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Law Lord

'Liberal' in America

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Hey guys. I'm an Australian who is completing a Law/Arts degree. As part of my degree i have done a political theory subject and also a global politics subject that had an emphasis on the politics of the USA and oh do i find American politics fascinating.

Now i am very curious about something. Apparently being described as a 'liberal' in America is like calling someone something terrible because it is a dirty word. My question is, why is that? Why would you describe liberals in a negative light?

From my understanding of liberalism the ideology has 2 fundamental characteristics. Firstly, that everyone should be free from government oppression (Locke). Secondly, that everyone is rational and self-interested which motivates their choices in life. Finally, this leads to the emphasis on free markets and limited government, which, as i understand, are the two main aspects of Irving Kristol's neoconservitism.

To an outside observer, liberal ideology would appear to align with the Republican Party's ideology of free markets, and limited government as everyone is self-interested. Perhaps i have made mistakes in my analysis. But if the Republican ideology is so akin to liberal ideology, why is it so bade to claim to be a liberal? Why is it a dirty word?

In Australia, our Liberal Party is the conservative party and emphasises fiscal surplus, low taxes, deregulation etc etc etc. It so reminds me of the economic beliefs of the Republican Party. So please enlighten me why being liberal is a bad thing in America.

Thanks in advance!

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The reason is that liberalism has different definitions in Australia/Europe and the States. The American right often refers to commies/lefties/socialists as "liberals" and therefore it has become something of a slur. In Australia and Europe, liberalism and conservatism are not necessarily polar opposites and many conservatives might describe themselves as economic liberals.

ETA: My personal view is that Americans have somehow twisted the term "liberal" to include those who endorse government intervention (maybe because those on the left side of politics are usually socially liberal). This has not happened in Australia/Europe.

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A closer translation from the Australian liberal is the American libertarian, in my completely uneducated on the subject opinion.

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Yeah, it sounds like you're describing libertarianism to me. I understand "liberal" as generally meaning socially liberal, ie supporting queer rights etc, which is often in conflict with economic libertarianism. Liberals tend to support taxes to fund public services, and strong regulation to prevent discrimination, protect the environment, etc. The Aussie Liberal Party is oddly named.

The widespread anti-liberal sentiment in the US is another question entirely; it's like using "you nice people" as a a slur.

There's a fair bit of anti-liberal feeling on the more radical left for being

.

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Are we being trolled here? :lol:

Ok, I'll bite. If you want the perspective of an American liberal (such as myself), my belief is that the word liberal itself means very different things to different people. What Locke envisioned was liberalism in the grand sense. Unalienable rights, freedom from kings and the church. Government by the people. Principles that the modern world is based upon. As much as conservatives would like to claim our founding fathers, their vision of this country was born out of the principles of Liberalism (with a capital L).

In the modern political era in America, I doubt many rank and file conservatives or liberals have read Locke or are familiar with classical liberalism. This board is highly over educated in that sense and shouldn't be taken as a representation of the normal population.

But to answer your question; those who set the agenda on the conservative side have demagouged on the word liberal itself for the better part of fifty years here in an attempt to defeat their political opponents. All's fair of course, but in that time the meaning of the word has morphed into something that barely resembles its origins. Irregardless of what liberals themselves think or support. When someone uses the word liberal pejoratively in modern America, what they're saying is communist. Sometimes, even in the sense of "Stalinism," if you will, which has more to do with dictatorship than communism.

Actually, the word has become so loaded that it would crash the servers if I tried to list every epithet implied when someones says liberal unkindly. The irony is that liberals support most of the things you mentioned. Free markets are desirable as long as they are regulated. Liberals don't think in terms of the "size" of government, only if it works. In this liberal's opinion, modern conservativism is reactionary against, and is ancillary to, Liberal (capital L again) thought.

I highly doubt that last sentence is going to go over well. :uhoh:

The word means whatever you want it to these days, and now has become a Pavlovian reaction statement in some circles. It's all just politics, and has little connection to history, facts, or reality.

