by Nikil Saval New York Times July 5, 2017
‘‘Liberal’’ has long been a dirty word to the American political right. It may be shortened, in the parlance of the Limbaugh Belt, to ‘‘libs,’’ or expanded to the offensive portmanteau ‘‘libtards.’’ But its target is always clear. For the people who use these epithets, liberals are, basically, everyone who leans to the left: big-spending Democrats with their unisex bathrooms and elaborate coffee.
This is still how polls classify people, placing them on a neat spectrum from ‘‘extremely conservative’’ to ‘‘extremely liberal.’’
Over the last few years, though — and especially 2016 — there has been a surge of the opposite phenomenon: Now the political left is expressing its hatred of liberals, too. For the committed leftist, the ‘‘liberal’’ is a weak-minded, market-friendly centrist, wonky and technocratic and condescending to the working class. The liberal is pious about diversity but ready to abandon any belief at the slightest drop in poll numbers — a person who is, as the folk singer Phil Ochs once said, ‘‘10 degrees to the left of center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.’’
The anonymous Twitter account ‘‘liberalism.txt’’ is a relentless stream of images and retweets that supposedly illustrate this liberal vacuousness: say, the chief executive of Patagonia’s being hailed as a leader of ‘‘corporate resistance to Trump,’’ or Chelsea Clinton’s accusing Steve Bannon of ‘‘fat shaming’’ Sean Spicer.
This shift in terminology can be confusing, both politically and generationally — as when baby boomers describe fervent supporters of Bernie Sanders as ‘‘very liberal,’’ unaware that young Sandersistas might find this vomit-inducing. It can also create common ground.
The young (and left-leaning) writer Emmett Rensin published a widely-read piece on Vox deriding liberals for their ‘‘smug style’’; soon enough, one longtime adept of the right, National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, expressed his partial approval, writing in Bloomberg View what contemporary liberalism lacked most was humility. Here was a perspective common to both sides of the old spectrum: liberals suffered from a serene, self-ratifying belief in their own reasonableness, and it would spell their inevitable defeat.
When it comes to diagnosing liberalism, both left and right focus on this same set of debilitating traits: arrogance, hypocrisy, pusillanimity, the insulated superiority of what, in 1969, a New York mayoral candidate called the ‘‘limousine liberal.’’ In other words, the features they use to distinguish liberals aren’t policies so much as attitudes.
The profane hosts of the popular podcast ‘‘Chapo Trap House,’’ prime originators of the left’s liberal-bashing, spend a good deal of airtime making fun of liberal cultural life, with one common target being fervor for the musical ‘‘Hamilton.’’ ‘‘Nothing has represented them more: a hagiographical musical where they can pretend to be intersectional and pretend to be multicultural,’’ said Felix Biederman, a co-host, on the second episode of the show. ‘‘They have no policy. They’re all cultural signifiers.’’
To be a ‘‘liberal,’’ in this account, is in some sense to be a fake. It’s to shroud an ambiguous, even reactionary agenda under a superficial commitment to social justice and moderate, incremental change. American liberalism was once associated with something far more robust, with immoderate presidents and spectacular waves of legislation like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Today’s liberals stand accused of forsaking the clarity and ambition of even that flawed legacy. To call someone a liberal now, in other words, is often to denounce him or her as having abandoned liberalism.
Liberal-bashing on social media reached a kind of apogee, but its targets have not yet produced much real defense of the ideology. This means the word ‘‘liberal’’ is, for the moment, almost entirely one of abuse. It is hard to think of an American politician who has embraced it, even going back two or three generations. If liberalism is dead, then, it’s a strange sort of demise: Here is an ideology that has many accused sympathizers, but no champions, no defenders.
