What’s a Liberal, Anyway?

Andrew Sullivan is bemused to find himself on Forbes‘ list of “The 25 Most Influential Liberals In The U.S. Media” since he considers himself a conservative.  He posts a reader email that muses on this fact:

Did you notice how many people on the list were seemingly chosen not for their writing or their politics, but rather their identity? Oprah is a liberal because she is black, Hitch is a liberal because he is atheist, and you are a liberal because you are gay. These are not just things that are mentioned in the list — they are the primary reasons given which, coupled with any support at all for Obama in the past election, set your name in stone as a liberal one. I suspect that a few of the choices for that list say much more about the Forbes writers’ politics than it does about yours.

Andrew agrees, observing, “What it mainly tells you is that conservatism is degenerate. But we knew that already.”  (Unsolicited tip: If one’s goal is to defend the notion that you’re a conservative, frequently writing things like “conservatism is degenerate” might be a tad counterproductive. )

Regardless, here’s the rationale Forbes gives for rating Sully as a liberal:

A granddaddy of Washington blogging and a former editor of The New Republic, he clings unconvincingly to the “conservative” label even after his fervent endorsement of Obama. His advocacy for gay marriage rights and his tendency to view virtually everything through a “gay” prism puts him at odds with many on the right.

Fervent endorsement of a liberal for the presidency and staunch support for a public policy position that’s not only hated by most conservatives but that even liberal Democrats running for office — including Obama! — won’t endorse strikes me as a reasonable enough justification.

How about the other two questionable liberals identified by Sully’s reader?

Vociferously atheistic, Hitchens, who styles himself a “radical,” will likely be aghast to find himself on this list. This prolific, but never less than eye-catching, author has supported the war on terror as enthusiastically as he has excoriated Sarah Palin.

[…]

Oprah makes this list because her status as an American cultural and racial icon gives her a uniquely influential position to mold political debate in the Obama era.

Again, both supported Obama’s candidacy for president, one enthusiastically so.  Hitch is a self-described Leftist who’s so far to the left on most issues that he’s off the radar screen of American politics.   Oprah’s politics are largely opaque but she hosts a touchy-feely television show and hosts Obama rallies. That’s probably close enough to earn her a “liberal” tag.

The labels “liberal” and “conservative” are not particularly useful these days, if they ever have been.  Sullivan and Hitchens are conservative on some issues, liberal on others.   Sullivan thinks of himself as a conservative, while Hitchens thinks of himself is a Radical or a Leftist or something else.  I don’t know how Oprah thinks of herself and don’t much care.

But it’s reasonable enough, given a bimodal choice, for Forbes to stick these three people on the “Liberal” side for the purposes of a linkbait feature.   Here, by the way, is their own definition:

Broadly, a “liberal’ subscribes to some or all of the following: progressive income taxation; universal health care of some kind; opposition to the war in Iraq, and a certain queasiness about the war on terror; an instinctive preference for international diplomacy; the right to gay marriage; a woman’s right to an abortion; environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form; and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.

In this post, Andrew does a good job of responding to these points one-by-one, showing that his views are rather complicated and, moreover, the list is rather bizarre.   Indeed, while I consider myself, broadly speaking, conservative, Forbes could well cast me as a liberal on several of those fronts.  Alas, I’m not influential enough to merit categorization either way.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. HiItsNino says:

    I identify as a liberal because of a strong belief that education can solve almost any problem, and a core value that allowing all people to be what or who they are without penalty brings out the best in a person, and that if government cultivates a good infrastructure everyone has a better quality of life.

    Additionally, I consider myself a liberal because I strongly believe in energy efficiency, conservation of land, giving government breaks to ground breaking technologies and businesses.

    What are labels anyway? They serve only to put up buckets and categories for the simple minded.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Whatever Andrew Sullivan’s political views, they haven’t emerged out of the American political tradition and, consequently, they’re difficult to classify in American political terms. I think that when you described him as Oakeshottian you hit the nail on the head.

    As best as I can tell he’s a conservative liberal, a characterization that makes a lot more sense in a British context than it does in an American one.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    After reading Andrew’s comments on the Forbes classification, I stand corrected: he’s a liberal conservative (which also makes more sense in the British political tradition than it does in the American).

