The Meaning of Liberalism

During the past few years there was considerable unity among those of us with a wide variety of beliefs in opposing the reactionary policies of the Republican Party. Labels of liberal and conservative have become partially redefined by where one stands on the Iraq War and a handful of social issues, with economics, which used to be a primary distinction, no longer being as significant. Patricia Cohen tackles the question of what liberalism now means in The New York Times.

Political labels are necessary in political discussion but have many faults. They frequently lump people together who have quite disparate beliefs, and can even separate those who are in agreement on many issues. The right has become particularly skilled at using labels as weapons, as they redefine liberalism to be something derogatory and define conservativism to mean something quite different from what has been practiced when conservatives have been in power.

Recently I’ve discussed more what liberals are not than what they are. In April I wrote that the characteristics of liberals described by John Hawkins has no relationship to my actual views. I dismissed George Will’s description of liberals more recently.

Cohen’s attempts to find a definition for liberalism is complicated by the fact that attempts to divide most opinions outside of the extremes as liberal or conservative will lump many people together with diverse views. While I can define what liberalism means to me, there may be others who define their views in a very different manner.

Liberalism stems from liberty, and above all else liberalism stands for individual liberty. Therefore liberals are united in opposing the violations of civil liberties seen under the Republicans who believe that the Bill of Rights is limited to the Second Amendment and see the American Civil Liberties Union as their enemy. Liberals defend both the basic liberties defended by the founding fathers, and seek to restore the checks and balances on government power were eroded under Republican one party rule.

Liberals are concerned about fundamental liberties including freedom of speech, the press, and religion. There is no uniform position with regards to the right to own guns, with many liberals supporting reasonable precautions as opposed to abolition. Liberals understand, as did the founding father and religious leaders of the past, that freedom of religion is only possible with strict separation of church and state. This is not an anti-religion viewpoint as the propagandists of the right would claim. Nor does this represent a lack of values as liberals may be religious, or may hold moral and ethical values outside of a religious framework. Liberal support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion, or for homosexuals to marry, stems from a belief in individual liberties, not out of a lack of morals as conservative propagandists would claim.

Liberals support a free market economy, but this leaves room for a variety of interpretations ranging from classical liberals supporting laissez-fair capitalism to those supporting increased government action. Liberals oppose both socialism and the system of government/corporate collusion promoted by conservatives, and I see neither as capitalist system. If not for the many other negative connotations of the word, fascism would be a far more accurate description of the economic policies being promoted by many Republicans, but using this label would denote an extremism which even the Bush administration has not reached.

Conservative propagandists would define liberalism based upon the most extreme advocates of big government, but I see this as more of an aberration in liberal belief. My position is sometimes referred to as a big tent libertarianism, or as being socially liberal and economically conservative. This label has failings too as I might agree with conservatives on some economic issues and disagree on others.

In reality there is considerable pragmatism as opposed to ideology on economic issues among liberals. Liberals do not necessarily desire higher taxes as conservatives would argue, but neither would liberals accept a Grover Norquist pledge against raising taxes regardless of the situation. While Cohen considers a support for proactive government to be a fundamental belief of liberals, this is more a matter of pragmatism. Liberals will utilize government where necessary, while also maintaining a healthy skepticism about government. Liberals neither must advocate bigger government in all cases as conservative propagandists would claim, or oppose government in virtually all situations as many conservatives do. Liberals can support the necessary social safety net for those who need it without supporting a net so big that it strangles us all.

This pragmatism comes as liberalism is largely a way in which problems are viewed as opposed to holding a strict set of unchangeable beliefs. Liberals have a reality-based viewpoint, where conservatives view the world biased by ideology and their religious beliefs. Liberals accept the findings of science on evolution and climate change, where conservatives believe they can ignore scientific evidence which conflicts with their beliefs.

This failure to accept a reality-based outlook also intrudes upon politics, with many conservatives continuing to claim that Saddam threatened us with WMD and had ties to 9/11. These views are largely fed by conservatives obtaining their information from propaganda outfits of the right, leading them to see anything which presents facts conflicting with their imaginary world view as liberal bias. In this context, Stephen Colbert was right about reality having “a well-known liberal bias.”

Views on foreign policy are harder to divide based upon the liberal versus conservative spectrum. Liberals are fairly united in opposing the current war, but I would differ with Cohen’s quotes of some anti-war liberals that “dislike of the Bush administration colored their judgment of the war and affirm that ‘we are not realists.'” While this may be true of some, for many of us it was the realization that the war was such a tremendous blunder which led to our dislike and distrust of George Bush. As time has gone on, the facts have only strengthened the case that opposition to the war was the correct position for those of us who are realists.

