May 27, 2011 by David K. Sutton
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.
MY POLITICAL EVOLUTION
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.
WHICH ‘LIBERAL’ ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
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.
LIBERAL VS CONSERVATIVE
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.
WHAT DO LIBERALS BELIEVE?
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.
SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A LIBERAL?
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