Truth in Labeling

Truth in Labeling March 21, 2023

Eleanor Bartow has published an insightful article at The Federalist entitled They Are Intolerant, Divisive, And Anti-Liberty — Call Them Leftists, Not Liberals.  “Democrats have moved so far to the left in recent years that they should no longer be called ‘liberals,'” she writes.  “The term is misleading, giving the impression that Democrats support individual freedoms and accept people of different viewpoints, when increasingly they do not.”

As I have often said, in referring to my defense of the “liberal” arts, the word has the same Latin root as “liberty,” referring to freedom.  Even today, “liberal economics” refers to a belief in free markets, not, as one might expect from self-described “liberal politicians,” a government-controlled economy funding social programs for all.

We also have “liberal democracy,” meaning a political order built around individual freedom and constitutional rights, in which the government is answerable to the people, rather than vice versa.  Bartow explains:

Liberalism “emphasizes individual autonomy, equality of opportunity, and the protection of individual rights (primarily to life, liberty, and property),” the Encyclopedia Britannica explains. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines liberals as “standing for the protection of political and civil liberties” and “not bound by authoritarianism.”

But now the party that used to be associated with this kind of liberalism has become increasingly illiberal, calling for a stronger and more authoritarian government, favoring racial, sexual, and gender groupings over individuals, and seeking to stifle free speech and other civil liberties.  There is a word for that:

In contrast, a “leftist” is “usually characterized by desire to reform or overthrow the established order,” according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. This is an apt description of the divisive “critical race theory” and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” that teaches a misreading of our nation’s founding and society and is infiltrating schools, universities, and the workplace.

This definition also describes those who are breaking down our society with a transgender ideology that erases the boundaries of male versus female, requiring females to compete with biological men who identify as women and to share bathrooms and locker rooms with them. . . .

Another definition of leftists, from the Cambridge Dictionary, says they believe “wealth and power should be shared between all parts of society” and “governments should provide a higher level of social services and support laws to bring about greater economic and social equality.”

Indeed, leftist regimes–such as the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and North Korea–dispense completely with any pretense of democracy, implement a government that seeks to control the totality of life in the country, impose a rigorous collectivism that has no place for individualism, and eliminates the very concept of human rights.

I have to say that labels describing “conservatives” have similar limitations.  There is an illiberal “right” as well as an illiberal “left.”  Catholic integralists, for example, blame the historic American emphasis on “liberty” for sexual immorality, the breakdown of the family, feminism, abortion, and our other cultural problems.  They are ready to dispense with the concept, along with “rights” and “democracy,” in favor of a Catholic state on the model of the medieval papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.  Never mind the Protestant notion, favored by our founders, of “ordered liberty,” which sees moral breakdowns as hindrances to genuine freedom, since giving in to our passions is a form of enslavement.

And there are less extreme forms of illiberalism on the right.  The spatial metaphor of “right” and “left” originally referred to where legislators sat in the French parliament, with the pro-monarchy faction seated on the right side of the room and the pro-democracy faction seated on the left.  That brings up another problem with “rightists”:  in the European tradition, they were the ones who wanted a strong, authoritarian government that controlled the economy.  Like leftists do today!  And now some American conservatives are discovering the European “conservative tradition” and are formulating their own anti-democratic, anti-freedom policies accordingly.

“Conservative” also has problems.  The term hinges on, but does not define, what one wants to conserve.  Very few on the Republican side of things wants to conserve what is the status quo today.  And everyone in every faction seems to decry the “establishment.”  I remember times in the Nixon administration, when Republicans would defend the “establishment.”  But we are all hippies now.

Perhaps the term of choice among Democrats is neither “liberal” nor “leftist” but  “progressive.”  That implies a belief in progress, that things are getting better and better, as we leave behind what is old and traditional.  That can work up to a point, but today’s progressives keep insisting on how bad things are today, how black Americans are still oppressed as if emancipation and the Civil Rights movement never happened, and how women and sexual minorities are still shackled.

I suppose the opposite of “progressive” would be “traditionalist,” a term that I have heard some conservatives use for themselves, referring to the idea that there are elements from the past that deserve to be continued and passed down.  Again, though, few Americans would defend all traditions or consider that tradition alone makes something valuable.

Some Republicans are embracing “populism,” referring to the will of the people.  But in the 1930s “populism” was the ideology of the left, or of progressives, or liberals, or whatever you want to call them.  Again, the specific meaning of “populism” depends on what the people want:  making America great again, or empowering  unions?  pushing back against wokeism in schools and companies, or implementing new social programs?  There are, though, common themes in the various kinds of populism:  namely, a distrust of elites and big corporations and protectionist made-in-America economics, which perhaps could be the basis of a coalition.

“Libertarianism” conveys the emphasis on liberty and individual rights, but it has connotations of libertinism–disordered liberty, of the sort that favors abortion, sexual immorality, and legalizing every vice, as well as Ayn Rand’s atheistic “virtue of selfishness.”

In the realm of theology “conservative” believers are variously called “fundamentalists” (a term most of them dislike), “evangelicals” (a term that can be misleading and has fallen out of favor), “orthodox” (a term, however, which also refers to a distinct theological tradition).   We Lutherans have started to use “confessional,” meaning holding to our theological confessions, and that term is also used by “confessional Calvinists.”  But not all church traditions have formal confessions of faith, though they likely have beliefs that do characterize them.  Can we say “confessional Baptists”?  “Confessional Pentecostalists”?  And what do we call conservative Catholics?  “Confessional Catholics”?  Normally, one might define those folks as those adhering to the papacy, but today the most conservative Catholics are those who oppose their liberal/leftist/progressive pope.

Any ideas about what “conservatives” (you know what I mean) should call themselves?


Illustration:  The Political Spectrum via Wikideas1, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.  

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad