What does "Liberal" mean?

By Adam Zielinski of Portland, Oregon. Adam describes himself as a liberal conservationist and environmentalist, currently working as a management and strategic sourcing consultant, and formerly a program director for an international environmental nonprofit organization.

I don't mean to rant, but....

In today's Oregonian, George W Bush is quoted at a campaign rally in southern Oregon, as saying that Kerry is a "Massachusetts liberal" while referring to himself as a "compassionate conservative."

He goes on to say, "On issue after issue, he (Kerry) takes the side of more centralized control and bureaucracy. There is a word for that attitude: liberalism."

This is factually incorrect. In fact, the opposite is true. See the links below that describe what the term "liberal" really means.

It really annoys me up when people use the term liberal in a derogatory manner, and with an intended meaning that has no connection to reality.

In fact, most Democrats today, especially in the left wing of the party, are not liberals at all, because they do not believe in capitalism, free trade, or a free market economy. These are all historically "liberal" beliefs. But they correctly prefer to refer to themselves as "progressives" rather than liberals. They are basically Social Democrats and sympathize more with socialism or a more authoritarian approach to economic issues, while remaining liberal in terms of social issues. So being in favor of centralized government control and bureaucracy isn't liberal at all, it is socialist and/or authoritarian.

Most Republicans are actually liberals in terms of economic policy, but very conservative and authoritarian when it comes to social policy. However, far right Republicans such as Pat Buchanan are actually authoritarian when it comes to economic issues as well as social issues. There is a word for this, when combined with extreme patriotism: fascism. George W Bush is actually a lot closer in political philosophy to Pat Buchanan than he is to his own father.

Liberalism - wikipedia, stanford encyclopedia

Conservatism - wikipedia

Fascism - wikipedia

  • (Show?)

    Very well said indeed, thank you for the important points of fact and history.

    One small disagreement. While I believe your characterization of the left wing of the Democratic Party is correct, I think most Democrats are liberals, not progressives.

    The DLC and Al Franken have struck the right notes for a lot of us.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    One could make dictionaries of words that have changed their signification. The "connection to reality" that Adam evidently misses is that liberal is now used in this country to mean something very different than it used to. Would it be better that we used the word in a more original sense (as the Australians use it)? Maybe so. Is it George W. Bush's fault that we don't? Hardly.

    Also, Adam takes a nice cheap shot mentioning accurately that GWB is more conservative than GWHB, and then suggesting some proximity to fascism.

  • pat hayes (unverified)

    Hi Folks...

    anthony....you may wish to review your political philosophy 101 text. GWB rides on the popular wave of denying full participation in the rights and priviledges of society to some citizens...namely gays and lesbians. While GWD lays the veneer of values and religion on the issue he encourages and supports second class citizenship in order to gain and keep power. That is the core of fascism and it is currently a festering pustule on the body politic in this nation.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  • Justin (unverified)

    I consider myself to be a liberal, compassionate conservative.

  • Anthony (unverified)

    Pat, if we're going to get personal about it, you might as well consult not only some political textbooks, but a good psychiatrist.

    We can debate over how principled GWB's stand on the "gay marriage" issue is or not. I don't find it hard to think a man of his beliefs has principled opposition to altering the conditions of one of the fundamental institutions of this society.

    To distort that stand into an expression of the essence of fascism is hysteria.

    Either snap out of it and stick to arguing on the merits, or get treatment.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Could there possibly be anything more unproductive than arguing with a mugger about his grammar?

    Brandishing a gun, he says "Gimmie your wallet."

    "Actually sir, I believe you have slurred the words "give" and "me" in a socially inappropriate way indicative both of lower class status and an impoverished educational background...."

    Whack. Bang.


    Yes Liberal means something different to anyone who understands political philosophy. But here in ignorant America, people mean culturally liberal, not politically liberal, when they talk about liberalism, and that's that.

    Deal with it, and try to avoid getting mugged.

    (And in fact, social liberalism, a cultural concept is a perfectly legitimate meaning of "liberalism", even if it is philosophically secondary to "political liberalism.")

    Peace, love and John Kerry

  • (Show?)

