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That declining fortune shows itself in the way in which liberals and conservatives react to being called, well, liberals and conservatives. The former have been insulted; the latter, complimented. People who hold few conservative beliefs nevertheless are eager to identify themselves with that word. People who most fervently toe the liberal line run from the liberal tag. It’s not the first time a descriptive political label has become an insult.
Karl Marx opted for the term “communist” as a means to separate himself from “socialist,” a word coined by the followers of Robert Owen. When Marx called himself a “socialist,” he often employed the modifier “scientific.” He prefixed the socialism of his rival prophets with “utopian.” This, despite the fact that while many of his rivals’ ideas were worked out on actual communes, such as Owen’s New Harmony, Marx devised his theories in the reading room of the British Museum. To the extreme Left, like their more moderate ideological cousins, classifications matter.
Yet, Mead is on to something when he challenges liberals to rethink ideas rather than labels. The fact that the principles underlying the name have come to mean the very opposite of liberal—free—suggest that such a reassessment is long overdue. The problem is that the term has become so thoroughly discredited as to sour Americans on any program or philosophy associated with it. It’s not merely that the term suggests hostility to freedom. Since the 1960s, liberalism has become, in a word, alienation—reflexive hostility toward the surrounding culture. This manifests itself in crusades on behalf of terror detainees, illegal immigrants, and garden-variety lawbreakers; the embrace of practices, such as homosexuality and abortion, offensive to Middle America; and a sneering contempt for the flag, guns, capitalism, pick-up trucks, and just about every other American cultural marker, both silly and substantive. There is an impulse to stand against what America stands for. One needn’t be all that perceptive to guess how such an outlook will play in America.
“American society must move beyond the increasingly dysfunctional and outdated ideas of 4.0 liberalism,” Mead writes. “Whatever was the case in the past, it just doesn’t work now.” Point granted. But why resuscitate a word tethered to “dysfunctional and outdated ideas”?
Can the L-word be saved? Probably not. It can, and will, be changed. The word may come back into style, a la the strange resurgence of “progressive.” But the principles behind the word won’t—at least not in this country.
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