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Couldn’t his classification as an influential liberal come as a result of liberals embracing many of his ideas and perceived conservative apostasy? Both ends of the political spectrum love people who have left the other team or been kicked of the other team. Sullivan is both and it increases his influence.

  5. Alex Knapp says:

    I have to love that “some or all of the following”, which means that they could call liberal whomever they damn well pleased. Really, they could have called Ayn Rand a liberal for supporting a woman’s right to an abortion, Nixon a liberal for his preference for international diplomacy, Teddy Roosevelt a liberal for his environmentalism, Eisenhower a liberal for his support of progressive taxation, Pat Buchanan a liberal for his opposition to the Iraq war, Daniel Larison a liberal for his “queasiness about the war on terror” and Ron Paul a liberal for his rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.

  6. G.A.Phillips says:

    liberal=Lying,indoctrinated,blaming,evolutionist,repetitively,asinine,lover of donkeys?

  7. G.A.Phillips says:

    liberal for supporting a woman’s right to an abortion,

    Alex you misspelled “murder her children”.

  8. odograph says:

    HiItsNino’s comment reminds me of Steven Pinker’s distinction in The Blank Slate: that liberals see the world as perfectible and propose policies to move the ball along. Conservatives on the other hand tend to think bad behavior will always be with us, and favor protections against those.

    That is easiest to see in crime and punishment.

    (and the spiders experiment and the not unsubtle hint of biology at play … i wonder if conservatives or liberals are equally unwilling to grapple with that?)

  9. tom p says:

    Broadly, a “liberal’ subscribes to some or all of the following:

    Let us go thru Sully’s qualifications as a liberal(+1 for a liberal position, -1 for a conservative position):
    progressive income taxation;
    He is a flat taxer (-1)
    universal health care of some kind;
    adamently opposed to gov’t health care (-1)
    opposition to the war in Iraq,
    Started out for it, but as the disaster unfolded came to see it for the disaster it is (he faced the facts)(I would call this a draw, but these are Forbes rules, +1)
    and a certain queasiness about the war on terror;
    He is an ardent supporter of the “war on terror” just has problems with some of the things being done in it’s name (-1)
    an instinctive preference for international diplomacy;
    Just exactly WTF does this mean? It is one of the most sophomoric statements I have ever read, I mean, one should have a preference for war? I expect better from Forbes. (no score)
    the right to gay marriage;
    He is a gay man, and only wants the same rights as every one else.(+1)
    a woman’s right to an abortion;
    He only supports abortion in the first trimester.(+1, again forbes rules)
    environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form;
    He is against cap and trade but for a gas tax offset by a reduction in payroll taxes. I am unsure how to score this but mostly because I am unfamiliar with Kyoto. I will go with a (+1) because acceptance of the overwhelming preponderence of scientific evidence seems to be something peculiar to many conservatives.
    and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.
    Ah yes, conservatives have to be subservient to anything the GOP does, including putting the Paris Hilton of politics a heartbeat away from the Presidency (if McCain had not picked her, Sully’s attitude to the GOP ticket would have been markedly different) .(+1)

    Score= +2 out of a possible score of -9 to +9

    Definitely a wild eyed liberal.

  10. odograph says:

    liberal=Lying,indoctrinated,blaming,evolutionist,repetitively,asinine,lover of donkeys?

    For including “evolutionist” in this list, G.A. wins an Agnotology lapel pin.

  11. Bithead says:

    In this post, Andrew does a good job of responding to these points one-by-one, showing that his views are rather complicated and, moreover, the list is rather bizarre.

    Indeed; complex To the point of incoherence. Which, come to think of it, pretty well labels him as a liberal, also.

    And look; what passes for conservative in what’s left of the United Kingdom, wouldn’t even pass as a blue dog here in the ‘States. That he calls himself a conservative, then, only points out the massive difference between politics and the UK, and politics here in the states. He’s been making his living in the difference for over a decade, now.

    What amazes me is that we are still in the discussion stage on this, instead of Sullivan having earned himself a one way to ticket to liberal tagdom, already.

    My guess as to why that’s so, is that a good many of his defenders take the positions they do about Sullivan, because having a “conservative” agree with them makes their views, in their own eyes, more legit, in much the same way that Obama decided to sit down to dinner with three centrists and a conservative. In the end, it’s all for show.

