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How the L-Word Became a 4-Letter Word

Posted By Daniel Flynn On December 23, 2010 @ 12:15 am In FrontPage | 12 Comments


Liberals are a lot like the KGB. Every few years, reputation necessitates a name change. So the KGB morphs into the FSK, which morphs into the FSB. Liberals become socialists, socialists become radicals, and so on. Currently, liberals have resurrected a loaded anachronism from the late 19th-century to describe themselves, which isn’t very “progressive,” is it?

Walter Russell Mead, seeing systemic problems with contemporary liberalism, argues for a new liberalism in his piece at the America Interest, “Can the L-Word Be Saved?” This is at odds with the recent liberal tradition, which has tended to ditch labels rather than principles. Their unpopularity, 20th-century true believers contended, stemmed from bad marketing. So, the ideas got rebranded rather than reassessed.

Foreign policy scholar Mead breaks down liberalism into five epochs, characterizing current retreads as 4.0 liberals and their forward-looking replacements as 5.0 liberals, arguing that “5.0 liberals will challenge the right of 4.0 liberals to the magic L-word, seeking both to convince 4.0 liberals to come on back to the future—and denouncing those that don’t as the blinkered reactionaries and speed bumps they are.” Alas, there hasn’t been much “magical” about the L-word in recent decades. And it’s far more likely that reformers like Mead, instead of the calcified 4.0 liberals, find themselves getting denounced as “reactionaries.”

Liberalism just isn’t very popular in America. The semi-annual Gallup political identification poll found a declining percentage of Americans, just 21 percent, adopting the “liberal” label earlier this year. By way of comparison, 42 percent of respondents called themselves “conservative.” Gallup noted in June that if the trend continued for the remainder of 2010, conservatives would boast their largest annual share of the American public since this particular survey’s 1992 origin.

It wasn’t always so. John F. Kennedy, during the high-water mark of 20th century liberalism, could declare “I’m proud to say I’m a liberal” and win election to the presidency less than two months later. Kennedy defined, albeit platitudinously, a liberal as “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties—someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad.” It is because what it means to be a liberal has changed so much in the half century since Kennedy uttered those words that liberalism’s fortune has declined so thoroughly.

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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