What does it mean to be a ‘liberal’?  


As we approach the final weeks of 2018, reflections on the year’s politics tend to focus on the process that has been gradual coming-to-terms with the tumultuous events of the preceding two years. Namely the “political earthquake” of Trump’s election in November 2016, closely followed by the Brexit vote of March 2017; both of which shocked even the most politically well-informed.  

Unsurprisingly, an abundance of discourse has followed attempting to explain and, even more minimally, to describe recent events. A common conception characterises such incidents- at least to some extent- as representative of a populist rejection of a perceived elitism accompanying “liberal” assumptions. However, this characterisation of movements such as the Trump campaign and vote leave as “anti-liberal”, is largely inconsistent with the widely-accepted definition of the term.  


A look at the political and philosophical origins of the word is illuminating, showing its widespread misuse in contemporary political discourse. Primarily, accusations of various elite tendencies levelled at those labelled as ‘liberal’, whether well-founded or otherwise, are inconsistent with a well-established definition of the term. Perhaps, therefore, those who label others as ‘liberal’ in a derogatory sense- for example Mike Pence’s labelling of Trump’s critics as “Hollywood liberals” at a rally in November 20182 – would do well to reconsider the implications of this.  

Pence’s use here highlights a common misconception of the term. Firstly, originating among American Republicans in the 1970s, the term has been used to describe left-wing progressivism3. This use has been evident recently in discussion surrounding the US midterms, as well as to describe the remain side of the Brexit debate. Alongside its use in a negative-sense by the political right, the term has been adopted with pride by the left and understood as synonymous with progressive politics. The equation of right-wing politics with being ‘anti-liberal’ is widespread in contemporary political discourse; however, consideration of the term’s meaning on its initial conception show a pervasive misunderstanding of the term. Convincingly, those who suggest this first view should think twice and consider the implications of self-identifying as opponents of a ‘liberal’ worldview.  

 In contrast to contemporary uses of the term, liberal tendencies have historically referred simply to the prioritisation of the rights and freedoms of the individual. This classical definition also includes a consensus on democratic principles, seen as necessary for individual rights to be adequately respected. Previously, by the classical understanding, the promotion of liberal values as an end formed an area of consensus, while disagreement surrounded the merits of different means to achieve this. Specifically, those on the economic right-wing saw individualist, libertarian economic policies as the only way to preserve freedom, while the left supported government intervention as necessary to facilitate freedom. Despite discrepancies when it came to suggested means to this agreed end, engagement in democratic politics precluded questioning the value of liberal principles. 


Observing the frequency with which ‘liberal’ tendencies are criticised in contemporary political discourse, if we took a classical understanding of what it means to be liberal, we would certainly have cause for concern. In reality, of course, it isn’t the case that – by the classical definition – the majority of supporters of populist movements such as Trump’s election and the Brexit campaign can be seen to embrace an “anti-liberal” identity. However, it is nonetheless common for rhetoric supportive of both Brexit and Trump’s politics to be notably negative about ‘liberal’ attitudes. For example, Republican Newt Gingrich went so far as to identify Trump as “the most effective uprooter of liberalism in my lifetime”. Such an embracing of social ‘anti-liberalism’ by right wing politicians has concerning implications. For example, by identifying his opponents as ‘liberals’, Trump implicitly associates himself with illiberal politicians such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who sees compromising liberal democracy as essential for a nation to remain globally competitive.  

Where differences lie, most of us would hope, isn’t over the acceptance of the general principles of a liberal democracy, but on far more specific issues. To demonstrate, a common tendency equated with being ‘liberal’, in this progressive sense, is the embracing of identity politics. The extent to which identity politics is helpful in forwarding individual rights is an area of contention present in much contemporary debate. Specifically, one side sees a focus on standing up for a particular social group as supportive of the rights of the individuals within that group, while another view would argue that encouragement of identification with distinct groups undermines individual rights. The first of these opposing positions is commonly termed ‘liberal’, and – by implication- the latter identified as ‘anti-liberal’. Plausibly, however, both of these labels are inaccurate and fail to appreciate that, while they disagree on a means to achieve this, an ultimate consensus exists on the general liberal principle that the rights of individuals are important for the maintenance of democracy.  

 While fundamentally an issue of semantics, this widespread misunderstanding of the term liberal in present-day political discourse is nonetheless important. Promoting awareness of the ideas that form the basis of a democracy can only be constructive, and the lack of clarity when defining a liberal political identity seemingly undermines this. Plausibly, it may be productive to adopt the term ‘progressive’ as an alternative when identifying socially left-wing ideas, which are often labelled as liberal.  

Edited by Yuk-Ting Hua


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Lucy is 2nd year PPE student in Durham University. Her favourite module is ‘Philosophy of Politics and Economics’.

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