“Liberals”

The word “liberal” is not used in the US the same as it is in Europe, and this undoubtedly has created some international miscommunications. Europeans still use “liberal” to describe people who favor freedom from government intervention. Americans use “liberal” to describe people who favor MORE government intervention and components of socialism. The American usage is nonsensical, because the word “liberal” derives from and used to refer to the philosophy of liberty.

So when Rush Limbaugh screams about how liberals are going to destroy society, he’s talking about people who are more similar to Europe’s Social Democrats and Labour parties. When the BBC complains about how liberals are going to destroy society, they’re talking about people who are more similar to America’s Libertarians.

This reversal of meaning in the US has its roots in the early 20th century, when Americans who sympathized with more socialist policies found that using the word “socialism” made them very unpopular. Hence, they tried to manipulate public perception by saying that they “still support liberalism, just a more socially progressive form of liberalism.” They then argued that anyone who doesn’t support this “progress” towards socialism is “conservative,” even (especially?) when those “conservatives” actually favored greater liberty. These progressives started winning elections, and cemented their incorrect “liberals vs. conservatives” terminology into American political discussion.

In order to resolve this confusion and avoid further miscommunications, I would recommend the following rules:

  • Americans stop using the term “liberal” altogether, unless you specify very clearly that you’re referring to “modern American liberalism.”
  • Most modern American liberals are okay with being called “progressives,” so you can use that term pretty much everywhere you would have previously used the term “liberal.”
  • The more extreme ones (think Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and anyone else who talks about the “fair share” that “the rich” need to pay) can be referred to as social democrats or democratic socialists.
  • If you want to refer to the belief in reduced government intervention in people’s personal or professional lives, then you should refer to that sentiment as “libertarian.”

Europeans, I suppose, could carry on as usual (since you use the correct terminology to begin with), but you may achieve more productive conversations with those across the pond if you adapt to use the word “libertarian” in place of “liberal.”

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