    Pat- I hardly think that marriage is a "fundamental institution" of this society. I'd venture to say (whether I agree with them or not), the fundamental institutions of this country are capitalism, faith, liberty, democracy, family, and equality. You could argue that marriage is a pre-requisite to family. However, in my opinion, it is not. Today, families are not limited to a traditional single nuclear unit. Family encompasses single parent households, same-sex households, siblings, and extended family.

  • Adam (unverified)


    "There's a word for it, but words don't mean a thing. There's a name for it, and names make all the difference in the world." - David Byrne

    I agree with you that when most activitsts and political junkies talk about liberalism vs conservativism, they are talking about the culture wars. But here, W went out of his way to attempt to redefine liberalism in economic terms as socialism, and attach this label to Kerry. When in fact, his policies are probably more authoritarian and at least as socialist as Kerry's, although aimed more towards corporate socialism and welfare rather than directed towards actual people.

    Ideas do matter, and the names we use to describe them matter also.

  • Miles (unverified)

    Adam, I wish I didn't consistently sound so damn snarky when I posted online.

    I hear what you are saying, but I disagree with your argument that Bush is somehow more "liberal" in economic terms than Kerry.

    Bush's corporate socialism (which I consider to be nascent "fascism") is authoritarian and non-liberal, supportive of noncompetitive markets, monopoloy corporations, etc. Noises are made about small businesses, but these are only noises.

    On the other hand Kerry is no enemy of large corporations either, and thus no great economic liberal either. In their alliance with corporate America, both men are profoundly illiberal in classic polital terms. They are both failures as liberals.

    On the other hand, Kerry really is more socially liberal.

    Ideas do matter, I agree, but in the middle of a mugging (in this case an election), is this the best/most useful time to debate them?

    I understand your frustration but....

  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)
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  • Tenskwatawa (unverified)

    "What does 'liberal' mean?"

    Following the links (posted) to Wikipedia leads to fifty deep informative pages and, like jumping into the deep end, a loss of traction. Mental traction, that is. Where sure meets reality. (Wikipedia, in turn, links to context material about 'liberal,' including 'the literature of,' listing selections which I counter with my preferred list.)

    The definition of 'liberal' may be intutitive, born in each of us, no encyclopedia needed. Liberal is not enshrined in a figurehead person. Liberal is not a catechism or dogma to learn and apply. (Is it okay to simply use 'leftist' in common to mean liberal, democrat, communist, and 'rightist' as meaning conservative, republican, totalitarian, royalty -- for brevity? Of course.)

    'Liberal' is intuitive? Here's a test case: In Star Wars, in Yoda and Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion versus Darth Vadar and the Empire: which side is leftist and which side is rightist? (Read: 'liberal' and 'conservative' if you will.) I say readers here give two answers: a.) the obvious, and b.) no answer, ('doesn't apply,' 'irrelevant,' 'no fair.' whatever). Those choosing b.) can perhaps stop reading. Otherwise, (a.) ), seeing leftism and rightism somewhere in the drama of protagonist and antagonist, ask ourselves how we know it's there since the Star Wars movie(s) never denote any politics. (Even the Galactic Senate Amphitheatre seats had no dividing aisle. They looked like sports arena, private entry, sky box luxury seats.)

    Overlook for a minute which answer -- Rebellion is leftist, Empire is rightist, or vice versa. The key point is that it is instinctively obvious (without any evidence) that the movie's swarm of 'people', (aliens, wookies, organic life, and not droids, 3CPO, R2D2), have politics. Somewhere somehow among all those people there is an organizing principle, rules, regulations, law and order. Transports carry passengers, retailers sell foodstuffs, bosses communicate orders workers carry out. That's politics.

    From the root word 'polis,' meaning all the people living around here. Where 'people' means not animal, and the people / animal segregating line is whether or not the ambulatory creature can communicate using language, (translated maybe, but effectively able to send and receive messages). (Also, not plants because they are not ambulatory. Droids are creations, not creatures.) Point: Politics happens, in any group of communicating cohabitants.

    Further point: There is always only two sides of politics -- leftist and rightist. (Centrist by definition means somewhere between two, which means two sides.)

