“Liberal,” in other words, got its bad name because of a series of racial, sexual, and global bogeymen that don’t frighten Americans nearly as much anymore.
That doesn’t mean Americans now love the term. Although the percentage of Americans calling themselves “liberal” has risen in recent years, liberal self-identification still trails conservative self-identification, in the most recent Gallup poll, by 15 points.
But there’s reason to believe that today, many Americans eschew the term not because they associate it with any particular unpopular attitudes or issue positions, but merely because they’ve only heard it discussed negatively. In a thought-provoking 2013 paper, Christopher Claassen, Patrick Tucker, and Steven S. Smith of Washington University in St. Louis note that although most Americans prefer the term “conservative,” those same Americans are “remarkably consistent” in telling researchers that they prefer liberal policies. How come? One reason may be that “conservative” has positive “extra-political” associations. To many Americans, it connotes “caution, restraint and respect for traditional values,” positive attributes irrespective of one’s views on specific policies.