Viewing past wars makes the distinctions between liberals and conservatives less clear. Vietnam was escalated by Lyndon Johnson and other liberals, but many claim that John Kennedy would have never done this. Ultimately the war was opposed by most liberals and backed by most conservatives. Therefore the Vietnam war cannot easily be used to differentiate liberals from conservatives but might demonstrate another important difference. While some liberals may have supported the war initially, many learned from this mistake. Conservatives attack “flip-flopping” as a great evil, while liberals will change their policies as new information is available and conditions change. The desire to “stay the course,” even when clear that the course is wrong, far too often defines conservative thought.

Cohen refers to many additional works on the meaning of liberalism which will sometimes agree and sometimes disagree with my definition. This diversity of thought is yet another important element of liberalism.

Update: Further discussion from Michael P.F. van der Galiën

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11 Comments

  1. 1
    Lthomas says:

    When you attempt to write a serious position paper defending something and then use ANY (even just one) distortions of the truth to support your position you end up with just another piece of Junk paper in which to throw in the trash bin.

    You wrote:

    liberals are united in opposing the violations of civil liberties seen under the Republicans who believe that the Bill of Rights is limited to the Second Amendment

    Liberals oppose both socialism and the system of government/corporate collusion promoted by conservatives, and I see neither as capitalist system.

    This is not an anti-religion viewpoint as the propagandists of the right would claim

    Liberals have a reality-based viewpoint, where conservatives view the world biased by ideology and their religious beliefs.

    This failure to accept a reality-based outlook also intrudes upon politics, with many conservatives continuing to claim that Saddam threatened us with WMD and had ties to 9/11. These views are largely fed by conservatives obtaining their information from propaganda outfits of the right,

    This is not how you write a position paper by attacking another’s position. The very propaganda you accuse the right of using is exactly the rubbish you just penned above.

    To use your own words.

    This failure to accept a reality-based outlook also intrudes upon politics

  2. 2
    Ron Chusid says:

    I love how conservatives can dish it out and lie at will about the positions of others, but go nuts when someone stands up to them and replies with an honest answer.

    Any description of liberalism or conservativism will contrast that view with the opposing viewpoint. The two posts I link to which define conservativism both claim to define what liberalism is. Not only do the conservative articles concentrate on defining liberalism as opposed to presenting a coherent philosophy of their own, they define it in a totally inaccurate manner.

    The question of the definition of liberalism is tremendously influenced by the mischaracterizations spread by conservative propagandists, and pointing this out is part of clarifying the issue, and presenting a reality-based outlook.

    Typical of a conservative, you launch an attack when the assumptions underlying your beliefs are criticized, but you can offer no meaningful counter arguments.

  3. 3
    Lthomas says:

    And If I misread your position I do not apologize because your opening sentence. The theme. That which you are going to discuss.

    During the past few years there was considerable unity among those of us with a wide variety of beliefs in opposing the REACTIONARY POLICIES of the Republican Party.

    This concept is a universal point of contention and is a trigger for angry discussion between conservatives and liberals. So your post was in my opinion intended to ruffle feathers, talk down to conservatives while using distortions of the truth to convince us that Republicans and thus conservatives are Reactionary politicians and that their beliefs have no merits.

    It is why I said that once you resorted to bashing conservatives to support your position then the paper is just destined for the dust bin.

    Is not the point of writing to convince others who do not share your view to share your view? To convince, to sway, to bring them you your reasonable viewpoint?

    This is the point I was trying to make with you. You have fine writing skills and an ability to communicate your views. Unfortunately you are not communicating. You are Pontificating.

    Big difference and destined to get the reaction that I suspect you wanted. Make Conservatives angry and assuage liberals. If I am correct then good job. This article will succeed in doing that.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    That’s a rather hypocritical and one sided comment. I’m afraid you do not get to make the rules about what others are going to discuss.

    This is essentially the third in a series of posts on this topic. The conservative posts I’ve responded to concentrate heavily on distortng liberal positions, and did far less than I did in laying out an alternative.

    Conservative articles, even beyond those I was responding to, regularly and unfairly attack liberals, often with little else to say. Yet people like you expect us to roll over and take it all, without responding or presenting the truth.

