What Does It Mean To Be A Liberal?

We are witnessing a consolidation of the political left (liberal) and political right (conservative) into distinct parties in America, and I believe this has brought about confusion in political self-identity. People tend to stick with the political party of their parents and close relatives. So even people who hold a liberal view on a particular issue, may still vote for a Republican when they step into the voting booth.


The reason I know people vote against their interests and their beliefs is because I’m guilty of doing this myself, and I find it unconvincing to believe I’m unique when it comes to the complex issues of political self-identity. Almost my entire family, even distant relatives, identify as conservative and vote Republican. As a young adult who didn’t pay much attention to politics and social issues, I went along with my family. I didn’t necessarily self-identify as conservative or Republican, but Republican was the party on my voter registration card, and yes, on election day, I would vote Republican. But I knew my views on many issues, at least issues I gave any thought to at all back then, were moderate, sometimes even liberal. So why did I continue to pull for Republicans over Democrats when I knew Republicans were more likely to support the conservative position on a given policy? I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer to that question in my particular case, although this dynamic is something I will continue to explore later in this piece. What I do know is that people who were (and are) authority figures in my life voted Republican, and I falsely assumed they must be right.

As my interest in politics and social justice increased, I began to read, and then read some more. I wanted to know more about why people think the way they do, react the way they do, support the causes they support, and so on. And the more I read, the more I realized on most issues, I found myself agreeing with self-described liberals. I believe the fact that I already viewed myself as a moderate allowed some degree of open-mindedness, to accept that I might be wrong on an issue, and more importantly, accept that those authority figures might be wrong too.


What does it mean to be a liberal? When someone says they are liberal, they could be identifying with a specific code of ethics, a particular philosophy, or more broadly, it could simply be a state of mind.

I already talked a bit about political party identification, and before we go any further, I need to dispel the myth that liberal is synonymous with the Democratic Party. Politics in the United States has become increasingly polarized, and someone who identifies as liberal is indeed more likely to vote Democratic, while a self-described conservative will probably pull the lever for a Republican. But it wasn’t always that way. There used to be liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. And it is still true that a liberal does not always support the Democratic Party, and a conservative does not always support the Republican Party.

To find out what it means to be liberal, we must first identify which “liberal” we are talking about. Are we talking about modern 21st century social liberals who support social justice and economic equality through government programs and regulation? Are we talking about Enlightenment period liberals who were also known as the revolutionaries of the 17th and 18th century? Or are we talking about economic liberals, who support laissez-faire (hands off) economic policies but who are many times social and political conservatives? Since the purpose of this article is to define what it means to be liberal as it applies to modern political and social liberals living in the United States of America, I will be talking almost exclusively about 21st century social liberals, or in other words, modern social liberalism.


For decades now, at least since the 1960s, the conservative right has been given license to redefine the word “liberal” for their own political purposes. It’s as if liberals were afraid to use the word or stand up for what they believe in. But it does seem the word “liberal” is making a comeback in American politics.

So why did liberalism retreat from the American political scene? There was a strong backlash by conservatives after the wild “flower child” 1960s, and this fueled the rise of the modern conservative movement. But I think liberalism went into hiding because of the prevailing “wisdom” that liberals were uncaring, or even hostile towards returning Vietnam veterans. In the aftermath, conservatives got the upper hand in defining what it means to be a liberal. They have portrayed liberals as weak. They say liberals don’t value hard work. They say liberals want a nanny state that rewards people for being lazy. All of this is untrue of course, but because liberals were in retreat, that left conservatives to define something they clearly knew nothing about.

What we need to understand is that the social contract that exists in all modern democracies exists because of liberalism. It is the very essence of modern social liberalism. In other words, liberalism is the modus operandi of modern society, or as comedian Stephen Colbert put it, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

It turns out even liberalism is not immune from its own effects, as the modern social liberal, one who supports social justice, economic equality and the idea of a social contract, is an evolution of the Enlightenment period liberal. And modern conservatives, at least those not on the extreme fringes of the right-wing, exist within the construct of liberalism because they too, usually, support the social contract. Most conservatives defend the liberal achievements of the past, whether it’s Social Security, Medicare or civil rights. And most people, including conservatives, are open to change, even if it’s only on a limited basis. So what I’m saying is that conservatism exists as a check on liberalism. That is, conservatism exists to keep the march of progress in check, to make sure we do not change the structure of society faster than its individual members can adapt. And to many liberals, this is antithetical to the way we operate. We believe progress is inevitable so why not accept it so we can move on to the next issue. But there might be something to be said for having measured change over longer increments of time, and that’s where conservatism serves as this check. But make no mistake, in each new generation, conservatives will be supporting the liberal ideas and liberal government programs that conservatives of the past were railing against.


