Forbes Prompts Discussion Of The Meaning Of Liberalism

The recent article by Forbes on The 25 Most Influential Liberals In The U.S. Media, which I previously discussed here, has led to further discussion about the meaning of liberalism.  Defining political labels is complicated by the changing nature of these labels, as I noted in yesterday’s post on how Neither Goldwater nor Reagan Would Recognize The Modern GOP. Both the meaning of liberal and conservative have changed over time.

A problem with political labels is that they often lump together people with very different view points while dividing people who agree on many issues. While some people fit in well with the party orthodoxy of either the Democrats or Republicans and therefore fit one possible definition of liberal or conservative, others of us do not.

Andrew Sullivan presents an example of someone who labels do not work well for. He calls himself a conservative, but his views differ so much from current Republican views that many on the right, along with Forbes, consider him a liberal. Sullivan presents examples where he does not fit the definition given for the article which ranks him as one of the most influential liberals, but this does not entirely settle the question as Forbes only said that “a ‘liberal’ subscribes to some or all of” a number of positions.

Sullivan has wisely decided that it is not of much concern whether others label him a liberal or conservative. He points out that some conservatives do not consider him to be conservative due to their homophobia and because “conservatism has become a religious movement.” He commented on the mind set of conservatives which has lead to them writing him out of their movement:

For the record: self-confident political groupings seek converts – look at Obama. Failed and failing political groupings seek to punish and list heretics. I’m resigned to being a heretic given the state of the current conservative movement. And as an independent writer, it mercifully can’t hurt me much. I just don’t think conservatism will revive until it stops thinking that way.

In a follow up post Sullivan looked at other views on this subject and acknowledged that his views do overlap with the views of many who are now labeled as liberal. He is still sticking with the conservative label, and defending his view of the meaning of conservatism, but not  out of opposition to liberals he shares views with. He concluded, ” I am more than happy to share the term liberalism with others. I am not going to have the word conservative coopted solely by these religious radicals.”

Although I noted that many of the liberals listed by Forbes, including by not limited to Sullivan, would not be considered liberals by many people, I was not really surprised by the composition of the list. Many on the extreme right consider everyone who does not share their extreme views to be liberals. This  list also helps them defend their fantasy that they are under attack by a mythical liberal media by simply defining virtually everyone, even centrists and moderate conservatives, as liberals. Sam Wang takes this a step further and finds potential benefits in conservatives defining non-liberals in the media as liberals:

Perhaps the practical criterion was “liberals plus people who annoy us Republican loyalists.” In this light the list makes more sense. Too bad they didn’t pause to consider that many of these people annoy quite a broad political demographic.

There’s a second advantage to defining liberalism in a way that includes nonideological or middle-of-the-road pundits. It never hurts to work the referee, i.e. call someone liberal as a way of getting him/her to lean further rightward. In this light, the inclusion of the NYT and WaPo op-ed directors (Shipley and Hiatt) as well as the WSJ news director (Seib) makes perfect sense. Even assuming these three people are actual liberals, in practice they don’t carry out editorial policies that lean left. For example, they publish Brooks, Kristol, Krauthammer, and Dowd.

Forbes can also get away with this because there are no firm definitions to use to judge them. Liberalism has many possible definitions. When I use liberal in the name of this blog, I am referring to liberalism in both its broad historical sense and with consideration of the variations in meaning internationally, as opposed to indicating support for any narrow partisan views. Some have suggested that I use the term classical liberalism instead, but I have preferred to leave this open, not wanting to be concerned about whether any specific views I hold fit into this label. Recent events have also forced me to tolerate more government activity in the economy than I would have previously supported.  I have given  homage to the birth of classical liberalism, and its stress on both personal and economic liberty, during the enlightenment in the subheading of the blog title.

My views are sometimes described as socially liberal and economically conservative, but in recent years I have used this terminology less as the Republicans have, despite their rhetoric, become increasing hostile to capitalism while an increasing number of liberals have adopted views which previously would have been considered economic conservatism. While Republicans might call themselves capitalists, I see them more as the party of Richard Nixon’s wage and price controls, Dick Cheney’s energy task force, the K Street Project, and the general philosophy of distorting free market principles to justify allowing the fox to guard the hen house.

Timothy Ash reviewed the various ways in which liberal is used in The New York Times. He began by noting that “Like many of Mr. Obama’s speeches, the Inaugural Address presented, in substance, a blend of classical constitutional and modern egalitarian liberalism. The thing, but never the word.” From there he discussed how the word liberal has fallen into disfavor due to attacks from the right.  (He also noted that Hillary Clinton has avoided the word liberal, but in her case I would classify her more as a socially conservative populist and do not consider her to be a liberal.) Ash notes how the word liberalism is used around the world:

Interestingly, what is furiously attacked as “liberalism” in France, and in much of Central and Eastern Europe, is precisely what is most beloved of the libertarian or “fiscal conservative” strand of the American right. When French leftists and Polish populists denounce “liberalism,” they mean Anglo-Saxon-style, unregulated free-market capitalism. (Occasionally the prefix neo- or ultra- is added to make this clear.)

