The United States system of government was founded on liberal principles and the vast majority of American voters are “liberals” – properly understood.
In addition to the chaos caused by making up new words out of thin air, we’ve lost sight of the meaning of terms that have been around for some time.
Here are a few dictionary definitions of liberal:
“Relating to or denoting a political and social philosophy that promotes individual rights, civil liberties, democracy, and free enterprise.”
“Favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, especially as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties.”
Ryan Chapman offers a history of the term here (a 20-minute video on YouTube).
If you’ve been following the news for – I don’t know – say the last 50 years or so, you might think the term liberal is synonymous with Democrat or Progressive or some other left-leaning political position. That’s not quite the case.
A liberal is someone that believes in the freedom of the individual, the rule of (written) law (not of men), government by consent of the governed, and capitalism. When we talk about mainstream Republicans and Democrats, what we are really talking about is liberal left (Democrats) and liberal right (Republicans). Both ends of that spectrum believe in the core values of liberalism. The difference is that the liberal right resists government intervention and the liberal left tends to be more accepting of it. The liberal left does not advocate for totalitarian government intervention, and the liberal right does not reject it entirely out of hand.
That’s a pretty small difference in the big scheme of things, but you would never know it looking at our current political rhetoric.
I’m not sure where this terminology got so corrupt. When I was younger Democrat politicians embraced the label “liberal” while Republicans embraced the term “conservative.” I can only assume that was a result of what their respective marketing folks were telling them. But in any case, this has contributed to a general misunderstanding of the term as well as the political positions – again – properly understood.
Many Democrat politicians have adopted the label “Progressive.” I suspect that this change from “liberal” to “progressive” was in the wake of the Reagan years during which the term “liberal” took on a negative meaning with a large number of voters. This was probably a mistake on their part. While the term “progressive” sounds as though supporters merely want to “make progress” toward a better future, what they advocate is societal changes forced by government intervention. Progressives are not liberals – quite the opposite – and they don’t belong on the liberal left – liberal right spectrum at all.
There are several other ideologies that are not in any way liberal:
Many have tried to pigeonhole these into “left” or “right” but none of these belong on the spectrum. They can all be safely dropped into a single bucket – “illiberal.”
It’s relatively easy to discuss liberal left and liberal right in terms of the scope of government and the economy. But what we have come to call “social issues” complicates this.
It is pretty hard for example to argue in favor of a nationwide abortion ban and at the same time identify as liberal right (opposed to government intervention). Likewise, it is pretty hard to argue for no government intervention in abortion and at the same time identify as liberal left (in favor of intervention).
The rhetoric of the day would have us all believe (left and right) that we are diametrically opposed and that a national divorce is in order. The truth is, we are separated by degrees, not polar opposites (in most cases anyway).
If we agree on the founding principles – freedom of the individual, a government of laws, and a government by the consent of the governed, and core (basic) rights protected by the government, then the process of moving forward really should be rather simple. And I think most Americans do agree.
But for those that don’t agree, and I think they are few, the future is not at all bright. For those few, you are advocating for civil war – and for those few, I hope and pray you never get your wish.
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