In the modern era, the stance the left takes against Liberalism becomes hardened with each passing day. Such a general and widespread rejection of a label commonly seen as representative of ideas broadly in line with the social progression of the left wing collective would have been absurd a few years ago. Yet, a large group of people have come to believe the word “liberal” to have a very narrow meaning, while others believe it to be much more broad. How did this happen, and how can those who report attachment to the label of Liberal regain its positive connotations among groups who believe very similar things?
It is possible the divergence of the word “liberal” from the beliefs of the left could have its seeds sown with the Liberal Democrats entering into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. This made a number of people who are subscribed to left-wing principles take a considerably less favourable view of the Liberal Democrats than they would have done previously. The Liberal Democrats are yet to recover from this voter exodus of those who describe themselves as left-of-centre. As a result, a number of people in that bracket of British politics became much more cautious about using the label “liberal” despite holding views that are certainly quite liberal. However, this argument is unconvincing, as the phenomenon of the left-wing vilification of the term ‘liberal’ seems to be a more recent phenomenon.
The election of Donald Trump could also have been the catalyst for the change. The lurch of the Republican Party to the right caused right-wing Democrats to move to occupy the space that would normally be occupied by moderate Republicans. These people, by virtue of being Democrats, are given the label “liberal” in the American political scene, despite holding a set of beliefs, particularly economically, that would be considered extremely conservative just five years ago, and would certainly be considered extremely conservative in European circles. All of this occurred whilst the British Left moved further left economically, and caused a divergence over the meaning of the word liberal.
Moreover, many elements of the Left, particularly in Britain, find abhorrent the unfettered social progress that is so obvious to all liberals, regardless of where they fall on the economic left-right spectrum. Nowhere is this more evident than the rights of transgender people, where the UK is desperately behind and regressing. Left wing figures in the UK have variously described the push for trans rights as a “communist pile-on” and the medication prescribed to help trans people transition as akin to “Nazi” medical experiments on children. Meanwhile, those at the very top of the British left will occasionally put out a vague statement of support for LGBTQ+ rights, but will fail to stop these kinds of opinions from infecting their ranks. Even fairly right-wing people who use the label liberal, such as Joe Biden, take the opposite view on such pressing social issues, with Biden specifically mentioning how he will push for trans rights in his election victory speech. Could this divergence over important progressive social issues be another reason why so many on today’s economic Left reject and vilify the label “liberal”?
It is worth mentioning that I do not intend to categorise the Left in broad strokes here. Many people on the economic left, even some who are relatively far down that road, would happily use the label liberal and actually do so. Indeed, many are just as progressive on social issues as any Liberal, whether or not they use the label. The Labour Party is a liberal party at its core, which is something we overlook in the UK because we have another party using that word in its name. But it really does seem to come down to these social issues. Those at the very front lines of the culture wars on the Left, supporting not just the economic but also social liberation of those in society who cry out for it, are liberal, and under a suitable definition of classical liberalism are simply following good ideas to their logical conclusion.
And yet, discussing the definition of different types of liberalism is where we hit the greatest problem with making the term acceptable to the left. Economic liberalism has come to be synonymous with freeing the markets as if they were people. Economic liberalism is characterized worryingly by fiscal conservatism. Yet, most people using the label liberal would likely be in favour of more regulation and more wealth distribution – one only needs to look at recent Liberal Democrat manifestos to see this. Worst of all, the term “neo-liberalism” has become synonymous with the extreme form of capitalism that conservatives have delivered to the western world in the past forty years. Does this have anything to do with liberalism? It seems unlikely, as liberals were consistently pushing against the disgraceful changes that the late 20th Century conservative resurgence has brought.
In summary, many on the Left do not like the label “liberal” as to them it means a form of economic system for a country that most actual liberals would describe as conservative. Furthermore, many on the Left do not like the label “liberal” because their own beliefs do not go far enough on the socially progressive issues that have always characterized liberalism, or worse are worryingly regressive (though this regression, while it exists, is at odds with most of the left-wing movement). In short, the labels we give ourselves to describe our politics are contradictory. No one label or movement or theory describes a person’s beliefs entirely, and no person takes their beliefs only from one movement. The world is simply too complicated, and there are too many issues to have opinions on for that. Maybe that is why some leftists hate “liberals”, and why some leftists are liberals, despite ostensibly believing very similar things. Maybe that is why any political label is a dirty word to some groups, and how every political label risks having its meaning twisted (for example how “Marxist” has come to mean anything associated with BLM for conservatives). Liberal describes a space that is not well defined; it is a broad space, taking in opinions and ideas from across the political spectrum, and people naturally adopt the label while subscribing to only some of those ideas, or hate the label while only hating some of the ideas. Only by broadening that space can we bring the Left further into our fold, and only by bringing the Left further into the fold can we bring about the real change we seek.
Jack Harrison is Associate Editor at Liberal Base and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.
(Image Credit: Elizabeth Conley, MBO / Associated Press)