In the middle of his in-your-face pre-Super Bowl interview, Bill O’Reilly picked up the dreaded “L word” and began wielding it menacingly in the direction of the president of the United States.
“Are you the most liberal president in U.S. history?” O’Reilly asked. Obama quickly initiated evasive maneuvers. “In a lot of ways, Richard Nixon was more—more liberal than I was,” the president replied, before insisting that “I tend not to think about these things in terms of liberal and Democrat—or liberal and conservative”
It wasn’t always this way. In the first half of the 20th century, “liberal” enjoyed a certain prestige. When Franklin Roosevelt began using it to describe the ideology of the New Deal, for instance, small-government types accused him of linguistic theft, claiming that since the expansion of state power threatened liberty, they—and not the New Dealers—were the true liberals.
But by the 1960s, the American right had stopped claiming “liberal” and begun demonizing it. Over the next two decades, being a liberal came to mean letting criminals terrorize America’s cities, hippies undermine traditional morality, and communists menace the world. It meant, in other words, too much liberty for the wrong kind of people. Fearful of its negative connotations, Democratic politicians began disassociating themselves from the term, and as the Obama interview showed, they still do.
But that political logic may be out of date. “Liberal” became a dirty word at a time of soaring crime, when Democrats came under attack for allegedly prioritizing the rights of criminals over the safety of everyone else. Today, crime has dropped so dramatically that even prominent Republicans advocate less punitive sentencing. The decline of “liberal” into epithet status also coincided with a cultural revolt, especially on sexual issues like abortion and gay rights, which frightened many middle-aged Americans. But today, the people demanding greater cultural liberty—whether they be gay couples wanting to marry or individuals wanting to legally smoke pot—don’t seem nearly as radical. Finally, “liberal” grew associated with weakness during a humiliating phase in American foreign policy: when America’s defeat in Vietnam and the Iran hostage crisis dealt painful blows to national pride. In the post-Iraq era, by contrast, Republican efforts to out-hawk Obama on foreign policy have utterly failed.
“Liberal,” in other words, got its bad name because of a series of racial, sexual, and global bogeymen that don’t frighten Americans nearly as much anymore.
That doesn’t mean Americans now love the term. Although the percentage of Americans calling themselves “liberal” has risen in recent years, liberal self-identification still trails conservative self-identification, in the most recent Gallup poll, by 15 points.
But there’s reason to believe that today, many Americans eschew the term not because they associate it with any particular unpopular attitudes or issue positions, but merely because they’ve only heard it discussed negatively. In a thought-provoking 2013 paper, Christopher Claassen, Patrick Tucker, and Steven S. Smith of Washington University in St. Louis note that although most Americans prefer the term “conservative,” those same Americans are “remarkably consistent” in telling researchers that they prefer liberal policies. How come? One reason may be that “conservative” has positive “extra-political” associations. To many Americans, it connotes “caution, restraint and respect for traditional values,” positive attributes irrespective of one’s views on specific policies.
But even more important, Claassen, Tucker, and Smith suggest, may be the negative way in which “liberal” is publicly discussed. “When certain labels are emphasized or favored by political and media elites,” they write, “the public is more likely to identify with them than others. Public framing often promotes the term ‘conservative,’ while the term ‘liberal’ is used with much less frequency and has long had a more negative connotation.” Part of the reason Americans consider liberal an epithet, in other words, is because they mostly hear it used as an epithet.
When Obama disavows the term, he perpetuates that dynamic and allows conservatives like O’Reilly to continue tarring Democrats with a label most Americans consider negative, even if they’re no longer entirely sure why. It might be wiser, at least in the long-term, to explain why the specific policies many Americans support are liberal. And thus begin to reclaim the term.
When political attitudes change, so can the connotations of political words. Think about “queer,” which is now used largely positively—partly because Americans are more supportive of LGBT rights, but also because activists embraced it as a term of pride. The same thing could happen to “liberal,” if only liberals like Obama didn’t head for the hills every time conservatives like O’Reilly bring it up.