I said the modern social liberal supports social justice and economic equality, and I think in a general sense this defines what it means to be liberal, but let’s drill down a bit.

Liberals believe we will not fully realize true authentic freedom and liberty until the day rights are no longer subject to negotiation, and when people no longer need to fight for equal rights under the law. And modern social liberals believe this is only attainable when we level the economic playing field. This doesn’t mean everyone makes the same salary, it means everyone has a greater chance at a job that pays a living wage in a country with much less income and wealth inequality. When wealth concentrates in the hands of too few, the rights of the many are effortlessly tempered by the power of the few.

Liberals question traditional power structures and are skeptical of authority, but liberals do acknowledge that no single person can know everything, and therefore liberals give deference where deference is due, particularly in the sciences. It is science that offers us the only method humans have devised to move past our own biases and discover the truth, even when that truth is inconvenient or incompatible with our disposition.

Liberals believe we are all in this together. There are over 300 million Americans, and over 7 billion people on the planet. A “go it alone” attitude is simply untenable. We should be united in the idea of improving life on this planet for all human beings. We should not assume the worst about others without proof warranting that contempt. And more importantly, we should not construct legislation that punishes people for actions they may not have committed. For example, we should not cut food stamps because we believe some people abuse the system. Condemning people who find themselves at a vulnerable crossroads in their life, is no way to behave in a civil society. Liberals believe most people are honest and descent human beings who are simply trying to provide for themselves and their family.


To be a liberal is to adopt empathy, compassion and tolerance as your credo. It does not serve the greater good to assume the worst in people.

To be a liberal is to accept that others might know better, and to offer deference when it’s due. When nearly all scientists come to a consensus, we should accept this as the best explanation human beings are capable of at this time. We should not allow opinion to override what has been proven through the scientific method.

To be a liberal is to see government as an extension of the community, and therefore a force of good. Waste and corruption do exist within all human created entities, but government is no more inviting or immune to those forces than a corporate board room.

To be a liberal is to believe in freedom and liberty for all, while recognizing the vast inequality, socially and economically, that is in direct opposition to that belief.

To be a liberal is to believe the march of progress never ends. Human beings will always strive to right previous wrongs and to make life on planet Earth better for people living now and in the future.

And to be a liberal is to believe in the concept of “live and let live.” If someone acts in a way you don’t approve of, but otherwise does you no harm, you should have no reason to intervene in that person’s life, or worse, try to legislate a change in behavior. Live your life. They will live their life. It’s that simple. The most obvious example of this concept can be applied to same-sex marriage. You can disapprove of same-sex marriage, but why try to stop it? It does not affect anyone else.

This should be an easy concept to understand, and this is where the “check” of conservatism that I spoke of earlier goes too far. And so we as liberals must continue the struggle to win equal rights for all.

That is what I think it means to be a liberal.


See also: Liberal: What Does It Mean? – The Rise And Fall Of Modern Social Liberalism

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  • Steve

    Liberals are communist. You can dress it up and call it what you want. they can say they did this and can say they did that. but it has been proven communism does not work time and time again. they are anti God the 1 thing that did make America strong. they believe God has no place in government. this is the 1 place we do need the Bible. for instant prayer has been proven by scientist that it does work. without God we are nothing. this is the foundation America was built on God’s Word like it or not. liberals can say they are proud but who do they really work for. it’s not God. we are in a war against good and evil. who side will you take. liberals are poison they are destroying the foundation of America.

    • the original Steve

      Your comment is factually inaccurate on a number of counts. But the most entertaining idea is that liberals are destroying the foundation of America. The liberals are the reason there IS an America. How many revolutionaries can you think of who are conservative? And who won the war for independence. By definition, it was not conservatives. Oh, and I thank my liberal public education for teaching me how to piece together coherent thoughts. I assume your well-written, and even better-informed response was an ironic comment on the poor education you get from public schools where you grew up? Too bad the conservatives in your area didn’t want to pay a little more to find better teachers and resources for you…..
      (I know there’s no point in feeding the trolls, but I just couldn’t let that one go.)

