I got called a liberal yesterday. Again. And, as you might expect, it was pejorative. These things don’t matter much to me; the names are usually hurled at the losing end of an argument, but there is something important we all need to consider about contemporary political debate.
Let’s start with the definition, since this post is going to focus on the use of words, and how their meanings can change. My Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition (1989) defines liberal in a number of ways. The relevant ones include:
- Favourable to constitutional changes and legal or administrative reforms tending in the direction of freedom or democracy;
- Free from narrow prejudice; open-minded, candid.
Judging from these statements, liberalism seems like a pretty positive philosophy. It was thought of in that way when, during the Enlightenment, political philosophers such as John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Jefferson conceived of returning liberty to individuals and limiting the power of monarchs. It is ironic that today, many of the ‘conservatives’ in America who claim dominion over the Founding Fathers refuse to recognize their liberal heritage.
Instead, Americans on the political left run from the word. George H.W. Bush – Bush I – used the term against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign, but I think it already had a negative connotation by then. Since that time, it has attracted so much detritus that Democrats are trying to replace it with the word ‘progressive’. While that may be a more accurate descriptor, it is nevertheless a response to civic ignorance.
Recently Timothy Ferris wrote an excellent piece on The Huffington Post entitled, “Conservative Is Not Opposite Liberal.” He makes the excellent point that, given our definition above, great conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke and John Adams were certainly liberal. That indeed, the opposite of liberal is not conservative, it is authoritarian. Since liberals tend to favor reforms that grant freedom, then the opposite would certainly remove freedoms. The question then becomes, what are liberals afraid of?
The American Right has been very effective creating memes since the days of Bush I and Lee Atwater. It is unabashedly visible today, with talk of ‘death panels’ in the Affordable Healthcare Reform for America Act, ‘bank bailouts’ in the financial reform bill, and socialism despite a quite different reality. Sadly, it demonstrates that the American electorate is sensitive to these marketing messages, regardless of their relationship to facts ‘on the ground’. That diverges greatly from the ultimate goal of incrementally improving society through science and reason as Jefferson had envisioned. Applying a skeptical eye to these messages is essential to returning the American electorate to a civil, intellectual debate.
When I hear the term ‘liberal’ used as a pejorative, I am confident in my presumption that the speaker is unaware of the history of political philosophy in the West. Which is a shame, because the American Right has strayed far from what was considered conservative. You know you have a problem when it’s important to characterize the philosophy as ‘paleo-conservative’ or ‘neo-conservative’, especially when movement icons like Russell Kirk and Barry Goldwater became disenfranchised from the contemporary ideology. I have already argued that the current Tea Party movement, and mouthpieces like Glenn Beck, bear much more resemblance to the French Jacobins than anything conservative. But the memes put forth by the marketing machine take hold, and the GOP propaganda operation that is Fox News has tremendous sway over those who do not question, and that bodes poorly for the future of honest debate in American politics.