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Liberal Blues

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American politics reached one of its quadrennial high points recently. The two major parties met to nominate their candidates for president. Amid the hoo-hah, one word was curiously in abeyance. “Liberalism” is disappearing in America—and elsewhere.

Once “liberalism” was the proud banner of the Democrats—and the bogeyman of Republicans. Pat Buchanan, an insurgent Republican conservative, declared a “cultural war” against “liberals and radicals” in a rousing convention speech in 1992.

Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, advised Republicans to use words like “liberal”, “sick”, “corrupt” and “traitors” together, to tarnish the Democrats.

Older liberals still embrace the term. Paul Krugman, an economist, blogs for the New York Times under the banner “The Conscience of a Liberal”. Thomas Frank has written a book called “Listen, Liberal” chiding Democrats for losing sight of the working class. But the young American left increasingly prefers a different label.

“Progressive” is supplanting “liberal”, with Republicans perhaps now the last remaining users of the older word, as in their oft-repeated complaint about the “liberal media” or “liberal values”.

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Many meanings

“Liberal” has meant many different things over the course of its career.

The first political liberals under that name were Spaniards who, in 1814, opposed the king’s suspension of the constitution. The word then spread from Spain to France.

But it put down especially deep roots in England, associated in philosophy with John Stuart Mill and in politics with the Liberal Party. Over time, however, the word has headed elsewhere.

In French- and Spanish-speaking countries, “liberal”, now often prefixed by “neo-”. There is is a fighting word used with exactly the opposite meaning to that which it has in America.

To describe a heartless small-government economic philosophy, and a global order in which the World Bank and International Monetary Fund boss poor countries around, forcing them to adopt market-based economic policies.

In America, liberalism’s association with big, not small, government began with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In some places, the word “liberal” seems to have no meaning at all. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party is a mildly conservative and nationalist one. Russia’s party of the same name is a nakedly fascist one.

Britain’s ailing Liberal Democrats and Canada’s governing Liberal Party are among the few parties to have both the “liberal” name and liberal DNA.

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Confusion

“Liberal”, of course, shares an etymology with “liberty” and “liberation”. But many use the latter words, while not at all being liberal.

Donald Trump says that he plans “to liberate our citizens from…crime and terrorism and lawlessness.” This is classic law-and-order conservatism from a man no one would confuse with any sense of the word “liberal”.

With so much confusion over the “liberal” label, alternatives have arisen.

Many liberal parties’ names are plain confusing. The Danish governing party is called “Venstre”, or “Left”, though it is in fact on the liberal centre-right.

In other countries, like France, the liberal party has often taken another surprising name: “Radical”. An echo of the time when limiting government really was radical.

Since the 1960s, talk in Western countries of how to divide the economic pie has yielded in part to “post-industrial” concerns like the environment and women’s rights.

Parties that focus on these now typically call themselves “green”, not “liberal”.

Those who prioritise privacy and the right to be left alone by the state have hived off “libertarian” from the old shared root of “liberal” and “liberty”. To add a further twist, left-libertarians sometimes call themselves, tongue in cheek, “liberaltarians”.

If it is not easy to define “liberal”, it is easy to spot its rivals, authoritarianism and fundamentalism of all kinds.

Whatever the confusion over the meanings of “liberal”, one of its elements has always been optimism. Even if the word itself fades, the faith behind it will not.

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Time for a Revival

But perhaps we should be careful not to let it disappear completely.

In the Future of Liberalism, Alan Wolfe argues that the term should be championed and reinvigorated as a source of pride and a reminder of our connections to basic values that stretch back centuries.

In his view, to avoid the name is to run from the past, and liberals have no reason to do so.

If liberals run away from their own tradition by hiding behind other labels, they will hardly be in a position to make the case for liberalism’s relevance both to their own times and to the future.

The use of the term progressive may mean problems in the future. Traditionally its firm insistence that it knows what is right conflicts with temperamental liberalism’s lack of certainty and its preference for ends undermines procedural liberalism’s respect for means.

Too much reliance on governance to achieve objectives can stand in tension with other long-established liberal values such as a commitment to openness.

Progressivism, has, at least in the past, too often viewed the world in straight-and-narrow terms with little allowance for the byways and indirection that life in a liberal society frequently requires.

One of the tasks for today’s liberals is to watch the development of progressivism and keep the word “liberal” safe for a time when it can be reclaimed.

This Essay draws on work by the philosopher Alan Wolfe, particularly his book The Future of Liberalism. If you’re interested in learning more click here.

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