The recent elections have brought the word liberal again to the fore, along with a plethora of apologies from those “accused” of being a liberal. I am always surprised at Republican campaign ads accusing Democratic opponents of liberalism as though it were communism or socialism. Why can’t you be “accused” of being conservative?
Of course, no one knows what the word means any more—that mystery no doubt adds to the fear-factor conservatives rely on—and I am not going to offer one here. (You’re welcome.) I am simply going to make a few comments on the usage of the term and explore how it could come to pass in one of the most progressive (a step beyond liberalism) nations on Earth, liberal could come to be a pejorative term.
I can recall the days when Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey interacted creatively with Republicans like Everett Dirksen, Charles Hallek, and others. Dirksen, I recall, voted for the progressive 1964 Civil Rights Legislation and was happy to be called a liberal Republican. Not any more.
Today the Republican Party comprises conservatives and moderates while only the Democrats are divided by the media into conservatives and liberals. You just don’t hear “liberal Republican” after years of media disparagement of the term. It is further interesting to note the host of pejorative epithets added to liberal: “tax-and-spend liberal”, “bleeding-heart liberal”, “liberal do-gooders”, to name three of the most common. Well, you expect this type of ad hominem in politics but where are the conservative equivalents? Where are the not-tax-and-spend conservatives and the cold-hearted conservatives?
The words themselves still seem to express the honest differences between the two very broad trains of thought in US politics: conservatives wish to conserve the status quo and liberal want to liberate society from it, to change things however modestly. Liberalism is the mildest from of left-wing politics, where left-wing refers to the politics of change. Progressives, socialists, communists (who live happily and participate fully in European politics) want far more change far more rapidly.
The imbalance in pejorativity associated with the terms liberal and conservative is very odd in a country known for such rapid and sweeping social changes as have characterized the history of the US, certainly their recent history. Liberals like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson have done no harm to the nation that has been brought to my attention. So there is no logical or linguistic reason for the term liberal to be pejorative in the US but not elsewhere in the English-speaking world.
My point is that hopefully the Democratic win in the interim elections will last long enough to return an emotional balance to the two terms conservative and liberal since we need both to move forward without losing control of our progress. Right now, with both parties fighting for the center, US corporations are making radical, almost daily, changes in our culture and social fabric with very little reserve, constraint or oversight.