people’s inheritance in natural resources against waste and depredation; and a system of minimum wages and social insurance broad enough to maintain adequate standards of nutrition, education, medical care, and housing, below which no one would be permitted to fall. We recognize that if these aims are to be attained there must be drastic regulation, dispersal, and, in some cases, public acquisition, of monopolies, those aggregations of private power which now exercise so large a measure of control over the public welfare and the political life of the nation. At the same time, we believe that democratic control of economic life means not only the basic direction of economic currents through the national government, but also public participation in economic effort at all levels. We are opposed to the over-centralization of controls and to attempts to assert government supervision over the details of economic life. Between the all-powerful state, however, and the anarchy of rampant “private enterprise” is the wide and fruitful field of independent public authorities, municipal ownership, cooperatives, federally initiated projects locally administered, and all the possible combinations of these democratic devices. This is an area we mean to explore to the full.
Liberalism is a demanding faith. It rests neither on a set of dogmas nor on a blueprint, but is rather a spirit which each generation of liberals must learn to apply to the needs of its own time. The spirit is unchanging – a deep belief in the dignity of man, a faith in human reason and the power of free inquiry, a high sense of individual responsibility for oneself and one’s neighbor, a conviction that the best society is the one that enables the greatest number of its members to develop their potentialities to the utmost. Opposed to this spirit are the wealth and power of the organized forces of reaction and the masked efforts of the advocates of Communism.
Americans for Democratic Action is an organization for those who have not abandoned hope. We desire to mobilize the illimitable energies of our democratic tradition against the blind folly of conservatism, terror of the police state, and the hopeless destruction of atomic war. The triumph of American liberalism in our own day will mean a society in which the resources of the human soul, freed for the ends of peace, will provide individual freedom and abundance on a scale higher than the world has ever thought possible.
It is to this triumph that Americans for Democratic Action devotes itself.