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Old School Liberalism

By Michael F. Cotter

Every year Gallup reminds us that our country is home to two proud conservatives for every self-described liberal. Statistics like this would seem to lend some empirical heft to the oft-trumpeted claim that “America is a center-right nation.” There is a serious problem in using data like the Gallup Political Ideologies Poll as evidence that Americans lean right. Since the poll relies exclusively on self-identification, it tells us much more about the comparative popularity of particular labels than it does about the actual policy preferences of Americans. The language of political identity is as subject to the whims of fashion as the length of men’s basketball shorts. The term “liberal” has undergone especially breakneck changes in popularity that would make even Britney Spears delirious.

In 1949, Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. ’38 published “The Vital Center”, a sort of blueprint for what we would now call post-war liberalism.  Schlesinger imagined liberalism as a fundamentally moderate doctrine to temper the extremities of hard-line leftism and reactionary rightism. Liberalism was wise moderation—an essential alternative to both the outmoded free-market conservatism of the Coolidge Republicans and the anti-individualistic ideology of the far-left.  The electoral success of self-proclaimed liberals like Roosevelt and Johnson evidenced the ideology’s popularity. In 1966, liberalism was so vogue that the folk musician Phil Ochs penned “Love me, I’m a liberal,” a satirical piece about conservatives masquerading as liberals because it was the popular thing to do.  It’s hard to imagine anyone accusing today’s self-described liberals of hidden conservatism. Today, “liberal” is most commonly hurled as an epithet at politicians like President Obama who parry the accusation by eschewing the stigmatized word for the more benign “progressive.” If Gallup tells us anything, it’s that most Americans run from liberalism.

Harvard (like many college campuses) is a place that bucks the national trend.  It almost goes without saying that the median Harvard student, if given a choice between self-describing as liberal or conservative, would chose liberal without too much thought.  Furthermore, Harvard’s liberals seem, by and large, to be aware of their leftward boundary in a way that belies their frequent caricature.  Yet our community has not been immune to changes in the nature of the term “liberal” that go beyond its transformation to a pejorative.

A conservative friend of mine tells me routinely that our communist friend is “super liberal,” to which I respond, “She’s not liberal; she’s communist.” Yet, to most contemporary Americans, there’s nothing at all odd about referring to communists as “more liberal” than liberals, although this was not always the case. There was a time when you could be (and many were) too far left to be called liberal. During the Korean War, for example, no one would have said that the Maoists were “more liberal” than Harry Truman.  “Liberal” did not apply to all ideologies on the left, much the same way that “conservative” does not apply to all ideologies on the right (was Hitler really “conservative?”).

There’s more at stake here than semantic drift. Although Americans probably have gotten more conservative in their policy preferences since midcentury, it’s also true that the term “liberal” has changed. It would be wrong to say just that it has moved left, because those leaders who were liberal in the ‘40s are still considered liberal today.  Rather, it has been stretched to include not only its original ideological territory, but also the far reaches of the radical left. As a consequence, it has garnered the distaste that comes with radical leftism in America.

Many who might have espoused liberalism and its various tenets if it still denoted a discreet identity with a leftward bound have opted instead to identify as “moderate” or even “conservative.” Their dispositional preferences for steadiness outweigh their would-be support for genuinely left-wing policies. And unfortunately for those of us still holding down the liberal fort, people choose their politics in packages.  A person who is drawn to moderation (or merely away from hard leftism) today identifies as a “moderate,” and seems required to take a different posture towards, say, the capital gains tax than she would if liberalism were still attractive to the dispositionally moderate .

How did liberalism come to connote both moderate leftism and radicalism, thereby alienating would-be liberals with a penchant for the moderate aesthetic?  The most likely candidate is the Vietnam War.  Liberalism’s old guard lost all credibility through the blind escalation in Vietnam and paved the way for a New Left that opposed to the policy of containment and that placed addressing the root causes of crime—such as poverty and racism—ahead of law and order.  This, together with typical right-wing cunning, allowed conservatives to paint liberals as soft on defense and crime.

On the other hand, conservatives have lost public responsibility for reactionaries. Even the mildest suggestion that there are lingering racist factions on the American right draws unparalleled indignation from conservatives.  It’s rather unfair that liberals have had to take on the baggage of the far left. In response, so-called progressives ought to reclaim the liberal mantle and push back: after all, Castro is not “more liberal” than anybody.

Michael F. Cotter’ 14, a Crimson editorial associate, is a history concentrator in Withrop House.

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