Published June 6, 2008
Apparently the biggest insult in modern politics is to be called a Liberal. The Right-Wing media machine, from Sean Hannity (Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism) and Bill O'Reilly on Fox News to Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage (Liberalism is a Mental Disorder) on talk radio to Ann Coulter (Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism) and Dick Morris on bookshelves, has invested billions of dollars in sharpening the term's razor edge, and the effect has worked.
Americans, according to a November 2004 survey, when only given the options "conservative" or "liberal," identify with the term conservative, 55 percent to 35 percent. When "moderate" is an added to the mix, the numbers are 19 percent liberal, 39 percent conservative and 42 percent moderate. If you go by these numbers alone, you might think America suffered from a paucity of Liberals.
The problem, so to speak, of Liberalism is that it is such a large tent. As a movement committed to equal rights, it comprises diverse minority interests. These groups bring their own myriad agendas to the table and, gradually, any attention-getting campaign that conservatives find distasteful or unseemly can be attributed to Liberals as a whole.
Women pursuing reproductive freedom, pay equity, and an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation are termed feminazis. Environmentalists concerned with the fate of national parks, endangered species, and our natural resources are called "environmentalist wackos."
Thus, the whole left-leaning crowd is painted with such unflattering portraits that one need not look further; one glance suffices to show these people aren't worth your time. These are ad hominem attacks—"arguments against the man"—designed to direct your attention to the personality and away from the issue.
You see, it turns out a supermajority of Americans agree on issue after issue with self-identified Liberals in these same surveys, even ranking to the left of so-called liberal Democratic political representatives. What are some of these issues?
The government has a responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves: 70% of Americans agree.
The government should see to it that every citizen has enough to eat and a place to sleep: 69%
Government-funded health insurance should be available for all: 66%
Stricter environmental controls are needed: 83%
We should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies: 69%
Willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment: 60%
Opposed to making it more difficult for women to get an abortion: 56%
Just what is Liberalism, then? In 1951, Lionel Trilling described Liberalism as "a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine." Eric Alterman, in his excellent, new book, Why We're Liberals, points to the Enlightenment principles of "personal freedom, of thought, of expression, and of action," as Liberalism's roots, pointing to John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson as its forebears:
"A liberal society strives to maximize these freedoms for the largest numbers of citizens while at the same time protecting the rights of the minority, whose ideas of personal freedom may conflict with those of the majority. This focus on the freedom and the personal dignity of the individual fundamentally distinguishes liberalism from the tenets of both the religious right and the Marxist left, which stress instead unquestioned obedience to a higher authority for the benefit of the collective."
So, while it can be perceived as amorphous with regards to its bedrock principles, the Liberal believes principally in individual liberty. From this root stem many related issues, including equal rights, personal freedoms, and governmental checks.
The point is, despite its beleaguered moniker, Liberalism has a proud tradition and a pure motive. Do not be afraid to be called Liberal. When it's insinuated that you hate your country, that you don't support the military, that you lack a moral compass, that you don't understand fiscal responsibility, reject it outright. Sticks and stones…
From now on, demand that you be presented with fact-based arguments. No epithets, no name-calling, and of course you must be scrupulous to act in kind. Offer facts, demand them in return, and may reason win.