In 2008, I declared myself a liberal as a way of distinguishing myself from the progressives who hailed Obama as they new Messiah. (I derisively called them "progs" when not slamming them as Obots.) My definition of "liberal" was and is pretty simple -- it encompasses everyone who thinks that FDR was a pretty cool guy. You're a liberal if you think that what we need today is a new New Deal.
Alas, "liberal" can be a confusing word, especially to young people trying to dope out what's what in the world of politics. "Liberal" sounds a lot like "libertarian," even though those two terms have very different meanings. "Liberal" is also very close to "neo-liberal," even though neo-liberalism and libertarianism are cognate ideologies which stand united in their distaste for FDR-style liberalism.
Adding to the confusion, some libertarians -- primarily Milton Friedman -- have embraced the term "liberal." Essentially, Friedman simply took the concept of neo-liberalism and chopped off the "neo" prefix. When Pinochet fell from power in Chile, Friedman declared it a dark day for liberalism.
Similarly, F.W. Hayek once told a Chilean interviewer that "My personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism." This definition of "liberalism" differs from mine.
(Hayek is best-known for writing The Road to Serfdom
. There is great irony here. Serfdom, slavery and peonage appear only in countries which veer toward libertarianism, not in the mixed economies of western Europe, Canada and Australia.)
Young people consider Thomas Friedman -- yes, the guy who wrote The World is Flat
, the guy who cheered the Iraq invasion -- a liberal. I'm not kidding
This confusion serves no good purpose. Is it time to admit that "progressive" -- a term I really, really dislike -- might be preferable?
One reason I dislike that label may stem from my puckish self-identification as an "Eisenhower Republican." What I really mean by that phrase is a preference for the bipartisan economic consensus that held sway in America between FDR and Reagan. Since Reagan's inauguration, we've been lurching toward purer and purer forms of libertarianism -- and the result has been national ruin. We don't make anything anymore. People are talking about secession, sustained joblessness, and the end of the national experiment.
Can a person who advocates a "back to the future" policy call himself a "progressive"? Or do we need still another term?