    My Star Wars-fiction society has served its use now -- to show we have intuitive sense that politics must emerge in any group that organizes its food-clothing-shelter-social life needs, vital needs. How does the group organize? By expressing the organization in language, and that language communicates to the group. Language and communication is the basis of sentience. Now I dispense with the imaginary prop and let's confine the following to people on Earth, (our reality?)

    There's been a lot of people on Earth, ever since they started talking among themselves and politics began. Before that, it was cavemen on Earth and hard-to-say which side of the people / animal line our 'ancestors' stood on. And among all people in all cultures in all historic time there have been only two politics: leftism and rightism. No uppism, no downism, no frontism, no backism. (Although, Ralph Waldo Emerson had another variation: "There are always two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future; the Establishment and the Movement." But he's talking about the accumulation of leftism/rightism behind us in the past, or departure into a different proportion of leftism/rightism going forward into the future.)

    Okay, non sequitor time. Don't worry, this discontinuity is a short jump to a nearby point; not a blind leap, more like a step back a second. Language and communication manifests in brain lobes. Those who got 'em, do it; those who don't, don't. This information is the Chomskian.

    By observation we find four main brain lobes -- frontal, parietal, cerebral, and occipital. These are split, cloven. There are two of each, one on each side, like ears.

    Observation shows thinking occurs in these places. They all can think together and they each can think alone. The more involved, the more the thought, (the think?) In each alone, a specialization. Evolution optimizing.

    (The sense of faith that endows religion that limits language to creationism that precludes thinking in terms of evolution, is a sense arising in awareness of other (h.a.p.) unsplit brain parts. We feel faith when our medulla complex twitches, we feel thinking when our hemisphere lobes twitch. Readers who cannot fathom evolution cannot fathom politics. They're right, lives given to God's laws are not given to Man's laws, politics, and shouldn't be mixed. And speaking of leftism and rightism thinking is politics, pure and simple, not godliness. Traditionally, religiously animated people took themselves from the group to a hermitage or cloister or mountain top reclusion.)

    Resuming: Evolution eventuated a so-called left-brain that better implicates and deduces, and a so-called right-brain that better complicates and induces. (Tangent: There are many varieties of expression telling the different performances of the left-brain and right-brain. Neither are confused with lizard- or worm-brain, which is the older, non-split, slab foundation part of the brain where fears and hopes and religiosity emanates. As for left-brain and right-brain, suffice it here to distinguish a difference, some difference between them, simplest said as the left-brain takes sensations reductively apart, (differentiation), and the right-brain puts sensations together, productively, (integration). A further digression could discuss the observation that left-brain and right-brain can adapt, (learn, develop), to do the other side's specialty in the proper side's absence. And, sometimes, genetically or otherwise, the sides trade their specialties, as has been observed. Out of it all, the one agreement is that the sides are different. Somehow. "Think" differently, if not uniquely.)

    The left-brain finds detail in separate people or events instances. It specifies. The right-brain finds a commonality or categorization exhibited by all (people or events). It generalizes. The key evolutionary drives at work are the two survival considerations. One, obvious in thinking of the survival of the organism -- self. What's best for me, numero uno? The other, subtle but just as primal, is thinking of the survival of the family -- namely, self's progenitors and progeny. Why do children want their parents to survive? Why do parents want their children to survive? I don't answer, but they (we) all do want that, at base.

    The more gemane question is How does a person know who "family" is? None of them comes with a visible barcode label, a tattoo on them that says FAMILY. Actually, 'family' does not exist in any place, it is a conjured idea that floats in the air. Also, someone living in our cave with us does not make them our blood family. And 'blood' is the key, here. (The reader probably sees that this categorization faculty is in the right-brain, and knows that each half-brain 'runs' the opposite side of the body; then think: there is one heart, pumping blood, asymetrically to the left, 'run' by the right-brain. ) Blood is the key. Evolution favors the survival of offspring procreated outside of blood family. (Incest births have more frequent retardation, demise.) Those who get it -- Who's family? -- (and procreatively avoid it), have children who survive more. Those who don't get it didn't get this far along -- split brains -- in evolution. Once the right-brain evolved to be able in a collection of people to determine "family" then it is able to 'classify' and 'typify' and by induction sense a 'general rule' or an 'idea;' and the faculty works for any scale-size of things (people, events) in a (memory) collection.

