Reclaiming the Word Liberal In the Age of Obama

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)


The topic below was originally posted on my blog, the Intrepid Liberal Journal.

Words matter. Labels matter. Although it has become vogue to say, “Voters are tired of labels” they remain powerful. How we define the meaning of those labels is critical. Those of us who call ourselves “liberal” have learned this the hard way. As a liberal activist who slogged, blogged and endured, I find myself reflecting about the word “liberal” and the abuse it’s absorbed with Obama’s inauguration less then three weeks away.

It seems like only yesterday I volunteered for the Dukakis campaign in college as my candidate defensively denied he was a liberal. At the time voters associated the word “liberal” with convicted rapists. In the last days of the ’88 campaign, Dukakis finally declared himself a liberal and attempted to define it on his own terms. Alas, it was too little too late.

From 1968 through 2004, predatory conservatives successfully defined liberalism to mean unpatriotic intellectual elites living in ivory towers, spewing hate America first diatribes while celebrating permissiveness over responsibility, trashing God, empowering welfare recipients over those who work and advocating surrender to America’s enemies. In other words, to be a liberal was to be un-American. This past year, liberalism wasn’t necessarily made “cool” but the right wing’s ability to distort it was undermined following eight years of George W. Bush’s reign of indecency.

Ultimately, predatory conservatism’s success at equating “liberal” with “un-American” empowered a theocratic kleptocracy to wage class warfare from the top, undermine civil liberties and prosecute an immoral foreign policy. If money is the “mother’s milk” of politics then words, labels and definitions are the music that either inspire or scare. Hence, we must reclaim the word liberal or President-Elect Obama and congressional Democrats will find themselves in a defensive crouch anytime they try to promote peace abroad or establish a compassionate, judicious and fairer social contract at home.

Diane G, put it well in a comment to me following an x-post of my essay “Replacing the Cultural Ethos of Predatory Conservatism” over at Wild Wild Left:

“Equally, the campaign against the term Liberal has brutalized its image, when in fact it is more Patriotic to support EVERYONE’s rights, and oppose abuses of our fellow citizenry.

Our first work must include making those terms of definition themselves irrelevant, for one cannot easily unlearn trained connotations.”  

For the very reason Diane G articulated, I named my blog Intrepid Liberal Journal when I started blogging in November 2005. Like many bloggers, I was expressing myself in opposition to our criminal foreign policy abroad and the conservative nomenklatura at home. Although I’ve certainly used the word “progressive” and like it, declaring myself a “liberal” was a proud act of defiance following decades of slander by predatory conservatives and their accomplices in the corporatist media. My attitude was,

“Yeah, I’m a liberal. Want to make something of it?”

Well, Democrats are no longer the opposition but the word liberal still needs to be defined if they are to govern in a manner that reconciles with our ideals. Most are familiar with John Kennedy’s characterization of liberalism:

“But if by a `Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a `Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say I’m a Liberal.”

My Left Wing’s Maryscott O’Connor referenced Kennedy’s definition during the ’08 presidential campaign with a terrific essay entitled, “Why We Are Liberals” and went much further. Three months later it remains a must read and even more relevant with Democrats poised to assume the reigns. Her three paragraphs below are especially poignant:

“Liberals want to live in a world whose political leaders serve the people, rather than their own interests. We want American politicians to serve their constituents, rather than the corporate interests represented by the lobbying industry, let alone their own selfish aims (which almost always begin with retaining their seats of power, to the exclusion of actually using that power in the manner they ought).

We want to live to see the day when healthcare is a human right, not a pricey privilege or a `benefit.’ We want to live to see a day when the government regulates corporations, not personal lives. We want to be told the truth by the media and by those the media cover. We are sick of the lies, the spin, the charade. So sick of our default setting perception of anyone in government or power being distrust and cynicism. And so very sick of the wretched, ubiquitous suspicion that the whole system is rigged and there’s nothing about it we can do.

We are idealists. That’s what liberals are, really; those who see what is and ask, `Why?’ and see what isn’t and ask `Why not?’ Liberals want to see met the basic needs of every human being. Liberals look at a world where one rich man can build an entire city out of gold while millions of poor people go without nutrition, water or medicine for their entire lifetimes — and ask, `Why is this so? Is this not wrong — and insane? And why do so many refuse to see it as such?'”

Nobody writes like Maryscott and there isn’t much I can add to that.

I would point out though that liberalism is the indispensable alternative to revolution or reaction. Now more then ever our world is teetering between elites that desperately want to hang onto power and privilege, xenophobic absolutists that reject any worldview different from their own, anarchists opposed to any kind of structure and revolutionaries eager to replace the oligarchies and autocracies that oppress them with their own brand of dictatorships.

The best thing America can do for this world on the brink is to lead by example with a humane society that values truth, nurtures progress without bloodshed or oppression and embraces dignity as a universal right for everyone. People should not have to take to the streets for healthcare, be paid the wages they deserve, insist that we stop incarcerating millions of people gratuitously for profit or demand their government only goes to war as a last resort. A liberal government that puts the needs of the people above it or the powerful will never have to fear the people or prevent them from knowing the truth.

Judicious, compassionate, intelligent, rationale, humane and visionary represents liberalism’s core values and creed. Predatory conservatives will most certainly endeavor to obstruct President-Elect Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by disparaging the word liberal as well as distorting the record of Franklin Roosevelt’s liberal New Deal. Thus, if Obama’s era is to be one in which peace and prosperity prevail, we must vigilantly equate the word liberal with the very principles we hold dear.


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  1. Signed, a Proud Liberal for (mumbledy) years.

    • Edger on January 3, 2009 at 10:18

    that Anonymous Liberal uses at the top of his blog:

    The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.

    –Bertrand Russell

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