America’s version of liberalism always has been a curious one. In Europe, the word has traditionally meant a preference for things like limited government, separate private and public spheres, freedom of the press and association, free trade and open markets — what’s often described as ‘‘classical liberalism.’’ But the United States had many of those inclinations from the beginning. By the 20th century, American liberalism had come to mean something distinct. The focus on individual liberties was still there, but the vision of government had become stronger, more interventionist — ready to regulate markets, bust monopolies and spend its way out of economic downturns. After the end of World War II, this version of liberalism seemed so triumphant in the United States that the critic Lionel Trilling called it the country’s ‘‘sole intellectual tradition.’’ Its legislation legalized unions and, with Social Security, created a pension system; a health plan for older Americans, Medicare, was on the way.
But as these same liberals initiated anti-Communist interventions in Korea and Vietnam, or counseled patience and moderation to civil rights activists, they quickly found themselves in the same position we see today: under heavy abuse from the left. In a landmark speech at an antiwar rally in April 1965, Paul Potter, the president of Students for a Democratic Society, asked: ‘‘What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South?’’ The first step, as he saw it, was clear: ‘‘We must name that system.’’ In a speech later that year, his successor as S.D.S. president, Carl Oglesby, did precisely that, calling it ‘‘corporate liberalism’’ — an unholy alliance of business and the state that was enriching to elites but destructive to working-class Americans and the world’s poor.
It was the 1980 victory of Ronald Reagan and his brand of conservatism that set in motion the villainizing of American liberalism from the right — this time not for warmongering but for supposedly being soft on crime and communism, bloating the government with ineffective social programs and turning American universities into hothouses of fetid radicalism. Many demoralized liberals responded by abandoning the label completely. The nasty 1988 presidential campaign may have been a watershed. In one debate, Bush demanded that his opponent, Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, explain ‘‘some of these very liberal positions.’’ Dukakis’s reply, a weak ‘‘Let’s stop labeling each other,’’ only confirmed the word as an insult. A few weeks before the election, dozens of distinguished figures — from novelists to editors to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara — bought a full-page ad in The Times to print a letter titled ‘‘A Reaffirmation of Principles,’’ expressing their alarm at the use of ‘‘liberal’’ as a term of ‘‘opprobrium.’’ But their own definition of it was oddly vague: They called it ‘‘the institutional defense of decency.’’ All those attacks on liberalism seemed to be weakening people’s sense of what liberalism even meant.
As the insult gathered steam in the ’90s, Bill Clinton was studiously aiming for the political center, ‘‘ending welfare as we know it’’ and pushing through a tough-on-crime bill. In 2011, Barack Obama made a deal with Republicans to adopt a program of fiscal austerity, prompting the left-wing critic William Greider to declare, in The Nation, the ‘‘last groaning spasms of New Deal liberalism.’’ Conservatives will fight one another to the death over who’s the truer conservative, but the people most accused of being liberal have often seemed as if they’re the ones most ambivalent about actual liberalism.
If liberalism really is America’s core, hegemonic intellectual tradition, it’s easy to see how it has become the word we use to deride the status quo. For the left, that’s a politics in which government cravenly submits to corporate power and cultural debates distract from material needs. For the right, it’s one in which government continually overreaches and cultural debates are built to punish anyone who isn’t ‘‘politically correct.’’ But in both cases, ‘‘liberal’’ points to the consensus, the gutless compromise position, the arrogant pseudopolitics, the mealy-mouthed half-truth.
Each side has drawn tremendous energy from opposing this idea of liberalism. At the same time, the space occupied by liberalism itself shrunk to the point where it’s difficult to locate. Different strands of it now live on under different names.
Conservatives have styled themselves as the new defenders of free speech. Democrats have sidestepped ‘‘liberal’’ and embraced ‘‘progressive,’’ a word with its own confusing history, to evoke the good-government, welfare-state inclinations of the New Deal. Some of the strongest defenses of liberalism’s achievements come from people who identify as ‘‘socialists.’’ And free-trade advocates, with no more positive term to shelter under, are now tagged, often derisively, as ‘‘neoliberal.’’ The various ideas to which ‘‘liberal’’ has referred persist, in one form or another, among different constituencies. Liberalism may continue. But it may well end up doing so without any actual liberals behind it.