Bleeding Heart What?

Our use of the term “liberal” needs a reevaluation

As we enter the final weeks of the 2010 election season, we find ourselves awash in political rhetoric. The word “progressive” is used as both a rallying point and a slur, and politicians must make the strategic decision of whether to sell themselves as pragmatic moderates or staunch ideologues. Such a strong emphasis on labels and group identity has not been present in American politics since the McCarthy era, and its resurgence is nearly as toxic now as it was then. But let me focus on the influence of one label in particular.

Although its impact as a political branding tool has recently waned in comparison to that of its opposite, “conservative,” the term “liberal” still carries considerable heft in modern American political discourse. Whether it’s being used by the Democratic flock to mourn the passing of the great “liberal lion” Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 or by a conservative commentator to paint an opponent as a bloated Washington bureaucrat squandering the fruits of America’s labor, the label “liberal” can make or break a political career.

Tell someone from the United Kingdom, though, that a political candidate is too liberal because of her support for increased taxes, and you’ll likely be greeted with bemusement (provided that your acquaintance is not already familiar with the American political lexicon). Chances are that most citizens of countries other than the United States will share your interlocutor’s confusion.

The reason for this (as many already know) is that the definition of “liberal” is drastically different in the U.S. than it is in the rest of the world. Most other countries continue to adhere to the classical roots of the word: the Latin “liberalis,” or “of freedom.” Liberalism therefore refers in most of the world to a political philosophy espousing political, social, and economic freedom, whereas, in the United States, it tends to exclude economic freedom. An “economic liberal” in the U.S. would favor a higher level of government management of the economy, while an “economic liberal” in Europe would tend to favor freer enterprise.

The reason that this distinction rises above the level of mere linguistic pedantry is that, in our current two-party establishment, almost all debate in the U.S. that has an effect on political outcomes takes place between Democrats and Republicans. Economic liberals (U.S. definition) are therefore lumped together with social liberals (universal definition), while economic conservatives are grouped with social conservatives, despite the fact that there is no inherent epistemological connection within the components of either of these two groupings.

As a result, the level of ideological cross-pollination between these four basic factions is disappointingly low. Few mainstream candidates identify as both socially liberal and fiscally conservative—i.e., as classic liberals. Even the Tea Party, ostensibly a libertarian movement, finds itself taking conservative positions on most social issues due to its tendency to draw supporters from the Republican Party.

Many people who do identify as socially liberal and fiscally conservative (this columnist included) hesitate to call themselves “libertarian” due to that term’s association with the radical populism of the Tea Party. While the label “liberal” would suffice in most countries to indicate a non-radical preference for both social and economic freedoms, its use in the United States would convey an entirely different concept.

Political discourse in the United States is poorer for this coincidence of the English language, and many sensible reforms that would find no trouble gaining support in countries with large liberal parties fail to accumulate enough of a base from either party in the U.S. Sadly, the reality is that the term “liberal” means but one thing to the vast majority of Americans. And although it doesn’t seem as though that will change at any point in the foreseeable future, I sincerely hope that “liberal” is a term that will one day come to be understood in all its nuances.

Christopher M. Lehman ’13, a Crimson business associate, lives in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.