Liberalism’s problem has never been that it was the wrong idea. Liberalism is the best thing to ever happen for people who desire personal and political freedom and the opportunity to live a fulfilled life. The problem with liberalism is that the ideas have to be converted into actions by humans.
That’s always a recipe for disaster.
Take welfare. Since the Industrial Revolution, huge swathes of industrialized nations have been subjected to a variety of miseries, from horrible working conditions to poverty to atrocious living conditions. Liberalism demanded better of these nations, and, in time, “welfare” programs were instituted to counter the ravages of unfettered business.
The elderly received support. Children were cared for. Minimum wages and safe working environments were established. Laws enforcing justice were passed. Unions became a thing. Because liberals took over government, things were done to make life better for more people. Yay liberalism!
However, because humans were doing the actual work of implementing liberal ideals, and because the real world is not a place where the ideal can actually happen, these programs had many flaws. In the United States, these programs were built on a structure of institutionalized racism. This meant a lot of the programs benefitted white people only. That was a massive problem, of course, one we continue to live with.
But in time, either programs were amended to include people of color or new programs, euphemistically labeled “Affirmative Action”, were created to extend liberalism beyond the needs and demands of white people. At the same time, social upheavals were causing many white people to grow troubled about the fate of the nation. They saw these changes as threats, not just to their own prosperity by their very identity. Not their identity as white people; not directly. William E Connolly stated it thus:
If a person’s identity is centered on the relation between work and family; if one believes (or, better, struggles to believe) that one bears a large share of credit or blame for the kind of person once becomes, the character one develops, the income one earns, the values endorsed by one’s children, and the opportunities placed within their reach; then public programs and rhetoric that jeopardize this identity will be construed as attacks on the self one has become.
White Americans lived under the delusion that they had somehow become the special people they had become under their own efforts – and now here were “they” getting a free ride and at the expense of hard-working Americans. This was racism connected to a false self-identity, and it was used callously by conservative politicians and wealth-mongers to create the kind of diversion they required in order to rob the nation blind.
The monied elite do not care who they harm to get their wealth. Let white people blame black and brown people for whatever grievances they wish to identity; whatever works to keep the tax cuts coming and wages depressed. The only thing that matters is the stock market and accumulated wealth.
And the liberals played right into their hands by accepting that “the quest for private affluence”, in Connolly’s words, is the basic premise on which a modern economy must be focused. Liberalism never found a separate basis for an economy; that was provided by socialism, of course, and liberalism, as applied by liberals, could never accept socialist premises.
Which, of course, is what democratic socialism is attempting to do – a topic for another time.