by Brian on September 7, 2003

Geoffrey Nunberg has good column in TAP about the strange history of the word liberal in America. Maybe I should have expected the following data, but I was really stunned by how strong the race and class connotations of liberal have become over here.

bq. From a semantic point of view, this negative branding campaign has largely succeeded in changing the meaning of the word liberal itself. In major newspapers, for example, the phrases “middle-class liberals” and “middle-class Democrats” are used with about the same frequency. But the phrase “working-class liberals” is almost nonexistent; it’s outnumbered by “working-class Democrats” by about 30-to-1. And while “white liberals” is used about as frequently as “white Democrats,” the phrase “black Democrats” outnumbers “black liberals” by better than 15-to-1. The patterns are similar if you plug in “African American,” “Latino” and the like.

bq. By contrast, the press refers to working-class conservatives as frequently as it does to working-class Republicans — and far more frequently than it refers to working-class liberals. And there are five times as many references to black conservatives as to black liberals, though references to black Democrats vastly outnumber references to black Republicans. The implication is that unlike conservatives, liberals are rarely found among minorities or the working class. When those groups vote Democratic, it’s presumably out of narrow self-interest or traditional party loyalty rather than because of any underlying ideological commitment. From that point of view, the political attitudes that make someone a liberal are simply the outward expression of a particular social identity, no different from a predilection for granite countertops or bottled water. For all intents and purposes, liberal has become as much a referential term as Bolshevik was.



Ophelia Benson 09.07.03 at 7:04 pm

That’s an excellent article. The Prospect is often way too mushy and ‘centrist’ and timid for my taste, but I liked this piece. Relates to the eternally mysterious question of how the right has got away with calling the left ‘elitist’ for so long. Because…tax cuts for the rich are populist? How’s that again?


matthew 09.08.03 at 5:38 am

I’m surprised Nunberg didn’t point out the attempt to shift from liberal to the label progressive.

George Lakoff covers this topic better than anyone. His book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think is excellent. It was originally, and I think more appropriately, titled Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t. He talks a great deal about how conservatives have learned to frame the discussion, but the left has often failed to catch on. There is a good interview with Lakoff at, Left Out By Right Rhetoric.


Brian Weatherson 09.08.03 at 5:53 am

But he does get to progressive by the end of the article, even managing to raise an eyebrow at Gray Davis’s appropriation of it.

I haven’t read the Lakoff and maybe I should – it gets lots of recommendations. (By the way Lakoff has a contribution to the symposium that Geoff’s article is in.) I’ve been reading about the Lakoff-Chomsky wars from back in the 1960s and 1970s, in which Chomsky manages to appear as the moderate, even conservative, figure. I guess that’s not how he usually looks outside academia.


Abiola Lapite 09.08.03 at 2:03 pm

But isn’t there some justification for making the distinction between “liberal” and “Democrat”?

As far as I can tell, the majority of blacks and working class voters share very little of the social viewpoint held by most middle-class Democratic Party voters, and the use of the term “liberal” helps to keep that distinction in mind.

There is a big difference between the social-democratic economic policies advanced by the Democrats, which I think is broadly popular with minorities and blue collar workers, and the social agenda being pushed by many liberals, which is not. The Democrats can claim with some confidence to speak for half of America, but “liberals” (or “progressives”, or whatever else they now want to call themselves) most certainly cannot.


John Isbell 09.08.03 at 6:53 pm

Economic policies are social issues. They are moral issues. Jesus proposes economic policies every time he meets a rich man, and most of the left – poor, minority, white-collar liberal – is united in broadly agreeing with him. I’ll add that Democratic ideals of tolerance broadly appeal to all Democrats IMO.
Polls suggest a gap between white-collar liberals on a group of issues linked to sex: abortion, homosexuality, gender equality (e.g. pay differential). Religion too, to an extent. One approach might be to look at the meaning of “liberal” in history and see if that matches either white-collar or blue-collar Democrats. After all, Jesus is not talking to rich men about freedom, at first glance.
Someone could do a similar analysis of the right. That might be interesting.


Brian Weatherson 09.09.03 at 6:05 am

I imagine most of the other commentators here know a lot more about the history than I, but historically it’s not clear that ‘liberal’ means either of those things. I thought the defining features of liberals in England were supporting property rights and free trade. (And for the revolution/usurption in the 1680s if we want to go back that far.) See here for one self-proclaimed descendant of that tradition. Here’s what Bartelby’s says about the Liberal Party (not an authoritative source, but not useless):

bq. The Liberal party was an outgrowth of the Whig party that, after the Reform Bill of 1832 (see Reform Acts), joined with the bulk of enfranchised industrialists and business classes to form a political alliance that, over the next few decades, came to be called the Liberal party. Much of the Liberal program was formulated by an important manufacturing middle-class element of the party known as the Radicals, who were strongly influenced by Jeremy Bentham. The Liberals distinguishing policies included free trade, low budgets, and religious liberty. Their anti-imperialism reflected confidence in Britain’s economic supremacy. Most Liberals believed in the economic doctrines of laissez-faire and thought labor unions, factory acts, and substantial poor relief a threat to rapid industrialization.

From that kind of background you can see why the right-wing party in Australia is called the Liberals.

In America as best I can tell ‘liberal’ originally meant pro-FDR. Heaven knows how that came about, but I think it’s the original meaning. As far as social policies go I guess that means liberals are anti-Prohibition, but it doesn’t really mean free sex, free drugs, or whatever we middle-class lefties are supposed to believe in.


John Hardy 09.10.03 at 4:58 am

The word “liberal” moved to the Left along with the Democratic Party during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s original meaning was far closer to the modern usage of the word “libertarian” — a word which was itself stolen from left-wing anarchists.

See also: Neo-Liberalism & Economic Liberalism.

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