Sacramento (Special to Informed Comment) – The 2020 elections are over, but once again it proved that Liberal-bashing remains a favorite pastime of the Republican party and conservative politicians. Verbal assault on “liberal” politicians and the media, “liberalism,” and the root-word “liberal” by the political right (and occasionally by the hard left) has remained a staple of Republican electioneering of the past several decades.
Pundits tell us it is easier to make voters dislike an idea (or an individual) than to convince them to like it; psychologists call this the “negativity effect“— negative traits make disproportionately a greater impact than positive ones. Remarkably unexamined, however, is how and why such a politically momentous word —- one that enlightens our system of representative government as a “liberal democracy”—became such a ready target of vilification by the political right.
The answer lies in the way “liberal” over time degenerated into what I call a “mule word.” Let me explain. The mule -— a beast of burden — is an infertile offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare). As an old Persian saying goes, when asked who its father was, the mule replied, “The horse is my mother!” to evade acknowledging the boorish jackass as its begetter. Lacking pride of pedigree and no prospect of progeny, the mule is valued for its endurance to carry dead-weight over long distances. In elections, a “mule word” functions as the metaphorical “beast of burden” for attacking one’s political adversaries by distorting their ideological positions.
To understand the devolution of “liberal” into a mule word we need to go back to an earlier era. As a college student in the 60s and early 70s I learned “liberal” meant two things: (1) respect for individual freedom and dignity, and (2) tolerance for individual differences. The first describes the values (freedom and dignity) associated with “liberal; the second, the attitude of a liberal person toward others who might be different in sundry ways (gender, race, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc.,)
In today’s political discourse, however, liberal often is used to describe someone who is pro-change: “a person who believes that government should be active in supporting social and political change.” This is an unfortunate change in meaning. First, there is no good reason to link “liberal” with “change.”
We have two perfectly good words describing people’s attitudes toward change. “Conservative” means opposing change; “progressive” means favoring change. Of course, conservatives and progressives often use disparaging labels to describe each other. Typically, conservatives label progressives as “radicals,” even though “radical” means “extreme” and equally applies to both ends of the political spectrum. Progressives also frequently brand conservatives as “reactionaries,” which unlike “radical” at least it points to the correct end of the ideological scale.
Secondly, to suggest “liberal” means “pro-change” is misleading and confusing. Hitler, Mussolini, and Khomeini all advocated radical changes. Liberals vehemently opposed all of them because the movements they led undermined individual freedom and dignity and were grossly intolerant of human differences. There is nothing intrinsic to the word liberal that suggests a “pro-change” attitude. A liberal can be “for-,” or “against-change,” depending on how the change impacts its values (freedom, dignity) and attitude (tolerance). If change promotes them, a liberal will likely favor change; if it weakens them, a liberal would likely oppose change. Without knowing the impactof change we would not be able to tell whether a liberal would be “pro-” or “anti-change.”
Finally, using “liberal” to mean “pro-change” completely overlooks the centrality of liberal values to liberal democracy in the West. Democracy (majority rule) becomes a liberal democracy when the minorities’ rights are protected against the power and pressure of the majority. The Bill of Rights was an example of an “anti-majoritarian” document intended to safeguard the liberties of the minorities (ideological and demographic).
Today, in the United States, “liberal democracy is popular among average citizens,” even though, in recent years, the public’s commitment to it seems “underwhelming.” None of the values associated with liberal is conveyed when it is used to mean “pro-change.”
How did “liberal” become unmoored from the context where it made sense to devolved into a political “mule word?” To understand its most recent provenance, we need to backtrack a little more than half a century to the time when Ronald Reagan’s political fortunes began to take-off. An affable man of modest wit and abilities, and meager accomplishments, Reagan was downright disinterested and unlearned in governance and policy. Instead, he channeled his energy and acting talent to launch a sustained ideological broadside demonizing the “liberals” and the Democrats’ “liberal policies”.
In an interview with “60 Minutes” in 1975, the former California governor and future U.S. president declared: “if fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of liberalism.” He either didn’t know the meaning of fascism or was parroting someone else equally as ignorant. The exquisite irony was that his brand of right-wing populist conservativism has always been ideologically much nearer to fascism than any other ideology to its left.
Reagan’s vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, who ran against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, toed the line. He smeared Dukakis as a liberal and “a card-carrying member of the ACLU (the American Civil Liberties Union)” conjuring up membership in the communist party to mislead less-informed Americans.
The Democrats deserve blame for their inaction that has made it easy for the Republicans to turn the word “liberal” into a mule word suggesting radical change. Having failed to muster an effective rebuttal, the Democrats need to become proactive to counter the Republican attacks. They can restore the meaning of “liberal” into the context where it belongs and makes the most sense by embracing the “liberal” label and presenting themselves as the guardians of human freedom, dignity, and tolerance.
The moral is: we already have two clear-cut words to identify political attitudes “for” and “against” change: progressive and conservative; No good justification exists for mucking up the word “liberal” to suggest a “pro-change” attitude other than wanting to distort it. “Liberal” is not an ideology in the usual sense of the word; it is about the values of human freedom and dignity, and an attitude of tolerance for human diversity.
A large majority of Americans of all political stripes would have little reservations embracing the values of human freedom and dignity ingrained in the idea of liberal. The crux of the matter, therefore, rests on the second element of liberal: tolerance for individual differences. It is here where a person with a liberal attitude behaves differently than an illiberal one. The liberal values of individual freedom and dignity must be exercised under the umbrella of tolerance for individual differences. To grant freedom and dignity to those whom we like is easy; extending them to everyone, including peoples whom we might dislike is a much taller order. Being liberal demands vetoing our prejudices from our attitude.
Featured illustration: From Encyclopedia Britannica, 1880.