I tend to see myself as a proud “libtard” but being the target of such language, meant to wound and belittle, ala Trump’s nicknames (Hillary was nasty; Kamala is a monster), set me to wondering when Liberal became a dirty word. After the Civil War, my reading tells me, southerners wanted to be known as Conservatives. After World War II, all Americans were members of the “liberal world order” bringing Capitalism and free trade to Europe to oppose Communism, which scared everyone almost as much as Nazism should have. Liberals shared a belief in free markets, free trade and limited government, individual rights (both civil and human), capitalism, democracy, secularism, and internationalism.
But at home the liberal/conservative divide was already widening and the words had a whole different meaning at the national level. FDR’s New Deal turned those twin Conservative goals of term limits and balanced budgets on end and the term Liberal started its march towards “hold your nose” territory. Limited government had a huge setback. Conservatives must have thought this would be temporary.
The Great Society put the kibosh on any Conservative dreams that they would be able to cut the size of government any time soon. Then along came that Conservative hero, Ronald Reagan who said, “Government is not the answer to the problem. Government is the problem.” And here is how we got to our pitched battle about whether government should be small, with no social safety net or public schools or public health care; or whether a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” can ignore the way its citizens are affected by the vagaries of the marketplace or the diseases that flesh is heir to.
Clarence Page, writing in the Chicago Tribune quoted his Uncle James who countered Reagan’s words by saying, “Government ought to help people. You got a problem with that?” I don’t have a problem with that.” These two men sort of sum up this one difference between Conservatives and Liberals when it comes to the size of government. I stand with Uncle James. Of course our forefathers were not true champions of the common man, they were designing a government for landowners and educated elites. Still, they said what they said, and today we see that our democracy/republic was a true gift that evolved to speak to all Americans. Will the gift make it to its three hundredth birthday? We’ll see.
So what turned being a Liberal into such a negative, reviled by all, a label intended to injure, like any other epithet? Some lay it at the feet of those rabid right-wing radio talk show hosts and they certainly put a lot of effort and time into demonizing liberals (who are, even as speak, morphing into left-wing extremists). The image of Liberals is being created by the very Conservatives who revile them.
An article in Business Insider has some things to say on this subject:
“Relative to polls in the 1990s, Republicans are now much more likely to say poor people have it easy, while Democrats are less likely to say so. Conservatives are also more likely to say that environmental regulations are costing the US too many jobs. Liberals now seem less convinced that peace can be achieved through military strength than they were decades ago.”
The News Observer has this to say:
“John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market-loving conservative think tank, wouldn’t mind being called the dreaded L-word — liberal.
But only in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson sense of this time-worn political label. Back then, liberalism meant embracing laissez-faire economics and free trade; science-based enlightenment; democracy and the supreme rights of the individual; and religion without state sponsorship.
“And that raises the following questions: Do the terms liberal and conservative, in use for centuries in Europe and the Americas, still have much meaning? Or should these polar opposites be thrown into the bone yard of long-dead labels of political doctrine or party, there to join terms such as monarchist, prohibitionist, Federalist, Whig or Know-Nothing?”
“And Saunders isn’t the only Democrat who considers liberal to be a dirty word. Left-wing Democrats are also running away from the label, preferring to call themselves “progressive,” another term from America’s political past.”
From where I sit it is entirely possible that the “liberal world order” did itself in by not having a plan of action in case of success. Once the USSR fell and Russia and Asia became Capitalist dictatorships apparently no one foresaw that our corporations would desert us for cheaper labor and new markets. Conservatives found their scapegoats among the Liberal Democrats and blamed labor unions and environmental regulations and Talk Radio made it stick, ginned up the anger of the displaced workers. But Conservatives definitely had a hand in the Great Migration of our factories.
And now, under Trump’s tender ministrations, Liberals are becoming enemies of the state, antifa extremists, foes of law and order who will turn the suburbs into what our inner cities, according to Trump, seem to have become, as opposed to signs of equal opportunity and upward mobility. Liberals are not the ones with the long guns appearing in a city near you, but Trump loves to make his opponents guilty of the things that are done in his name. Trump has, though, proved to be equally injurious to the Conservative label as to the Liberal label. If Trump is what is now known as a Conservative many traditional Conservatives want no part of it, although they are hoping to come out the other end with their pre-Trump ideology intact. Many of us would be very surprised if they are able to pull that off.
Will these two terms we have tossed about for decades, with their newly evolved connotations, become tarnished beyond use or will they signal a real war beyond the ideological war we are experiencing right now? I have to believe that Americans will not take up arms against each other once again. But things are getting pretty hot up in here.