    By any reasonable standatd, the current policies of the Republican Parrty are reactionary, and I’m not going to shy away from pointing that out. Anyone who does not realize that has too little undderstanding of the American traditions of liberty, democracy, and free enterprise to change their views based upon anything I wrote and I’m not making any attempt to do so.

  5. 5
    Lthomas says:

    You just don’t get it do you Ron. Yes they do Ron. They bash liberals mercilessly. They are full of lies, distortions and inuendo. So to respond you resort to the same type of writing.

    And this is a good thing???

    You want to continually stoop to the oppositions level.

    The conservative posts I’ve responded to concentrate heavily on distortng liberal positions, and did far less than I did in laying out an alternative.

    If they can do it so can I.

  6. 6
    Lthomas says:

    This pragmatism comes as liberalism is largely a way in which problems are viewed as opposed to holding a strict set of unchangeable beliefs. Liberals have a reality-based viewpoint, where conservatives view the world biased by ideology and their religious beliefs. Liberals accept the findings of science on evolution and climate change, where conservatives believe they can ignore scientific evidence which conflicts with their beliefs.

    This is a good one.

    Liberals are smart educated and well informed and able to make intelligent, rational decisions based upon the facts. Conservatives on the other hand are incapable of making informed decisions because they reject scientific evidence because they are rooted in a philosophy that predates Noahs ark. Their world is skewed by hogwash called religion and any decision they make is flawed from the very beginning.

    But only conservative religious values. Those religious values on the left are enlightened and responsive to the needs of its people with care and compassion and scientific reasoning and we do not let the bible get in the way of our enlightened views. We talk to God all the time and have finally convinced him that God himself is a Liberal.

    Those conservative religious fanatics who believe the bible for what it says are not enlightend, are bigoted, homophobes and surely have no place in modern society. They should be irradicated from our society as pariahs and relegated to the scrap heap of history as inconsequential and out of touch with reality.

    Im sure that this is designed win over the conservatives to your etched in stone FACTS of the situtation.

  7. 7
    Ron Chusid says:

    No, you don’t get it. Correcting their misconceptions and presenting an honest viewpoint is hardly stooping to their level.

    It is many conservatives, not liberals, who reject science, including evolution, geology (where it disagrees with the bible as to the age of the earth), cosmology, and climate change. Yes, it is a fact that liberals are more likely to respect science and be reality based, while many conservatives are not.

    Again, the point of the post is to describe the differences in views, not to try to convince anyone of anything. You have also twisted many of my comments claiming I have said things I have not, which shows how you and conservatives differ from what I am writing here as I avoid stooping to your level.

  8. 8
    Lthomas says:

    Sorry I should not have commented on your blog. I actually thought you intended to participate in informed debate and not rhetoric supporting your far left libertarian views which espouse the power of the ACLU to ban God from America and to turn America into a Godless society in which you can then force your GODLESS agenda of Abortion rights, Gay rights, Gun Rights and legalized drugs on a majority of America which would faced with this oppose it.

    Once America has forced religion from its shores then you will have NO opposition to your agenda and can turn to a secular America and have a hootnaney of amoral activity.

    Sorry to have intruded upon your world. I will leave you to your ignorant bliss. oh and ignorant is defined as “lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified” or in this case Conservatives.

  9. 9
    Ron Chusid says:

    “I actually thought you intended to participate in informed debate ”

    Yes, but you are not providing that. Twisting my statements to attribute views to me I do not hold and have not expressed is hardly meaningful debate. You have yet to make a single coherent point.

    “Once America has forced religion from its shores”

    You just verify one point I made in the post about conservative propagandists making such false claims. Liberals are not trying to force religion out, or to impose moral view on others. We respect freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Founding Fathers. Matters of religion should be left up to the individual and should not be forced upon them by the state.

    As I pointed out in discussing the problem with labels, the comments on conservatives obviously do not apply to all. It is a generic conservative position based upon the policies being promoted by the Republicans (which not all conservatives support) and the typical attacks on liberals from conservative politicians, pundits, and bloggers. In your case, I believe you are offended because my negative description of conservatism hits too close to home.

    “and have a hootnaney of amoral activity.”

    They are hardly conclusive, but there have been studies showing that atheists tend to be more moral than others. The difficulties in actually proving this are obvious, but it does call into question any argument that secularism would lead to any increase in amoral activity.

  10. 10
    Tii says:

    @redalexandriava Do you know what liberalism stands for? What it means? I think not. http://t.co/g4qxgnba

  11. 11
    faruk sani umar says:

    The Meaning of Liberalism – http://t.co/PHFiDdgf

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