Reclaiming Liberalism

Robert Prather, writing at his new home at Signifying Nothing, advocates the reclaiming of the original definition of “liberal.”

Throughout the anglosphere the word “liberal†has been used scornfully for the past few decades and, interestingly, it’s used the same way in Europe, though for a different reason. We all know that it’s used as a proxy term for socialist, panty-waist, etc. in the U.S. However, in the rest of the world the left uses it in its original meaning as a term of scorn; globalization (capitalism) is known as neoliberalism and has been known to spark riots from time to time.


The Europeans are using the word correctly and they despise it nonetheless(it makes sense, since they despise political, and especially, economic freedom). Since the U.S. is the current exemplar of capitalism and is despised anyway, we might as well get our terminology straight. Liberalism, anyone?

Robert’s suggestion (championed by Dean Esmay for some time as well) has the merit of being grammatically correct and uniting the English speaking world in the way it uses a key word in political ideology. The Brits still use the word in its original sense, as the renmant of their Liberal Party is essentially a less kooky version of our Libertarians.

I’m all for correct use of language but it’s very difficult to swim upstream on these things. In my days as an international relations prof, I tried to hammer in the correct definitions of “state” (a sovereign territory) and “nation” (a collection of people with shared identity and desire for statehood) to no avail. I could get the students to parrot the correct answers on the examinations but not to swim against the tide of popular usage. The use of “state” by Americans to refer to a non-sovereign sub-region of a state is too deeply engrained, what with the Civil War and decades of central government encroachment making the term “state” to describe the 50 states an anachronism. Similarly, the word “nation” has been used as a flowery synonym for “country” since at least the Gettysburg Address.

Reclaiming the word “liberal” has the additional obstacle that no one wants it. The social democratic wing of our polity has eschewed the word since Michael Dukakis’s disastrous 1988 campaign. “Progressive” seems to be the new buzzword in Democratic Party circles–in yet another case of rebadging an old political label. (John Kerry ain’t no Teddy Roosevelt, although both served in the military.)

The term “conservative,” once eschewed by American politicians because of its monarchist connotations, has become a badge of honor since at least Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. The fact that American “conservatives” are really two quite disparate groups, economic neo-liberals and Christian conservatives, is inconvenient from a political science perspective but quite useful for a coalition-building label. Until “conservative” becomes the albatross “liberal” has, it’s unlikely anyone will dust off “liberal.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Forget the undergrads: the very fact that your area of expertise is called “international relations” underscores the basic linguistic challenge.

  2. James Joyner says:

    True ’nuff. There is a sense in which nations interact globally but the term IR is mostly a byproduct of the Wilsonian ideal that the nation and state should coincide.

  3. ferrethouse says:

    The Liberal Party of Australia led by John Howard represents true liberalism well.

  4. James,

    It’s a quixotic quest, to be sure, but I would love to see it happen just for the linguistics. It probably won’t happen, but with the left abandoning the word, there’s a small (OK, very small) chance that it could happen. Thanks for the welcome back.

  5. Tim Worstall says:

    I too want words reclaimed. Liberal, yes, I’m a Manchester Liberal, laissez faire and free trade and all that. Progressive? Sure, it is possible to build a better world. Radical? Again, yes, that better world won’t come about from minor changes at the margins of society. It’s just that I disagree about what the changes should be, their direction even, with everybody else who calls themself a radical, progressive liberal.

  6. 42nd SSD says:

    I think the mistake is in using political labels in the first place. I’m a progressive liberal republican democratic socialist conservative, and I’m totally for electing a despotic king named “Jim”. Does that make me a Jim-nist?

    Seriously, I disagree with all of the established political parties on at least one major issue, so I don’t consider myself to be “anything”; maybe “independent”, but I’m sure that has some secret unobvious meaning as well.

    I think the labels only serve to polarize people into the “you’re either for us or against us” mindset. Which encourages the “red state/blue state” nonsense… which encourages people to blabber about seceding, or puzzle over why so many people are either airheads or rednecks–instead of trying to hammer out solutions that work for *everyone*.

    I feel most of us agree on what needs to be done, and most of us even agree on how to do it. The trick seems to be finding a group of politicians that are willing to do the right thing instead of trying to do the thing that will get them the most votes in the next election.