In the relatively short span of my adult life (I attended college in the 1970s), the word “liberal,” used in its political sense, has gone from being a badge of widely-shared, almost consensus values — the innocuous sibling of “conservative,” the natural flip-side of the national political consciousness – to being a virtual obscenity, one that invites such vitriol that even certifiable liberals, like Hillary Clinton, refuse to identify with the term, preferring the more ambiguous “progressive” to define her politics. How and why did this happen, and what can be done to rehabilitate a label that, if no longer proudly borne, is at least descriptively useful?
The transformation of “liberal” from rallying cry to epithet is a uniquely American phenomenon having to do, in part, with the predictably pendular swings in voter sympathies between center-left (Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama) and center-right (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) and now beyond, into the hard-right fringes staked out by Cruz and Trump and Rubio, where even the most reasonable regulation of firearms is cast as a threat to fundamental liberty, Planned Parenthood is a front for murderers, immigration is a siege on national integrity, diplomacy is “feckless,” avoidance of military conflict is cowardly, and every public need should be met by private enterprise or not at all.
Much of this is seasonal political rhetoric that will be corrected when the electoral debate goes national, but it has usurped mainstream media attention to a degree and for so long that much of it seems less bizarre than it would have just a few years ago. The attitudes underlying this rhetoric have seeped into the national consciousness, like lead leaching into drinking water. Liberals, because they are liberals, are taking most of this lying down, and one result is that the label that comfortably defined them for decades has been drained of its meaning and turned into a slur.
Conservatives need to be reminded that liberals were the original opponents of big government. Today’s liberalism is a descendant of the Enlightenment philosophy espoused by the anti-monarchists of the 17th century, epitomized by John Locke, who foresaw that dynastic succession, theocratic government, and the divine right of kings were bankrupt, insupportable notions that would be swept away by science, rationalism, and the recognition of universal, “natural” rights, such as equality, freedom of conscience and religion, and of an inherent human dignity superior to and independent of any government. Our Declaration of Independence is a pragmatic expression of this philosophy, and most Americans are, at least in this historical sense, quintessential liberals.
I can’t think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the father of modern American liberalism, without thinking of my own father, who could barely speak Roosevelt’s name without spitting. My father’s hatred for Roosevelt was always a bit of a mystery to me, but long after his death I’ve come to understand that it was more than just the ideological distaste of a lifelong Republican for the patrician Democrat who ran the country for an unprecedented four terms when my father was a young man. It was also the product of a deep anxiety, born from his experience of an entire society suddenly and profoundly reshaped, in the midst of war and economic crisis, by the singular hand of the federal government. That much of what resulted was welcome and just (including my father’s Social Security checks) was, to my father, largely beside the point; the government had shown what it could do when the people were weak and in disarray, and that power frightened him.
Today’s Tea Party Republicans are motivated by a similar fear, or so they say: the feds will come and take our guns, take our wealth and waste it, take our religion and suppress it, take our tribes and deracinate them, take our emblems of individual and national identity and homogenize them. The liberals who run the federal government believe they know better than the common man, and if they have their way, we will cease to be who we are, so we must stop them, bleed them of funding, send the bureaucrats home to more useful pursuits, reinvent the world as we think we once knew it, when lines of class and race and religion and sexual orientation and nationality were deep and clear.
Liberals are the enemy because they promote the Rooseveltian model of a strong central government. Liberals are the enemy because they are defenders of the tawdry secularism that these days passes for culture. Liberals are the enemy because they are too blindly in love with an idea of equality that tends to exempt the individual from responsibility and shift it to the state. Liberals are the enemy because they don’t embrace the idea of American exceptionalism any more than their 17th-century precursors accepted the idea of the divine right of kings.
So “liberal” has become a dirty word. And so dearly do liberals hold civil liberties that they accept the vitriol directed at them as one of the inalienable rights of their fellow citizens. This occasionally makes them look like chumps or punching bags, and allows their opponents to dictate even the language – and labels – by which political debate is conducted.
But liberals know that conservatives’ animus is misdirected or contrived, that a true liberal stands for individual liberty and responsibility above all else, that what really separates us from our conservative counterparts is not philosophy, but policy. It’s no coincidence that “liberty,” “liberal” and “libertarian” are so close in etymology, and that liberals and libertarians see eye-to-eye on many issues (an aversion to foreign adventurism among them). The difference is that a liberal sees no threat to individualism in the pursuit of communal improvement through government, while today’s hard right sees them as mutually exclusive.
The immoderate, divisive conservatism of Cruz and Trump and Rubio is an expression of resentment at the fact that democracy itself isn’t working out the way it did when only some classes and races and genders could vote. Their premise is that we’d rather have a hobbled government or no government than a government of, by, and for the people we don’t agree with. Liberals, on the other hand, know that disagreement and division over policy come with the territory in an inclusive democracy, and prefer persuasion to demolition as a political tool.
Charges of elitism or paternalism notwithstanding, liberals’ real sin in the eyes of the hard right is that they haven’t given up on the system. They continue to believe that representative democracy, and the centralized government that is its inevitable expression in a continental republic, not only can be made to work, but is the last hope of the modern world for the enduring liberal values that were the motto of the French Revolution and that most Americans still cherish: liberty, equality, fraternity.
Liberals need to reclaim a political language that openly and proudly reflects those values. Meanwhile, call me a liberal any time. I’ll take it as a compliment.