One Chinese intellectual told us that in his country, “Liberalism means everything the government doesn’t like.” The term is used in China as a political instrument to attack, in particular, advocates of further market-oriented economic reform. Standards of what counts as socially or culturally liberal also vary widely. An Indian speaker wryly observed that in India a “liberal” father is one who allows his children to choose whom they want to marry.

Ash tried to provide a minimal definition of liberalism, while still noting the variations in its use around the world, and noting that many Americans hold liberal views even if they avoid the term:

A plausible minimum list of ingredients for 21st century liberalism would include liberty under law, limited and accountable government, markets, tolerance, some version of individualism and universalism, and some notion of human equality, reason and progress. The mix of ingredients differs from place to place. Whether some distant cousin really belongs to the extended family of liberalisms is a matter of healthy dispute. But somewhere in this contested, evolving combination there is a thing of enduring value.

This has been an American argument, some would say the American argument, for more than 200 years. In fact, the United States is still full of liberals, both progressive or left liberals and, I would insist, conservative or right liberals. Most of them just don’t use the word. Liberalism is the American love that dare not speak its name.

For obvious reasons, we are now witnessing worldwide criticism of a version of pure free-market liberalism, a k a neo-liberalism, charged with having led us into our current economic mess. Yet, our Chinese and European colleagues agreed that markets remain an indispensable condition of liberty. One leading Chinese economic reformer even suggested that there is less income inequality in those Chinese provinces where the market plays a larger role.

Ash’s minimal definition of liberalism fits in well with how I have used the word here, primarily based upon values including support for  individual liberty, free markets, restoring Constitutional limitations on the power of government, equality, science, and reason.

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  1. 1
    DB says:

    Funny, I just wrote a post examinging the GOP with many of the points you touched on here. The GOP is a party of exclusion, where there are “true” conservatives and everyone else is “liberal”. They have demonized every viewpoint that differs from their base platform and have even stigmatized  the word “liberal”. It is their mentality. If you disagree with their often extreme view point, you are unAmerican, socialist, communist, or weak.

    It is hard to define a liberal because they are more inclusive. Their platform is not set in stone, but reactive to current situations and ever changing. No one calls themself a “true” liberal. There is no such thing as Democrat In Name Only (as opposed to RINO).

    Great post!

  2. 2
    Ralph says:


    Interesting. I can’t see what difference it might make whether someone is called by a certain label. Do we even bother to categorize past thinkers — say, from the WWII period — in that way? Seldom, because why bother? Their writings stand for themselves, not for some popular slogan or label.


  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    There is still some value in categorizing views. If there was a writer (or blogger) you didn’t know anything about and I told you they were a liberal or conservative this would be of some general use. Hopefully people hearing such a classification would understand the limitations of such classifications.

    Labels have probably always been used. They certainly were important in the World War II period as we had extremes from fascism to communism, along with liberals and conservatives.

  4. 4
    Jim Z. says:

    I recommend James P. Young’s book (1996) “Reconsidering American Liberalism.”  At ove r 400 pages, it is the best historical survey I’ve seen anywhere.  It is quite even-handed (the term “reconsidering” in the title is not meant to disparage liberalism, quite the contrary – it is more of an updating of the concept from earlier scholarly works).

    Young’s book evaluates the several threads of liberal thought and practice going back to the Puritans, and looks at the philosophical, political, economic and social elements.  He illuminates what Mr. Chusid here says – that there are liberals that range widely across the political and economic spectrum, depending on which combination of values they deem central or most important.

    Personal freedom, communitarian participation and political democracy, markets, rule of law, social equity defined various ways, reason, (and more) are at different times and circumstances part of American historical liberalism.  They also help define today’s debate.

    It would be good both for the cause of liberalism, and for the future of the US (& the rest of the world), for current-day liberals to go back and revisit the subject as per Young.  This would help liberals be clearer about the values that guide us, and also become better equipped to hold effective conversations with those who both criticize liberalism and  those who don’t know what liberalism really means.

  5. 5
    Ron Chusid says:

    The book sounds interesting.

    I find it curious that most people seem to realize there are vast differences between different types of conservatives but often lump all liberals together. It sounds like this book describes the different types of liberals.

  6. 6
    Barry says:

    Liberalism: History and Future…

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