      • I say stuff’em silly with facts and knowledge. No, they may never learn, but it never hurts to repeat the truth. 🙂

        • rubber bisquits

          I have little doubt that you’ve read Hoffer’s “The True Believer”. True believers have their minds made up and any facts or reason to the contrary does nothing for them. They ignore it. Ignorance is a virtue to the “True Conservative”.

      • zach

        Just to let you know I am registered as a Democrat and I am a Liberal Catholic Christian. I do not agree with what you are saying at all about Liberals. You seem to be to ignorant since you are a “conservative.” People who are liberal or conservative can be a christian or an atheist. So get your facts straight. Also, I believe in separation of church and state. I don’t believe religion should be involved in politics nor do I believe politics should be involved in religion. America is run on a secular government and that is the way it should be. It will make the majority of citizens happy and it will make even God feel better since there would be no conflicts. Everyone should be practicing tolerance and coexist in a society of people with different beliefs and cultures. Both my parents are Republicans, and they are not really conservative. Even though both of them voted for Romney. They do agree with some economic and social issues that Obama is trying to fix. My dad almost voted for Obama. We also consider ourselves middle class and we are living a good life. So you need to stop judging and more open-minded to things.

        • zach

          oh and steve…think what you are going to say before you say something that will be extreme like you were typing. God does not like people that judge other people. Christians like you need to understand how to be tolerant and not judgemental.

    • You are a fan of revisionist history whether you know it or not. There is nothing conservative about the age of enlightenment that spread throughout parts of the world a few centuries ago. Religious zealots may use the word “enlightenment” for their own purposes, but there is nothing more incarcerating of the mind than religious dogma.

  • Steve

    Breaking news psychiatrist finds liberals are crazy. a psychiatrist who has treated over 1500 patience has come to un shocking conclusion liberalism is indeed a mental disorder. political madness like spoiled angry children. the route of the liberalism and its associated madness can be clearly identified by understanding how children develop from infancy to adulthood and how distorted development produces the irrational believes of the liberal minds. when the modern liberals whine about imaginary victims. rage against a villains and seek above all else to run the lives of persons Competent to run their own lives.Dr Rossiter Has concluded What conservatives Have been saying for a long long time That liberalism Is nothing more than politics practice by someone with a mindset of a 5 year old. Immature and emotional. Does this mean with some mental help Liberalism Can disappear
    Book; The liberal mind.athor Dr.Lyle Rossiter. It’s time to get rid of liberals once and for all. Maybe we even need to lock them up. After all they are proved to be crazy

    • One person diagnoses millions over decades and generations. Yep, that’s sound science. In this scenario, what’s more likely — that millions of liberals are crazy, or just one author? First, I suggest you re-read your comments and then take a nice long look in the mirror. Second, I should have taken the advice not to feed the trolls.

  • Steve

    Yes now there is proof liberals are crazy. maybe now we can finally get them locked up. they like the government so much I guess they can pay for it. everybody need to read the book the liberal mind.by Dr Lyle Rossiter. These crazy people should have no right to vote.

  • hell ya im VERY liberal, and if u dont like it KISS MY ASSSSS!!!

  • I’m just me

    I think all of you are crazy… feed the weak will never make them strong, and will only make the strong weak because it is easier to be weak and supported than strong and struggling. Feed the poor with knowledge, not money.

    • That seems like a reasoned assessment, to say everyone who identifies as liberal is crazy. If you didn’t detect the sarcasm, I’m pouring it on rather thick. As for the remainder of your reply, you do know there is not a good paying job for every American adult who wants one, right? And you also know that 49% of SNAP (food stamp) recipients are children, right? So you are saying that you will condemn these people to starve (or worse) because of some silly philosophy that I’m guessing you have never actually tested and proven in the real world?

