Philosophy, Politics, Psychology, Society

Liberal as a Slur in the United States

Every US presidential election makes me insane. I do my very best to avoid paying attention but it is very hard, with how dominant the TV coverage is, even in Canada. I find I have to pay attention to US government policy in my current job and so I find that this year I am having more trouble ignoring it than usual. So I’d like to get something off my chest:

No matter how often Americans use the term “liberal” as an insult, most Americans will still be liberal in most ways. When I say liberal I mean somebody who believes in

  • an enforceable constitution and bill of rights protecting individuals from the state,
  • and a form of government with a division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches which, again, protects the individual from the state.

That is what liberalism means.

Now there are definitely Americans who reject at least some of those ideas, but most Americans – as far as I am aware – support both of those things. (Even if, say, some Americans disagree with the content of the constitution or bill of rights.)

Unfortunately, for numerous complicated reasons, “liberal” in US political campaigns usually means what we political theory folks would call “modern liberalism.” (Another, far less sensible, name is “political liberalism,” one of the worst names for an ideology ever.) Modern liberalism a sub-genre, as it were, of liberalism which combines elements of social democratic policy with liberal institutions. To reject “modern” liberalism (I do not reject it necessarily) is certainly not to reject liberalism itself, or any of its “sub-genres” such as libertarianism, or “classical” liberalism, or neo-liberalism, or any other liberal ideological hybrid. (Neo-conservatism, for example.)

To make matters worse, “liberal” often just means “left of me” in American political campaigns. I like to say that, to many Republicans, a liberal is anyone from Al Gore to Noam Chomsky, which is downright hysterical if you think about how those two would never, ever, ever get along on anything. Right-wing Americans believe this even though the vast majority of them are actually liberals, unless of course they are fascists – some Bible-belters, more than likely – or socialists, or actual conservatives. (Show me a American Tory…if there are any they are probably Democrats at this point.)

Obviously the words “liberal” and “conservative” are used in a relative sense in the US, just as in any other English society. However, it makes someone like me absolutely crazy to hear the words stripped of all meaning, all heritage, all tradition. (For the record: a conservative is someone who believes that the state – grounded in the traditions of society –  not the market, is responsible for the general welfare and that individual rights are subject to the good of this traditional society. Conservatism in its earlier form was a reaction against the market, not a celebration of the extremes of the market.)

The hybridization of all three ideological traditions – liberalism, conservatism, socialism – into each other has essentially rendered our terms meaningless in the abstract. Unless I identify myself as a Canadian who has studied political theory in grad school, it is fairly meaningless for me to say “I am a existentialist liberal” or “I am a libertarian social democrat with a conservative streak,” as this will be horribly misinterpreted by Americans, Brits, Australians, and likely most Canadians. I am better off saying I am a centrist, because at least that way I don’t have to explain what I mean by the word “liberal,” or the words “libertarian,” “social democrat” and “conservative.” And I think that is our loss. The clarity of the traditions was useful. You knew where you stood, at least to some degree.

As humans, we need agreed-upon meanings for words in order to properly communicate. I would suggest that one of the reasons we have such political stratification in so many English “developed countries” is because we have destroyed the traditional meanings of so much of our shared political vocabulary. It makes me sad. And it’s why I try very hard to ignore the US presidential campaigns and when I fail, I get depressed, and prone to internet-yell things like GODDAMMIT YOU’RE ALL GODDAMN LIBERALS GODDAMMIT.

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