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Basically what's been said. The term has a different meaning in the United States. The Online Etymological Dictionary seems to suggest the term holds a different meaning in the United States due to the implication that a liberal is open to new ideas- these ideas would, of course, include things like economic reform. The usage apparently dates to 1823 (I'd have guessed New Deal politics or perhaps a couple of decades earlier, seems I was wrong).

So you're thinking too much in straight out political theory and not enough in terms of words and how the meaning can change, or the same root meaning can give rise to several distinct terms.

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The Aussie Liberal Party is oddly named.

I disagree. The Australian Liberal Party conforms to many classic characteristics of political and economic liberalism as it has always been defined in the Europe/UK/Australia (advocating strong property rights, low govt intervention, free markets/free trade etc). It just isn't particularly socially liberal.

Liberals tend to support taxes to fund public services, and strong regulation to prevent discrimination, protect the environment, etc.

Social liberals will do the above, but not necessarily economic liberals (which is what liberal generally means in Europe/UK/Australia).

ETA: Shael and Kosciuszko also have this correct.

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In response to the OP's question, because it is much easier to malign the "other side" than it is to successfully advance your own side's beliefs.

In most things, politics not excepted, Americans can be very immature. Politics by and large is a lot like a high school with several cliques. Rather than increase their social standing by accomplishing something noteworthy, a member of clique "A" will say something derogatory about one member or all of clique "B" and almost regardless of the truth of that statement, clique "B" must stop whatever they are doing to respond to/defend themselves from the attack. To not refute the statement is seen as unequivocal confirmation it is true.

So, while one group is working to pull themselves up, the other is working to pull them down, and being pretty even size-wise, the net result of those two pulls is the US standing perpetually still.....until an outside force topples both of them by pushing from the side unexpectedly. <_<

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So, while one group is working to pull themselves up, the other is working to pull them down, and being pretty even size-wise, the net result of those two pulls is the US standing perpetually still.....until an outside force topples both of them by pushing from the side unexpectedly. <_<

Cylons? Daleks? Klingons?

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Cylons? Daleks? Klingons?

Them as well.

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I'm not sure why the UK is being included in the "Liberal means economically liberal" crowd here. I mean, the Liberal Democrats are pretty much united by social liberalism, but deeply divided on the economic front, with the party being made up of both "orange book" liberals and more left wing liberals.

The current ruling elite of the Lib Dem party are all Orange Bookers, but it wasn't long ago that a lib-lab coalition was a more realistic scenario to a hung parliament, and the majority of the party were centre left.

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I'm not sure why the UK is being included in the "Liberal means economically liberal" crowd here.

Because Thatcher has described herself as a liberal? Very much doubt anyone on the US right would be so keen to do so.

ETA: TBH it would be much easier if no-one identified themselves themselves as "liberal" at all. It would be better to talk about economic liberalism and social liberalism.

E.G.

The UK Lib Dems: socially liberally, economically divided

The GOP: socially conservative, economically liberal

Australian Liberals: socially conservative, economically liberal

etc.

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I have no idea. I know conservatives use the term liberal as a slur, but I have no idea what they're trying to get at. I doubt it's anything more novel than "liberalism is bad." Did we use this term in the 1970s a lot? They seem to want you to think of good-intentioned but utterly ineffective leadership a la Jimmy Carter, and seemingly not welfare reform, budget surplus, etc., etc. OTOH, when I say "Republican" it probably sounds like I'm using it as a slur also, so maybe I shouldn't judge?

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This is a nice explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_liberalism_in_the_United_States

As has been stated:

Today the word "liberalism" is used differently in different countries. One of the greatest contrasts is between the usage in the United States and usage in Continental Europe. According to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (writing in 1956), "Liberalism in the American usage has little in common with the word as used in the politics of any European country, save possibly Britain."[16] In continental Europe, liberalism usually means what is sometimes called classical liberalism, a commitment to limited government and laissez-faire economics, and more closely corresponds to the American definition of libertarianism—itself a term which in Europe is instead often applied to left-libertarianism.

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The reason is that liberalism has different definitions in Australia/Europe and the States. The American right often refers to commies/lefties/socialists as "liberals" and therefore it has become something of a slur. In Australia and Europe, liberalism and conservatism are not necessarily polar opposites and many conservatives might describe themselves as economic liberals.