  • Michael

    David, I really appreciate your honest and well thought out description of what modern American liberalism is. As a classical liberal, I suppose I would now be considered a libertarian. Your statement “If someone acts in a way you don’t approve of, but otherwise does you no
    harm, you should have no reason to intervene in that person’s life” I think is where we have a fundamental disagreement. I would replace “does you no harm” with “does not violate your rights”. There is way too much wiggle room in the phrase “does you no harm”, and I’m afraid it is used to to justify serious blows to our freedom. The Employee Free Choice Act is a classic and recent example. My desire to have a secret ballot when deciding to form a union probably does you some harm. Having a secret ballot most likely will reduce the chance that a union is formed (I’ll acknowledge that), which you would argue results in lower quality working conditions for you (acknowledged for the sake of argument), which thereby does you ‘harm’. This is a situation where liberals are quite willing to sacrifice liberty, not only in the sense of the secret ballot but also in the ‘closed shop’ rules that usually follow the forming of a union. Wouldn’t taking away my secret ballot and forcing me to either quit my job or join a group (requiring dues) I don’t want to be a part of do me harm? I know what you’re thinking, yes I have harmed your freedom (in a literal sense), but you’ll thank me later because you’ll have better working conditions and pay etc etc, so I’m really doing you a net favor. My response, did it ever occur to you that I can look out for myself or that I might value the notion of literal freedom more than a pay raise, or an extra 15 minute break. To be clear I have no problem with unions, I think when they are formed voluntarily and without compulsion or intimidation they are a great and necessary check against management who has been assigned the task of keeping profit margins high (not a bad thing either). Furthermore I don’t really have a problem with a private group (like a labor union, elks club, rotary) using whatever means they want in voting (secret ballot, voice vote whatever), in theory it shouldn’t really impact me. Unfortunately when the union takes it to the next level and can require management to fire me for not joining or paying dues, that is where the line is crossed. I am also aware of the free-rider problem and let me just say that I have no problem whatsoever if the labor union negotiates higher wages for itself and I am not included in that pay raise, that is completely fair to me. We should have liberty to negotiate with our employers as individuals. In summary, I wanted to highlight this specific case as an example of where I think liberalism has perhaps gone off track. School choice is another great example. Abortion is of course another one, however I think there is too much fundamental disagreement there to have a constructive debate.

    Also I anticipate someone saying/thinking that the Employee Free Choice act does not eliminate the secret ballot. Please look past the title of the Act and do some research, the act would give the union organizers the choice on whether or not the ballot is secret or not. Supposing that some of the union organizers are in fact ’employees’ I guess you could say it is technically true. But let there be no mistake, not all the employees get a say in whether or not the secret ballot is used, only those involved in organizing the union.

    Hope I didn’t commit any logical fallacies, use misleading statistics, or regurgitate talking points. I really do like your essay, seriously.

    • Thanks for your response and thanks for the compliment on my piece. I’m considering changing the phrasing of the “does you know harm” based on your comment because the intent of that passage is to say that rights are not absolute, that rights exist up to the point where they infringe on someone else’s rights.

      As for the Employee Free Choice Act, I can’t say I know much about it. I have never been in a union, but I do strongly support unions and I believe unions have been fundamental in giving the average worker the perks we now enjoy, even if the jobs we are doing were never union jobs in the first place. After doing a little bit of research, it appears both sides of the argument tend to take things to an extreme (not unusual I guess). As for the idea that the EFCA would take away the private ballot, it seems to me it’s instead a restructuring of the process in which secret-ballot elections would occur far less frequently, Or in other words, it’s meant to tip the balance of power ever so slightly from employers and to unions. Since I believe the power structure in that equation has been moving entirely to the employer over recent decades, from what I’ve read so far, I do not have an issue with the EFCA. But admittedly I know very little about the proposed law and so my opinion is not strong and subject to change.

      • Michael

        Great response David, it is very appreciated. I completely agree, government needs to step in where the exercising of our rights infringes on the rights of others. I see both sides willing to use the power of government to not merely protect peoples rights, but to enforce their values. I think gay marriage is an example for conservatives. To enforce their values, they are unwilling to extend the same tax breaks and other benefits to families that don’t conform to their preference of what America should look like.

        Here is where I stand on a number of other issues, I put this out there just to see if anyone else has similar beliefs but isn’t sure where that places them in the political spectrum:

        Pro Environment-I pick up trash in my spare time, maybe only 90% confident that climate change is significant and humans are the cause. Since the consequences are so potentially serious, we do need to do something even if other major industrial powers (China) do not. Unfortunately solar and wind power are not able to replace coal/fossil fuels as of yet, so instead of Cap and Trade, I would propose a series of tax incentives to pollute less. I have written my congressman to encourage a tax incentive to businesses who utilize work from home programs to get cars off the road and cut CO2 emissions.

