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.