    Face it; Saint Andrew is in the relative position he is in American punditry the because he’s perceived as a supposed fence -sitter, at least by those on the left, which of course includes the Dinosaur media. I suggest to you that he is as popular as he is a among the American left, because of the American left’s disdain for everything American, and it’s inexplicable love for all things European.

    At the bottom line, there’s this; If he were labeled correctly… as just another leftist pundit… his day gig would be selling fish and chips in some take away shop in Brighton.

  12. Eric says:

    or including “evolutionist” in this list, G.A. wins an Agnotology lapel pin.

    LOL. And it’s been an award a long time coming for ol’ “Head Buried in the Sand” G.A. He’s like the Susan Lucci of OTB. No one can “abort” logic like G.A.–oh, I mean “murder his logic” like B.A.

  13. Franklin says:

    Alex you misspelled “murder her children”.

    G.A., if you want progress on that issue, I highly recommend that you stay out of the debate completely. You are completely incapable of putting forth a convincing argument.

  14. Tom Carter says:

    The whole liberal-conservative discussion gets more tiresome every day. Maybe it’s just a human tendency to put everyone in a pigeon hole so each person will be predictable and can be identified as friend or foe.

    As others have pointed out, it’s hard to imagine anyone who is a “pure” liberal or conservative, whatever that might be. I identify, when absolutely necessary, as a liberal. But my opinions on specific issues are all over the spectrum, and most thinking people are the same way.

    The criterion that supporting Obama makes one a liberal breaks down immediately. Colin Powell supported Obama, and he’s no liberal.

  15. Bithead says:

    The whole liberal-conservative discussion gets more tiresome every day. Maybe it’s just a human tendency to put everyone in a pigeon hole so each person will be predictable and can be identified as friend or foe.

    Rather, the reverse. People get so labeled because they ARE rather predictable. Case in point being Sullivan himself. And yes, Obama and Powell, with him.

    And it’s my experience that people making arguments against labeling, are the ones who are carrying, either by choice or by perceived position, the label of ‘liberal’.

  16. anjin-san says:

    because of the American left’s disdain for everything American

    Ummm, Bit? News Flash. Attempting to label people as being somehow un American because they do not agree with your politics is kinda…. un American.

    People get so labeled because they ARE rather predictable.

    Well, this in an area in which you do have some actual expertise…

  17. Triumph says:

    Liberals are bums.

  18. Bithead says:

    Ummm, Bit? News Flash. Attempting to label people as being somehow un American because they do not agree with your politics is kinda…. un American.

    And who is it who injected the phrase “unamerican”?

    Hint: It wasn’t me.
    Clearly, the reason you inject these little straw men of yours, and then slaying me for them, is your worldview can’t stand on it’s own.

  19. markm says:

    I call my mother in law a pinko liberal (pinko liberal tree hugger to her face though). A lifelong academic and all of her adult life spent teaching on military bases across the globe…she has disdain for the military if it need be put into action, thinks the government is the be all end all solution for everything, thinks taxes should always be much higher (yet, she’s pretty thrifty seeking out those deductions on the 6+ rental properties), health care and education at all levels must be “free” and US automakers shouldn’t make any trucks of any size and should only make cars the size of a shoebox.

    Oh, and typically, earthy well describes a typical lib…IMO.

  20. markm says:

    Oh, and the self proclaimed liberals I’ve come across are not self sufficient. Self sufficiency is something hey don’t comprehend. There needs to be someone there to provide solutions for damn near everything.

  21. steve s says:

    liberal=Lying,indoctrinated,blaming,evolutionist,repetitively,asinine,lover of donkeys?
    Posted by G.A.Phillips | January 25, 2009 | 10:59 am

    LOL. I think you’re on the wrong blog. Hugh Hewitt is over thataways. We’re trying to have an intelligent discussion here

  22. steve s says:

    I actually wouldn’t say Sullivan is a conservative. Not in the modern sense of what that means. When he starts supporting giving the US the policies of Pinochet, rejecting science, and embracing the anti-intellectualism represented by Palin and Joe the War Correspondent, then I’ll call him a conservative.

  23. HiItsNino says:

    odograph – I don’t think the world is perfectible – in fact liberals think just the opposite. The difference is we know what happens when you just stop trying. Its true, conservatives are always trying to protect themselves against something, because they are afraid of everything. Go to any country and you will see the more conservative the worse the place is. Cutting off hands when someone steels hasn’t worked out real well in Pakistan. Ever wonder why the Tali ban keeps burning down those schools in Afghanistan? Or why the Saudis force a brutally conservative religion taught through their educational system? Here in America good ole’ free thought and liberalism has brought us out of the dark ages and into a much better age, despite some of our problems.

