I have always been proud of being a liberal. But over the last few decades the word “liberal” has become a pejorative in American politics. It is a word for Democrats to run from and a word that the Republican use menacingly in describing their enemies. It seems that to be a Liberal is worse than being a murderer or a child molester. Why? How did this happen?
I needed to do some thinking on this. When I was younger, liberal was a good thing. It meant that you were open to new ways to deal with social ills and that you cared about your fellow man. Now it is used to say that you want high taxes and don’t care about the middle class. How did that happen? What is the root of the word anyway?
So- I decided I would go to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary for the definitive etymology on the word “liberal”. I won’t quote the entire page and a half entry for the word that the OED has, but here are some salient points. The Latin root comes from liberalis the word for “free” and was used in old French to describe a free man (one who is not a slave, serf or indentured servant). In English it was originally used to describe the arts and sciences that were worthy of study by a free man and was first used in 1397 as a descriptor meaning “free in bestowing, bountiful, generous, open-hearted”. In 1490 it was used to mean “free of restraint, free in speech or action.” In 1781 it was used to describe someone “free of narrow prejudice and open minded.” As a political description it was used in the 1800’s for the first time to describe a political viewpoint that is “favourable to constitutional changes and or legal and or administrative reform tending in the direction of freedoms and democracy.” The American Heritage Dictionary’s entry states: “Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry; favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.”
So how did this word- which describes the very basic tenets on which this country was founded become such a sinister descriptor- one which evokes fear and trembling as well as all things “anti-American”.
In my opinion, the height of liberal glory n this country was achieved by two United States Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs expanded the government to be generous, open-hearted, free of prejudice, and favored changes favorable to freedoms and democracy. The poor of this country, African-Americans, the disabled and the elderly were afforded opportunities and offered a helping hand unlike anytime in our country’s history. Both Roosevelt and Johnson were forward thinkers and believed, like I do, that it is government’s duty to care for its neediest and to lift them up so they can have the opportunity to thrive. After all a society is judged on how it cares for its neediest.
But a mistake was made. Over the decades, these programs became dysfunctional. They were not regularly re-tooled and massaged to grow and mature. In essence- they became conservative institutions that were unbending to change and monoliths of power and self-perpetuating bureaucracies that forgot about providing opportunity to thrive and only remembered one part of their mission that the neediest needed care and that they, in a fairly paternalistic way, were the institutions to do it. Like many conservative institutions- they no longer became forward thinking and looked at change as something to be avoided at all costs. Ironically these liberal programs became conservative institutions.
If these liberal programs had remained liberal they would have grown and would not have become stagnant and would not have become the whipping boys for Presidents like Ronald Reagan. Liberals by definition should be avoiding the status quo and should be thinking of innovation while being generous, free of bigotry and broad minded. The very programs that were the icons of liberal political development in this country became conservative in administration and implementation. This is what killed them. It was conservative administration of liberal programs that caused the problem.
Decades of neglect- due to conservative entrenched administration- ensured that these liberal-based programs did not re-tool over time and were no longer in step with Americans. Ronald Reagan was the first President to pick up on this and run with it- and blamed liberals for bloated bureaucracies that did not resonate for middle class Americans – a group that was being told that the poor were getting more money through social welfare than they were making by working and it was their taxes that were paying for the poor’s “largess”. While the rhetoric was overblown and used the most heinous and atypical abuses of the system as examples, the strategy worked and overtime the Democrats ran from the word and Republicans used it to demonize their opponents. But none of this would have stuck if the liberal programs had been administered in true liberal fashion. Remember part of the definition of liberal: “favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.”
Former President Bill Clinton is a true liberal in the defined sense of the word. He re-tooled welfare for one thing. During his administration – which was liberal in philosophy- he had the temerity to mess with the conservative monoliths that had developed from the liberal programs but had also become the programs by which liberals defined themselves. Liberals became so attached to these programs- seeing them as the pinnacles of liberal power- that they became conservative about their liberal programs. By being non-traditional, reformist and open to new ideas (refer back to the definition of liberal)- more children were lifted out of poverty and the income of single mothers rose substantially. Aren’t these the goals of the original liberal-based programs and didn’t Mr. Clinton achieve it by being a reformer- a true liberal?
Many of the far left blame Mr. Clinton for the demise of the Liberal by going to the center, I disagree. He is a true liberal using new ways to tackle issues that plague our society- not using the status quo. By definition there should be no sacred cows among liberal programs. These programs are not what are important to preserve- it is the outcomes that are important Outcomes based in the principle of lifting people up to thrive. How that is achieved comes from forward thinking and about innovation- true liberal tenets. It does not come from protecting programs that have become self-perpetuating and have lost sight of their original goals.
As liberals, we must not be constrained by conservative protectionism and administration. Liberals must always look at our basic philosophy- being generous and reformist with the goal of creating a true democracy and free society where even the least among us has an opportunity to thrive unconstrained by prejudice.