        Pro Life-I am against the death penalty, and against abortion. This issue really has nothing to do with women’s rights, it really comes down to whether or not you think an unborn child should have rights. If you do, then it follows naturally that that child’s right to live trumps the right of the mother to not be pregnant. If you don’t, then the mother’s right to not be pregnant is not in competition with anyone’s rights, and should be perfectly legal. I just happen to believe that an unborn child should have rights, nothing against women. If the mother will likely die from delivering the child, I think it’s a tie and the tie goes to the mother.

        Pro Choice-You should be able to choose if you want to die. You should be able to choose whether or not you want to join a union (or pay dues to one) no matter where you want to work. You should be able to choose where you want to live regardless of where you work. Note: In Chicago, you have to live in the city limits in order to be a policemen/school teacher in Chicago. You should be able to choose where you want your child to go to school, so far the upper middle class are the only families who can afford this choice. The middle class and poor cannot afford to choose their kids school and also pay for a public school they don’t send their kids to. I am also pro choice on marriage, you should be able to choose who you marry regardless of their gender. However if you are a wedding planner or wedding photographer you should also be able to choose which clients you accept. If your religious beliefs compel you to not take gay clients, you can choose not to enter into that contract for service. You should also be free to choose not to hire a wedding photographer or wedding planner based on their decision not to enter into contract with gay couples. You should also be free to go out of business and become dirt poor because no one will hire you for their wedding as a result of your business decision not to provide service to gay couples. I love how freedom to choose has a way of self enforcing justice.

        Based on the definition of liberalism, I feel these are pretty liberal stances to take (freedom/choice/protection of liberties), but I could be way off…

        • rubber bisquits

          Pro Choice….you should be able to choose whether you want to remain pregnant. The fetus is not a person. What’s next, fetal police examining every woman of child bearing age to determine whether she is pregnant, and if so, is she providing that person inside of her the proper care? Should the police be on the lookout for still borns…and perform a murder investigation when found? What if you need a liver transplant to live…and the doctors check their donor list and discover that I’m your only match. On being notified that my liver is needed, I get cold feet. Should I be required to give you a portion of my liver??? After all, your right to life trumps my right to my own body…or does it? Should the police be able to haul me to the hospital and force an operation? That’s going to be a problem…a big problem.

          I will admit, requiring the poor to provide body parts for the rich does sound like something a conservative would like. Conservatives love money and power more than anything.

          • Michael

            Why exactly do you believe a fetus is not a person? They have a complete set of chromosomes and Human DNA. They have a heart beat and it’s cells are undergoing respiration. So scientifically speaking, fetuses are living humans at an early stage of development. I know the supreme court has not yet given the status of ‘person-hood’ to unborn babies, but my questions is what criteria do you use to deny them the status of a person. There are of course many liberals who think that fetuses are persons, but from a utilitarian perspective their rights just do not compete with that of the mother.

    • rubber bisquits

      Michael….Just for your information…liberals as a label for anyone you don’t like, or any idea you oppose…is not a correct usage of the term. That there may be liberals who support the EFCA does not make it a liberal mandate. It should be obvious that union organizers are self interested and would want legislation that advances their interests as opposed to some liberal orthodoxy. I do, however, agree that unions which give some power to labor in negotiations with management are in keeping with liberal ideals.

  • I think it’s also interesting to bring religious affiliation (or lack thereof) into the definition of a liberal too, since these days, conservatives in this country have hijacked Christianity to be a bedrock foundational aspect of their identity (which wasn’t always the case). By implication, therefore, liberals must be atheists or antitheists (which of course is among the worst things to be in their estimation). Ironically, if you described Jesus’s works and philosophies without telling a conservative who you were talking about, no conservative would dare claim Him as one of their own. He’d be called a socialist, communist, liberal-tree-hugging-hippie, etc. But definitely not a good American Christian Conservative. However, I’m not sure that makes it correct to say that to be a liberal means you’re a Christian, since demographically, the 3rd largest religious group int eh US is non-religious people, and the vast majority of those non-religious people are liberal, and the next biggest affiliation of non-religious people is libertarian. Conservatives are a very small minority of the non-religious demographic, and so just by looking at the numbers, you’re forced to agree that being liberal makes you much more likely to not be religious. Is this a contradiction to the earlier point about true Christians being truer liberals if they follow what were supposed to be Jesus’s teachings?

    That’s the question: From a religious perspective, what DOES it mean to be a liberal? Are conservatives on Fox News correct to always be screaming about liberals being “godless atheists” or are they trying to have their Christian cake and eat it too?