ETA: My personal view is that Americans have somehow twisted the term "liberal" to include those who endorse government intervention (maybe because those on the left side of politics are usually socially liberal). This has not happened in Australia/Europe.

I had never thought of that. The basic idea of Liberalism was freedom from government tyranny, and by this we mean freedom from absolute monarchies in central and western european countries, namely England and France. Im thinking of theorist such as Locke and de Tocqueville. It surprises me that the concept has been twisted to be accorded different meaning in various countries.

Yeah, it sounds like you're describing libertarianism to me. I understand "liberal" as generally meaning socially liberal, ie supporting queer rights etc, which is often in conflict with economic libertarianism. Liberals tend to support taxes to fund public services, and strong regulation to prevent discrimination, protect the environment, etc. The Aussie Liberal Party is oddly named.

The widespread anti-liberal sentiment in the US is another question entirely; it's like using "you nice people" as a a slur. There's a fair bit of anti-liberal feeling on the more radical left for being

.

I feel that the two concepts have many similarities. But libertarianism goes further. Its pure form means no government. Liberalism in its classic form tolerates government because without regulation of any kind there would be anarchy. Im going to have to read up on the two concepts and compare and contrast now that you have alerted me to this.

Are we being trolled here? :lol:

Ok, I'll bite. If you want the perspective of an American liberal (such as myself), my belief is that the word liberal itself means very different things to different people. What Locke envisioned was liberalism in the grand sense. Unalienable rights, freedom from kings and the church. Government by the people. Principles that the modern world is based upon. As much as conservatives would like to claim our founding fathers, their vision of this country was born out of the principles of Liberalism (with a capital L). In the modern political era in America, I doubt many rank and file conservatives or liberals have read Locke or are familiar with classical liberalism. This board is highly over educated in that sense and shouldn't be taken as a representation of the normal population.

But to answer your question; those who set the agenda on the conservative side have demagouged on the word liberal itself for the better part of fifty years here in an attempt to defeat their political opponents. All's fair of course, but in that time the meaning of the word has morphed into something that barely resembles its origins. Irregardless of what liberals themselves think or support. When someone uses the word liberal pejoratively in modern America, what they're saying is communist. Sometimes, even in the sense of "Stalinism," if you will, which has more to do with dictatorship than communism.

I completely agree with you on Locke. He is the godfather of liberalism. And prior to that you have Hobbes which begun the entire debate. The ideology is well intentioned. Personal rights, freedom from oppression is what liberalism is all about. Free markets are a logical extension of the ideology. Fighting against monarchies and feudalism in Europe ushered in free markets, the logical extension of the idea in practice.

I find this disgusting. I cant believe that in America you would associate liberalism with communism for political points. That is so wrong its just ridiculous. To think that the early liberal thinkers who fought against absolute monarchies in 18th and 19th century Europe to be called commies. Im very surprised. That definitely demonstrates ignorance to make a statement like that. Its just so wrong.

I disagree. The Australian Liberal Party conforms to many classic characteristics of political and economic liberalism as it has always been defined in the Europe/UK/Australia (advocating strong property rights, low govt intervention, free markets/free trade etc). It just isn't particularly socially liberal.

Social liberals will do the above, but not necessarily economic liberals (which is what liberal generally means in Europe/UK/Australia).

ETA: Shael and Kosciuszko also have this correct.

I agree with this. This is an accurate view of the Liberal Party of Australia today, economically liberal and socially conservative.

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I have no idea. I know conservatives use the term liberal as a slur, but I have no idea what they're trying to get at.

You need to listen to more Rush, Raidne. No wait, don't do that.

Sigh. If only we could all agree, the world over, on the definitions of liberalism and libertarianism and such, it would be so much easier to demonize others. The current system is so inefficient.

Lib-Lab. Liblab. Liblab! That's almost as good as jibbahjabbah!

ETA - I meant Limbaugh. Everyone should should listen to more

. Bunch of commie bastards.

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I find this disgusting. I cant believe that in America you would associate liberalism with communism for political points. That is so wrong its just ridiculous. To think that the early liberal thinkers who fought against absolute monarchies in 18th and 19th century Europe to be called commies. Im very surprised. That definitely demonstrates ignorance to make a statement like that. Its just so wrong.

