Recent events have got me thinking again about the way that we liberals describe ourselves. I call myself a liberal and I’m proud of the label. This isn’t an explanation of why I’m a liberal (that has been written before, in other fora*, and will probably be revisited here again someday) but rather why I choose the word “liberal” rather than “progressive.”
The conventional wisdom is that there has been a concerted effort by the conservative movement to turn the word “liberal” into an epithet for thirty years. I’m not talking about attacks on liberalism itself; that battle has been going on since people started disagreeing with each other, and by both sides, and it’s a good thing. I’m talking specifically about the deliberate effort to make “liberal” a bad word, and people often cite the beginning of the Reagan administration as when this phenomenon began.
Reagan used to refer to “liberals” vs. “real Americans” (what a uniter!) in his speeches when seeking the presidency and after his election. His Interior Secretary, James Watt, once remarked, “I never use the words Republicans and Democrats. It’s liberals and Americans.”
And so, according to this conventional wisdom, the conservatives have somehow managed to succeed in turning the once proud tradition of liberalism (upon which this country was founded) into a bad word. They’re so tricksy!
I posted this Lawrence O’Donnell bit of writing last week, that pushes back against this effort, and also the Jimmy Smits performance of it, which is worth embedding again:
But I’d like to take a page out of Reagan’s handbook for a second and speak to my fellow liberals (or progressives, if that’s what you are calling yourselves) about some personal responsibility. What Reagan and Limbaugh and the rest of conservatives were doing wasn’t some master plan to make liberal a bad word. Frankly, they’re not that smart or that competent. Conservatives have been attacking liberals for being liberal for… ever.
I mean, Joseph McCarthy said this:
If liberals were merely stupid, the laws of probability would dictate that at least some of their decisions would serve America’s interests.
As usual the conventional wisdom here is wrong. Liberal didn’t become a bad word because conservatives started attacking it. They’ve always attacked us. Liberal became a bad word because, unlike in that wonderful West Wing clip, liberals started running away from it.
Liberals started calling themselves “progressives” instead. A truly short-sighted decision. Did they think this would make it stop? Probably not, and they probably didn’t care at the time. Bullies don’t back down when you run away and change your name. Bullies back down when you stand up and say, “Yeah, I’m a liberal. Problem?”
And of course this whole “progressive” label is now being attacked by right-wing bullies like Glenn Beck. It’s needlessly muddled the debate about things like progressive tax rates. “Oh, it’s a progressive tax rate. And progressive means liberal. So, I’m against that, I guess,” says the conservative making $50,000 per year.
Progressive tax rates aren’t liberal. They’re what Adam Smith advocated for in Wealth of Nations. They make sense. (Okay, so maybe they are liberal then, but that’s beside the point.)
Anyway, I started thinking about this again, partially because of that Lawrence O’Donnell post I made and partly because of what my conservative friend in Ohio said to me at the end of his message:
I have always been a registered republican. I will never agree with liberals but I will be voting democrat from here on out.
This is a guy who works as a policeman, a protector of the people, paid for by the people, and who believes that people have a right to band together and collectively bargain for their livelihood. And yet he also believes that he will never agree with liberals. At least one of these statements does not belong!
This is our fault. We have lost control of what the word liberal means because we haven’t defended it, and when you don’t stand up for yourself, you can’t blame people for thinking your ideas are not worth standing up for.
* Technically (but needlessly) correct plural usage of forum. For snarkologist. Suck it, inuyesta.