  24. steve s says:

    Still, Forbes’s justification is weak. They say about Sully:

    His advocacy for gay marriage rights and his tendency to view virtually everything through a “gay” prism puts him at odds with many on the right.

    So I went to Sully’s blog, and, starting at the bottom, made a list of all the substantive blog posts he has on the front page. Here’s the list. I’ll boldface the ones where he says anything about homosexuality:

    Blogger Back
    Forbes’ Definition Of “Liberal”
    Benedict Lifts This Man’s Ex-Communication
    In Defense Of Ads
    Readers Write
    Ted Haggard: A Tortured Gay Man
    The Obama Effect?
    Two Planes, Two Worlds
    Face Of The Day
    Online Rubber-Necking
    Forbes’ Definition Of “Liberal” Ctd.
    The Brutal Truth
    “Liberals”
    Stimulus Study Goes Poof
    Benedict Lifts This Man’s Ex-Communication, Ctd.
    The Robots Are Coming
    The Bush-Cheney Wreckage
    Six-Word Memoirs Of Love And Heartbreak
    “Crisis”
    The Man Benedict Has Brought In From The Cold
    Face Of The Day
    Parsing Obama
    Differences

    4 out of 22 posts. That’s not exactly “Virtually Everything”. I think it’s more correct, as Sully says, that they read everything he writes through a ‘gay prism’.

  25. steve s says:

    they could have called…Nixon a liberal for his preference for international diplomacy, Teddy Roosevelt a liberal for his environmentalism, Eisenhower a liberal for his support of progressive taxation…
    Posted by Alex Knapp | January 25, 2009 | 10:53 am | Permalink

    I’m fairly sure they would call Nixon, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower RINOs. RINO meaning, these days, a republican who isn’t a complete idiot.

    Speaking of complete idiots:

    This will be William Kristol’s last column

    YAY! No more dumbass Bill Kristol in my beloved NYT. They should replace him with a conservative with a brain. I vote for James Joyner.

  26. Joe R. says:

    …a core value that allowing all people to be what or who they are without penalty brings out the best in a person, and that if government cultivates a good infrastructure everyone has a better quality of life.

    Those two philosophies conflict with each other, unless you don’t consider the taxation required for the infrastructure to be a penalty.

  27. DL says:

    I didn’t notice Andrew protesting Obama’s reversal of the order preventing the world from using our aid to murder their young -including Chinese forced abortions – nor did I read of his strong support for the 400,000 person March for Life that he and his media friends failed to mention. Unlike Obama’s circuses, no rock group was used to entice the masses into attendence.

    With this abortion: first, last, always, and anyway you desire, president, we have truly become an “Obamanation”

    To ignore this wanton destruction is to never be rightfully “conservative”

    I won’t get into the destruction of this nation’s very fabric – the family – so guaranteed by the “Gay Marriage” runnaway train….

  28. Bithead says:

    SteveS: Your point as to his CURRENT content is well taken. Yet, his history is longer than his front page.

    The charge of being focused on homosexuality is one I’ve made several dozen times since 2003, and likely before that….(03 is as far back as my quick search goes) and each time I’ve backed it with quotes. Links at need.

  29. odograph says:

    James, if you see this, I think there is a phenominum that should attract your attention: Why are libertarians so darn happy with Obama?

    Thank You, Barack Obama

    (HiItsNino, I won’t make a defense of Pinker’s idea, but I thought he had a good argument. Read it at length in The Blank Slate if you get the chance.)

  30. odograph says:

    (it’s creative spelling day!)

  31. HiItsNino says:

    I read the newsweek article, but can’t find the blank slate one your referring to. I’m not buying the “generic component” — too Adolf Hitler for me. I do think ideology is formed slowly over years and years, and each experience a person has slowly changes the way a person perceives events. From a biological viewpoint — of coarse this would have an effect in a human body. I was very much a conservative in my early 20’s, and I’d say various experiences I had while restoring a house in a high crime neighborhood helped change my point of view, along with a period where I did a lot of Thomas Payne and Thomas Jefferson reading. I’d love to know what my brain scan looked like back then vs now…

  32. G.A,Phillips says:

    LOL. And it’s been an award a long time coming for ol’ “Head Buried in the Sand” G.A. He’s like the Susan Lucci of OTB. No one can “abort” logic like G.A.–oh, I mean “murder his logic” like B.A.

    dang bro now thats cold, I would call you a lot a things but thats cold, lol.