    Suppose: I am a person, there must be a family of me's. I am a family, there must be a tribe of me's. I am a tribe, there must be a district of me's. I am a district, there must be a country of me's. I am a country, there must be a world of me's. I am a world, there must be a ... a what? a solar system of me's? I am a sun, there must be a galaxy of me's, etc., but that has gone beyond our limits here, which is politics, as organizing thoughts of people on Earth. The real world. (Tangent: We can get on to other planets later.)

    And in conclusion, politics means organizing a group of people and there are two points of view, two sides to think about, two thoughts on it. One is thought for the individual person. The other is thought for the group.

    Rightism politics is the left-brain thinking of the concerns of the individual. Leftism politics is the right-brain thinking of the concerns of the group. These are humankind's only two "thinking" brains. These are humankind's only two politics. The vital sense is that both sides are valid, equally important to the extent that the absence or exclusion of one means inability for the remaining one to survive. Both are necessary -- consideration of me and my responsibilities to the group; consideration of the group and its responsibilities to me -- in order to survive because survival connotes both my survival and my group's survival. The group partly defines me. I partly define the group. It's a thought.

    So, finally, What does liberal mean? A person who preponderates in right-brain (leftism) thinking. What does conservative mean? A person who preponderates in left-brain (rightism) thinking. But both are necessary.


    Asides and Notes. The coming end of today's American-vernacular "conservatives" is predestined and set in their estrangement from "liberals" and their thought trying to invalidate them, (non-conservatives) -- 'They absolutely don't represent/affect me.' It is ending because conservatives are going nowhere without liberals. Both are necessary. It's like moving forward -- you need both feet -- stand on one, swing the other, stand on it, swing the first. Repeat. For community progress look at politics from both sides, in turn. Both importantly valid.

    Today's "conservatives" dismissing "liberals" establish only that their own liberal sense, (half their own brain), is invalid. Which is why the people who are aware of both sides of their brains recognize any claimed dismissal of one is false, and also see a symptom in statements claiming to void "liberalism," entirely, to reveal "conservatives" who literally are not mentally whole, and are mentally impaired. (Hence, Rash Lamebrain politics -- with half his brain tied behind his back -- is doomed.)

    Everyone is a liberal sometimes and a conservative sometimes, at different ages, even cycling several times in one day, relating to concerns of the political situration they are in (among a group involving them). Political validity is not one side or the other -- it's the balance on an issue.

    Changing the scale of the group a person connects with changes the political connotation of his or her thoughts. This is quickly seen in an example. Where politics discusses each town's share in state wealth, a mayor looking out for his own is being rightist and a governor looking out for the state's sustenance is being leftist. In a degree wider, discussing each state's share of United States wealth, the same governor is now being rightist in the state's regard and on the other side the president is being leftist, concerned with all states in common. One degree wider, the U.S. nation in the United Nations picture, the president turns rightist for his nation's selfish own interest and, always at the limit of one world, the UN can only be leftist. (Unless one nation can take over the world and have it all its own, and be rightist.)

    Such seeming flip-flopping of an individual's political views, at a representative position looking out at what (family) it's part of and looking in at what its (family's) parts are, with responsibilities in both respects, can appear confusing without a standard -- rightism is left-brain thinking and leftism is right-brain thinking, both are necessary and the only meaning is evolved politics is based in evolved anatomy -- to guide by.

    There is much material here. It's rough. I hurried it to fit the BlueOregon format. In short, it is to define leftism and define rightism, in absolute definitions of each that both 'sides' agree with. (So much life is lost in only conservatives defining 'liberal' and only liberals defining 'conservative,' and both failing. And is, perhaps, the very irritation in the oyster around which grew a liberal's thought to ask "What does liberal mean?," which is where we started in this.)

    This is a long exposition given as an abstract from my (even longer, in process) book -- Political Anatomy -- I announce here for the first time on the web. It is my own composition, and thesis, and it might delight me no end to have the thought passed along and probably stolen. Establishing the idea is more important than establishing my identification by it. We built it together. My insight began upon hearing the Rash Lamebrain motto (above) while holding the training I had had in neuroanatomy (MIT), psychology (IIT), and human behavior (School of Hard Knocks). I don't like politics. I don't suffer fools gladly. I like time and history. I like science. I like bodily exertion. I like living life.

