There was a time in the not so distant past when the "L" word ("liberal") was so toxic that only the most die-hard, Birkenstock-shod, soy latte swillers would even dare to identify as such. It was almost as if you were confessing to an affinity for bestiality or a taste for human blood to admit to it in anything but whispered tones among only your closest friends. One called oneself a "moderate" or an "independent" and despite the fact that a large number of people supported liberal policies, they usually felt the need to issue a standard disclaimer to the effect of "I'm not a liberal but ... I am a pro-choice, pro civil rights, civil libertarian defender of the welfare state who believes in a strong activist government and mistrusts the military industrial complex." Just don't call me the "L" word because I'm anything but that.
It wasn't always the case. Classical liberalism has been around for many a moon and has a long pedigree on all sides of the political spectrum. But in the modern American parlance, at least, the word "liberal" was most closely tied to FDR's New Deal, and many members of both parties proudly identified themselves as liberal for decades. President Kennedy called himself a liberal and defined it in these terms:
"someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions...someone who cares about the welfare of the people"
That was obviously in contrast to conservatism, a cramped philosophy obsessed with the past, lacking creativity, tradition bound and unmoved by the concerns of the average person.
Now, it must be said that liberalism has also been associated with international interventionism although the argument evolved into one within the Democratic Party rather than one between the two parties once the Republicans became the avatars of anti-communism. There is some talk that isolationism is making a comeback in the GOP, but since we just recently saw the entire party dissolve into paroxysms of mindless martial fervor in the wake of 9/11, it's doubtful that the basic makeup of the two parties has shifted. Democrats are divided between hawks, "humanitarian interventionists" and doves while the GOP is a bloodthirsty war party with a couple of mildly cranky libertarians who show all the signs of joining up the minute the call goes out.
Suffice to say that the word "liberal" has a long and storied past and has shifted among various factions within both parties in American political life. (To the pedants among you, yes, this is a very crude sketch of the meaning of the term. If people are interested in a full discussion of modern American liberalism, this is a good place to start.)
It is also the case that those who identified as liberal has never been a majority in this country, even during the 1930s as Roosevelt was winning landslides. But it was, nonetheless, considered to be a respectable political identification within both parties. It was only in the past 30 years or so that a concerted propaganda campaign was launched to discredit the word itself. And it was amazingly successful. We haven't seen a Republican call himself a liberal for decades now. And one is hard-pressed these days to find one in the Democratic Party either.
Ronald Reagan may have been the inspiration with his movement's oozing contempt for their liberal opponents, thus making it fashionable to show pointed disgust for anyone who proclaimed themselves as one, but it was political strategists who turned the word into an epithet. And nobody can take more credit than an operative little known outside political circles by the name of Arthur Finkelstein, profiled in this 1996 CNN piece:
Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein's style has been compared to Hollywood's villainous character, Sose, who was so secretive that some doubted whether he really existed. There has only been one photo of Finkelstein to surface during 20 years of consulting Republican candidates. Even his Westchester County, N.Y., office doesn't bear his name.
Sen. Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.) is one who has seen Finkelstein. D'Amato has tapped the mystery man for what may be Finklestein's biggest challenge yet: helping direct Republican strategy in the 33 Senate races this year.
"Arthur Finkelstein is probably one of the brightest, cutting-edge political scientists I've ever met," said D'Amato.
Scientist, strategist or mystery man, Finkelstein has orchestrated stunning upset victories for many of his clients including Sens. D'Amato and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki. His unseen hand also helped Benjamin Netanyahu oust Shimon Perez in the Israeli elections earlier this year.
Finkelstein's signature style emerges through the ads he creates. Two recent adds brand Democrats as liberals: "Call liberal Paul Wellstone. Tell him it's wrong to spend billions more on welfare," one ad states.
"That's liberal," says another. "That's Jack Reed. That's wrong. Call liberal Jack Reed and tell him his record on welfare is just too liberal for you."
"That's the Finkelstein formula: just brand somebody a liberal, use the word over and over again, engage in that kind of name-calling," said Democratic consultant Mark Mellman.
Newt Gingrich piled on with his GOPAC language guide designed to help Republican candidates find just the proper adjective to describe the loathsome liberal, words like "sick," "pathetic" and "bizarre." Meanwhile, the press, having been tarred as "liberal media," reacted with panic, bending over backward to prove they were anything but and succeeded in helping to mainstream the idea that liberalism was more akin to an illness than a political philosophy.
For years, Democrats ran away from the word. It became such a shameful designation that the American left finally decided that it needed to abandon the word altogether and take up the moniker of an earlier left-leaning movement, the progressives. This evolution was best illustrated by Hillary Clinton, who was asked in a 2008 presidential debate to define the word "liberal" and asked if she would describe herself that way. Her answer:
It is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately in the last 30 or 40 years it has been turned up on its head and made to seem as though it is a word to describe Big Government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century. I prefer the term progressive which has a very American meaning going back to the progressive era in the beginning of the 20th century. I consider myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual rights and freedoms, someone who believes that we are better as a society when we are working together and when we find ways to help those who may not have all the advantages in life get the tools they need to make a more productive life for themselves and their families. So, I consider myself a proud modern progressive and I think that's the philosophy we need to bring back to American politics.
What she described is exactly how New Deal liberals described liberalism. And sure enough, we can now officially declare that the real sick, degenerate, corrupt philosophy is progressivism.
Here's none other than Charles "Bell Curve" Murray, explaining it for us. You see, he had dinner with some liberals who were high up in Democratic administrations and he found that he likes them just fine. In fact, it turns out that they care about civil liberties and don't want presidents to have unchecked power and other things that don't seem depraved to him at all with Obama in the White House. (For some reason, when all these liberal principles were articulated during the Bush administration he didn't think they were quite so positive, however. How odd.)
But it's those progressives who are really polluting the neighborhood, he explains:
It is that core philosophy extolling the urge to mold society that still animates progressives today—a mind-set that produces the shutdown of debate and growing intolerance that we are witnessing in today's America. Such thinking on the left also is behind the rationales for indulging President Obama in his anti-Constitutional use of executive power. If you want substantiation for what I'm saying, read Jonah Goldberg's 2008 book "Liberal Fascism," an erudite and closely argued exposition of American progressivism and its subsequent effects on liberalism. The title is all too accurate.
Note the total lack of consciousness that the title was "Liberal Fascism." Apparently a fascist by any other name would smell as sweet. And just as Hillary Clinton defined progressivism in exactly the same terms that liberals defined themselves for decades, Murray defines progressivism in exactly the same terms that conservatives have defined liberals for years.
Perhaps there's a lesson in this for the left. You can run, but you can't hide. Right-wingers are going to demonize whatever terms those on the left use to describe themselves and they are going to define them as deviant, authoritarian and un-American. That's just how they see the existential battle in which they fantasize they are engaged. Changing the name and trying to redefine it in response to their attacks simply won't work. It's far better to do what the conservatives do -- wear the word as a weapon, bear it proudly and define it however the hell suits your purpose. If these latter-day radical reactionary know-nothings can call themselves "conservative" there's no reason that liberals shouldn't be able to define themselves as progressive and progressives shouldn't be able define themselves as liberals. It won't make a bit of difference what you call yourself. They're going to hate you anyway, guaranteed.