Milbank: Liberal is no longer a dirty word

After spending years on the shelf as a term used to describe your crazy aunt who took a few too many of the sugar cubes in the park back in the sixties, the moniker “liberal” is back in vogue. Or at least that’s the opinion of Dana Milbank, writing at the Washington Post, and he’s got some poll numbers to back him up.

Liberal is no longer a dirty word.

Since the 1988 presidential campaign, when George H.W. Bush and Lee Atwater turned “Massachusetts liberal” into an epithet, the label has been tainted — so much so that many liberals abandoned it for “progressive.”

But new polling shows a significant increase in the number of Americans who describe themselves as liberal and the number of Americans taking liberal positions on issues. Gallup has found the percentage of Americans calling themselves social liberals has equaled the percentage of social conservatives for the first time since pollsters began asking the question in 1999 (when 39 percent identified as conservative and 21 percent as liberal). Democrats are more likely to call themselves liberal and Republicans are less likely to embrace the “conservative” description, opting instead for moderate.

In reality, I think that Milbank is referring to not so much a resurgence in the acceptance of the term liberal, but yet another phase in its ongoing redefinition. By way of comparison, there are certainly plenty of debates to be found over the term conservative – just visit our comments section on any given day for examples – but that’s a different sort of discussion. There are clearly different veins of conservatism, particularly when you compare the current breeds of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and national security conservatives, but they are mostly linked. The buds of conservatism seem more like the runners from a berry bush which creep out and spring up new plants near the original stem.

Liberalism, on the other hand, has undergone such dramatic shifts that the word has nearly lost any meaning. The author speaks of multiple topics which are purported to prove that the USA is going liberal in a big way.

Other Gallup polling finds that Americans are moving in a more liberal direction across the board on social issues. The movement is most striking on same-sex marriage, but it has also occurred on issues such as out-of-wedlock birth, divorce, stem-cell research, suicide, abortion and even polygamy. Two social issues on which Americans didn’t show a more permissive attitude in 2015 than in 2001 were the death penalty and animal testing — but there, too, they’ve embraced a more liberal view.

To see what a mixed bag this is in terms of definitions you need to wind the calendar back quite a ways. The emergence of a widely accepted definition of classical liberalism is found back in the 19th century and it was highlighted in the works of authors such as John Locke and Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes. There was certainly a flavor of hey, do your own thing, baby to the movement, but it was grounded in the idea that your thing should be taking place in a well defined and suitably defended country. Beyond that, the classical liberal actually wanted government to stay out of your way as long as you weren’t hurting anyone else. (Sound familiar?) Hobbes wrote at length about the idea that one of the key functions of government was to protect us from each other. His fellow classical liberal authors believed strongly in the free market and the idea that the individual should be free to work for the highest paying employer and that competition was good. Most of these ideas are foreign concepts to modern liberals and would quickly send them to the fainting couch.

Of course, there are a few remnants of those ideals in the current flavor of liberalism. I suppose topics like gay marriage and having children out of wedlock would qualify. But the implementation of some of these things is now preferred to be done through government mandate rather than through an absence of government dictate. Gun control, the minimum wage and subsidies of most sorts would be anathema to the classical liberal.

In the end, I don’t think “liberal” is making a comeback so much as it’s experiencing another convenient round of redefinition to align it with the proper term, which would be populism. The results of those polls reflect less of what Milbank is arguing and more for the case that respondents really don’t understand the terms being slung about. The real shift from the era of classical liberalism is that modern liberals agree that everyone should be free to do what modern liberals want to do. And further, the power of the government should be employed to ensure that everyone is staying in line. It’s a rather dramatic fall from grace, considering the arguably noble sentiments of the original school of thought.