    My central sense of it all was expressed in a foreword dedication I read in a book -- The Tibetan Book of the Dead, published 3000 years ago (not my copy). In it I recognized parts that were in the (Egyptian) Book of the Dead published 1000 years before it, and I recognized parts that reappeared in the Bible published 1000 years later. And the sense is: The purpose of a person's life is to prepare themself to die. Success in living is getting the strength to fail.

    From it I understand many things and feel happy. Don't worry. Be happy. You worried? Tell you what -- I give you my number. Call me. I make you happy. We're here now together.

  • Adam (unverified)

    The Economist gets my back!

    Political vocabulary

    Nov 4th 2004 From The Economist print edition

    There's a word for that

    And we want it back

    ALL through this election campaign, George Bush has flung the vilest term of abuse he knows at John Kerry. You name the policy—Mr Kerry's support for punitive taxes and reckless public spending, as Mr Bush put it; his preference for stifling government and overweening bureaucracy; his failure to stand up for, oh, expensive new weapons systems, microscopic embryos and the sanctity of marriage—and the president's verdict in each case was the same. “There's a word for that,” he said, again and again. “It's called liberalism.”

    What more need one say? And Mr Kerry was not just any sort of liberal: he had actually been the most liberal member of the Senate. When told this, appalled Republicans jeered more loudly than if Mr Bush had accused his challenger of eating babies. (That man dared to run for president! Did he think he would not be found out?) Understandably, Mr Kerry was sometimes wrong-footed by this egregious defamation. Occasionally, smiling nervously, he said he was not ashamed to be liberal. (Audacious, but perhaps unwise.) At other times he tried to deny it. (You see, he protests too much.) In America, that kind of accusation cannot easily be shrugged off.

    “Liberal” is a term of contempt in much of Europe as well—even though, strangely enough, it usually denotes the opposite tendency. Rather than being keen on taxes and public spending, European liberals are often derided (notably in France) for seeking minimal government—in fact, for denying that government has any useful role at all, aside from pruning vital regulation and subverting the norms of decency that impede the poor from being ground down. Thus, in continental Europe, as in the United States, liberalism is also regarded as a perversion, a pathology: there is consistency in that respect, even though the sickness takes such different forms. And again, in its most extreme expression, it tests the boundaries of tolerance. Worse than ordinary liberals are Europe's neoliberals: market-worshipping, nihilistic sociopaths to a man. Many are said to believe that “there is no such thing as society.”

    Yet there ought to be a word—not to mention, here and there, a political party—to stand for what liberalism used to mean. The idea, with its roots in English and Scottish political philosophy of the 18th century, speaks up for individual rights and freedoms, and challenges over-mighty government and other forms of power. In that sense, traditional English liberalism favoured small government—but, crucially, it viewed a government's efforts to legislate religion and personal morality as sceptically as it regarded the attempt to regulate trade (the favoured economic intervention of the age). This, in our view, remains a very appealing, as well as internally consistent, kind of scepticism.

    Parted in error

    Sadly, modern politics has divorced the two strands, with the left emphasising individual rights in social and civil matters but not in economic life, and the right saying the converse. That separation explains how it can be that the same term is now used in different places to say opposite things. What is harder to explain is why “liberal” has become such a term of abuse. When you understand that the tradition it springs from has changed the world so much for the better in the past two and a half centuries, you might have expected all sides to be claiming the label for their own exclusive use.

    However, we are certainly not encouraging that. We do not want Republicans and Democrats, socialists and conservatives all demanding to be recognised as liberals (even though they should want to be). That would be too confusing. Better to hand “liberal” back to its original owner. For the use of the right, we therefore recommend the following insults: leftist, statist, collectivist, socialist. For the use of the left: conservative, neoconservative, far-right extremist and apologist for capitalism. That will free “liberal” to be used exclusively from now on in its proper sense, as we shall continue to use it regardless. All we need now is the political party.

  • (Show?)

    OT: Have people considered excerpting from, and linking to, their supporting articles rather than posting them in their entirety?

    It's one thing to have the evidence, and show that you do. But it's entirely another to make the blog damn near unreadable, not use cites or quotes, and lose alternative (but shorter) opinions in the process.

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