    G.A., if you want progress on that issue, I highly recommend that you stay out of the debate completely. You are completely incapable of putting forth a convincing argument.

    lol OK I forgot how smart you guys were, lol, How this -peace of shit evolutions have murdered more babies the all people killed in all of the wars in human history, that why you and your religion sucks on the last strawman thats going to break us all.

    LOL. I think you’re on the wrong blog. Hugh Hewitt is over thataways. We’re trying to have an intelligent discussion here

    sure you are, don’t give up, it might happen some day.

  33. odograph says:

    The Blank Slate is a book. Sorry for not linking earlier. At 528 pages you’ve kind of got to be into it.

    But from your “Adolf Hitler” comment you might actually be Pinker’s target audience.

  34. MarkedMan says:

    Perhaps Sully isn’t quite right in saying that Forbes judges a conservative by category (gay, black, atheist, etc). But by their own admission they judge by who or what they support, rather than why. So support of the McCain/Palin ticket in and of itself is indicative of conservatism, without regard to ideology. Support for abortion? Liberal, even if the reason is a desire to keep government out of people’s lives. FWIW, I put forth my definitions of liberal/conservative here.

  35. anjin-san says:

    And who is it who injected the phrase “unamerican”?

    Hint: It wasn’t me.
    Clearly, the reason you inject these little straw men of yours, and then slaying me for them, is your worldview can’t stand on it’s own.

    Your exact words were

    because of the American left’s disdain for everything American

    Bit, its easy to see why you want to try to play word games rather than stand behind the rather ugly position you have taken. I on the other hand will come right out and say it. Your position is unAmerican.

    Its interesting, how, at this point in time, you have nothing to offer but tired, worn out, failed talking points from the far right playbook. You shriek things like “The left has disdain America”
    How very 2004 of you. Or even 1984. Do try and engage in some original thinking, its good for the brain.

    The issue here is not “a little straw man” of my creation, its a little man. You know Bit, the one you see when you look in the mirror.

  36. od says:

    Part of the problem is the idea that everyone is either a liberal or a conservative. However, since most people’s views are much more complex than that, you have very few pure liberals or pure conservatives. Of course pure liberals will say that anyone who isn’t pure liberal is conservative, and conservatives will say that everyone who isn’t pure conservative is liberal … ie a drop of “tainted blood” puts someone on the other side.

    This makes for amusing discussions on whether someone like Sullivan is a conservative or a liberal (hint: he’s neither as he holds positions from both camps), but its not particularly useful.

  37. Bithead says:

    Your exact words were….

    Yada, yada, yada. There’s a major difference between being unamerican and being anti-american culturally. They tend to parallel, yet theyr’e not equal. You’re creating straw men and then trying to mow them down, Anjin. Typical for you.

    How often have we heard the left tell us we need to be more like the Europians on one thing or another, since their way is ‘more sustainable’ for example?

    So support of the McCain/Palin ticket in and of itself is indicative of conservatism

    It might be, were McCain actually a conservative.

  38. tom p says:

    Oh, and the self proclaimed liberals I’ve come across are not self sufficient. Self sufficiency is something hey don’t comprehend. There needs to be someone there to provide solutions for damn near everything.

    I love reading tripe like this on the internet.

  39. anjin-san says:

    So bit what is “anti-american culturally.? Are you “the decider” on this one? What is your idea of American culture? Eating a crappy diet and driving a gas guzzler? Faux country music? Not knowing how to dress with any sense of style? Being generally arrogant and small minded?

    Its a big country bubba, and several hundred million people live here. This is pretty typical of you – people who don’t agree with me are somehow not real Americans.

    And you wonder why you got punk slapped in the last 2 elections…

  40. […] intrepid commenter even nominates yours truly. Twice. While I appreciate the consideration, I’m rather sure I won’t be on the list of […]

  41. Bithead says:

    Since you seem to have such problems telling the difference, here’s a help for you… and a question you should be able to answer….is telling the American people they should be mroe like the europians, un-American?