It is pretty sad. In America, we even have people like, say, Glenn Beck who regularly attempts to link American liberalism with Nazism. I'm not exactly sure how he gets there. Perhaps because the Nazi party had the word socialism within it? As if evil people would never co opt a word with no intention of basing their ideology around it. I don't know. I'm admittedly out of my element in trying to understand things like that. I'm also unsure as to how someone can be a communist and a nazi at the same time. But that's not the point.

The saddest part of all is that the twisting of historical terms and political opportunism has polluted debate to the point where it's nearly impossible to engage with respective opposition on an honest level of shared history and facts. I don't know where we go from here. I think this board is so amazing simply for the fact that our politics thread is (mostly) free from that sickness.

Just trying to give you a sense of how the word is used by some here. You sound like a rational person, but to understand this, you've got to get irrational.

Oh, one more thing. Being liberal in America pretty much requires being socially liberal.

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I'm not sure why the UK is being included in the "Liberal means economically liberal" crowd here. I mean, the Liberal Democrats are pretty much united by social liberalism, but deeply divided on the economic front, with the party being made up of both "orange book" liberals and more left wing liberals.

The current ruling elite of the Lib Dem party are all Orange Bookers, but it wasn't long ago that a lib-lab coalition was a more realistic scenario to a hung parliament, and the majority of the party were centre left.

That's because the LibDems are a merger between liberals and social democrats. The social democrats (not left-wing liberals, that's an oxymoron), were dominant, and now the liberals are, temporarily.

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I'm also unsure as to how someone can be a communist and a nazi at the same time.

First they came for the communists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The saddest part of all is that the twisting of historical terms and political opportunism has polluted debate to the point where it's nearly impossible to engage with respective opposition on an honest level of shared history and facts. I don't know where we go from here.

I agree. The point shouldn't be calling the others as many names as possible, it should be intelligent discussion of facts and policies.

I don't really like the two-party categorization in the US, as it makes people think they have to conform to everything their party says, and when there are two warring factions, it's harder to compromise. It's much easier to reason with someone when you disagree if you have agreed with them on other things.

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I had never thought of that. The basic idea of Liberalism was freedom from government tyranny, and by this we mean freedom from absolute monarchies in central and western european countries, namely England and France. Im thinking of theorist such as Locke and de Tocqueville. It surprises me that the concept has been twisted to be accorded different meaning in various countries.

Most terms have been twisted to be accorded different meanings. Locke himself twisted the word liberal to give it the meaning he wanted.

I completely agree with you on Locke. He is the godfather of liberalism. And prior to that you have Hobbes which begun the entire debate. The ideology is well intentioned. Personal rights, freedom from oppression is what liberalism is all about. Free markets are a logical extension of the ideology. Fighting against monarchies and feudalism in Europe ushered in free markets, the logical extension of the idea in practice.

This is where American liberalism somewhat departs from classical liberalism, but not entirely. Liberals in the United States basically assert that personal rights and freedoms can only be upheld through some form of government intervention. It still supports a free market but grasps the idea that a completely free market can lead to its own destruction (whether this is true or not I'm not debating- I'm just pretty sure that's the assertion). I could be mistaken that this is the departure point between classical and American liberalism, though. Just my own supposition.

I feel that the two concepts have many similarities. But libertarianism goes further. Its pure form means no government. Liberalism in its classic form tolerates government because without regulation of any kind there would be anarchy. Im going to have to read up on the two concepts and compare and contrast now that you have alerted me to this.

Yeah, that's pretty much what old school libertarianism was- anarchy. Am pretty sure it was a French writer that really coined the term in the mid-19th century.

I find this disgusting. I cant believe that in America you would associate liberalism with communism for political points. That is so wrong its just ridiculous. To think that the early liberal thinkers who fought against absolute monarchies in 18th and 19th century Europe to be called commies. Im very surprised. That definitely demonstrates ignorance to make a statement like that. Its just so wrong.

Extreme rhetoric in politics is pretty much an American tradition. Check out the election of 1800.

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