Can “Liberalism” Be Reclaimed from the Left?

Harvey Mansfield remarked a while back that “the job of conservatism is to save liberalism from liberals.” The left may be giving us an unintended assist with this project.  One of the best things to happen to political discourse in recent years is that many leftists stopped calling themselves “liberal,” and adopted “progressive” instead. Even Hillary Clinton for a time, back around 2007, said “I’m not a liberal—I’m a progressive.” And on the leading edge of the left, as on college campuses and other dens of Naomi Klein books, “neo-liberalism” is the avowed main enemy, which can’t be good for un-hyphenated liberalism. Welcome to a world where even John Rawls isn’t left enough.

Last summer in the Wall Street Journal Charles Murray argued for driving a wedge between liberals and progressives:

As a libertarian, I am reluctant to give up the word “liberal.” It used to refer to laissez-faire economics and limited government. But since libertarians aren’t ever going to be able to retrieve its original meaning, we should start using “liberal” to designate the good guys on the left, reserving “progressive” for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state, who think it’s just fine to subordinate the interests of individuals to large social projects, who cheer the president’s abuse of executive power and who have no problem rationalizing the stifling of dissent.

(You can listen to my on-air interview with Charles about this article here.)

Now economist Daniel Klein weighs in with an essay for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute entitled “A Plea Regarding ‘Liberal’,” suggesting we should discontinue applying the venerable term “liberal” to progressive leftists who are neither liberal nor truly progressive in the common sense understanding of that term:

Here I make a plea, addressed to conservatives and libertarians, regarding the word liberal: please do not describe leftists, progressives, social democrats, or Democrats as “liberal.” I do not ask that you describe yourself as “liberal.” Continue to call yourself “conservative” or “libertarian.” I propose only a single step: don’t call leftists “liberal.” By this single step, we can make great strides.

Words have deep-seated cognates and connotations; they have character and history. Sometimes people fuss about semantics when they shouldn’t. But for words that hit home, important words, semantic practice is a paramount issue. . .

Today conservatives and libertarians often use the term liberal to refer to leftists, progressives, social democrats, and Democrats. Here I beg you to stop doing so. But if you are not to say “liberal,” what are you to say? One option is to put “liberal” in quotation marks or to say “so-called liberal.” But even better is to use the words that have always signified the mentality of governmentalization: the terms left, progressive, and social democrat.

There’s lots more to the article—worth reading the whole thing with a cup of coffee—but Klein isn’t resting with just analysis. He and a colleague have created a website called Liberalism Unrelinquished to carry on this worthy cause. It is described as “a statement of no surrender on the word ‘liberal.’” Worth following and adding your voice to.