The Definition of a Liberal

What about Liberals make them liberal?

How do we differ from non-liberals?

Are Liberal, Progressive and Left distinct entities, or is there overlap?

Is Liberalism just a political alignment, or a broader philosophical outlook?

Share your thoughts!

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11 Responses to The Definition of a Liberal

  1. ugsome says:

    Here’s my rough classification system:

    Liberalism emphasizes economic equality, security and opportunity, a belief in the utility of government to assure that and valuing competence in governing. It takes into account the concerns of the vast middle as well as the poor. It is boring and wonky but it gets the job done.

    Progressivism sees politics as a moral conflict. It is more activist in nature and shares with the right a distrust of governent and governing. It is more bourgeois in its roots and disdains the concerns of the working class while claiming to speak for them. I do not like progressivism because it is a high disingenous means to conduct a class war.

    These two currents in the Democratic Party are described by the blogger Anglachel as “FDR” and “Stevensonian.” Obamaism belongs to the Stevensonian current.

    Leftists disdain the system as it is and envision something entirely different.

  2. Jay Floyd says:

    Very innerestin’, ugsome.

    I just took the Pew test to see what label I might slap on my behind, and sure enough I’m a liberal. As you define it, I do share some ‘progressive’ ideals, mainly because I no longer trust our government to deal with soooo many issues. States can pave roads and keep police on the streets just fine, but go even one rung up the ladder and the leaders become almost unanimously disingenuous. The Obama Fiasco has opened my eyes in ways I certainly didn’t want them opened, but soon enough I’ll probably be glad to have gone through it. Like political puberty.

  3. I’ve given this “label” thing much thought, and still don’t have a complete answer. For a while, I called myself a “moderate” to distance myself from extreme leftists. Recently, I decided to reclaim “liberal” based on its traditional definition and identification. “Progressive” is now the off-the-rack term I use for those on the left who think differently than me.

    Above all, I am first a “pragmatist”, and reason, logic and pragmatism lead me to my positions. “Progs” tend to think with their emotions. A prog can believe a charismatic leader can change the world simply by inspiring people. The pragmatist is looking for ability and experience. A prog believes we can alter reality by ‘thinking good thoughts.’ A pragmatist want to see the action plan.

    I now see the difference between a liberal and a prog not so much as WHAT we want, but HOW we think it can be brought about.

  4. Fionnchú says:

    “Disaffected,” a shift from “Disadvantaged Dem” last year. My family’s financial tumbles may have nudged my lateral move. But, as I’ve commented elsewhere lately, those Pew labels do spark befuddlement and stimulation within me. So, my idealistic definitions below derive not from research, but gut reaction.

    Progressives turn activists, engaged by movements, rallies, petitions, organizing, agitating. They thrive off the pressure to compel change from institutions otherwise opposed to granting reform. So, they focus on “HOW.” Liberals empathize, philosophically grounded in “WHAT”– a belief in the human ability to improve one’s lot and to instill compassion and altruism in each other. The Left forms an umbrella over these two formations, perhaps shaded more by an intellectual reaction against forces who favor tradition. I’d say all three gravitate to a confidence that government must intervene against capital or power whenever, and as necessary, to restore or defend human rights. They share a belief that government can make better decisions than individuals may, and that politicians can decide based on democratic input and legislative and judicial consideration what’s best for citizens.

    P.S. Speaking of esoterica: I am reading the endless but engaging “Against the Day” by Thomas Pynchon. He summarizes competing visions of Asia: “one an object of political struggle among the Powers of the Earth– the other a timeless faith by whose terms all such earthly struggle is illusion. Those whose enduring object is power in this world are only too happy to use without remorse the others, whose aim of course is to transcend all questions of power. Each regards the other as a pack of deluded fools.” (249)

    • Fionnchú, a thought-provoking allele on the HOW/WHAT concept! Is it that the ‘liberal’ starts from the ‘what’, or Ends, and then applies the appropriate ‘how’ (Means); while the ‘prog’ lends primacy to the means — stridency, activism, revolution? Are radicals, at core, promiscuous viz. ideals? Are they addicted to the means?

      Will they never learn, and don’t care in the end, that carrying pictures of Chairman Mao won’t get them anywhere anyhow?

  5. I call myself a liberal because every time I scan my positions I fit into that category as it’s been defined for the past 50 years.

    It’s important for me to draw a clear line between how I think politically and what I believe politically. Politics gets “played” like a game. I find this fascinating. It’s a chess game – the best players think deep. There are few good players however. Obama was okay as a candidate. He needed tons of help. He’s really bad as President. Surprisingly bad.

    Then there are basic convictions. Principles. Clinton, for all his “game playing” had a core principle: that the mechanism of government could help people. He failed a lot. But he succeeded too. My basic conviction is that the government should fill the gap left by the market on economic issues and stay far away from people on most personal issues.

    This adds up to things like supporting a public option and being pro-choice… So I’m a liberal.

  6. Obamastolemycountry says:

    I commented at LR. I tested as a disaffected. Only 9% like me, supposedly. Hmmm. Truly though, I do not want to associate with either party. I find the democrats behavior in the past 2 years just appalling. They come off as crazy and nasty and intolerant. I have never in my life had that issue with any republican I knew. We would have strong disagreements, yes, but that was that. I find if I disagree with a liberal, well, I sometimes fear for my life! Plus, they get all whiney and infantile! I guess that must be why I’m a disaffected?!

  7. arroyo says:

    Nice blog. I’ve bookmarked it.

  8. Fionnchú says:

    Obamastole & colleagues: I too posted at LR in what I added recently as nearly the 170th comment to the discussion TL started there a few days ago. He deserves recognition for riling so many of us up and drawing in so many lurkers. Great thread, if predictably heated: often by liberals too defensive to tolerate dissension. I also earned “Disaffected,” whereas half a year earlier at Pew I was the country cousin, “Disadvantaged Democrat.” And, like Obamastole, while the stats don’t fit me for either cohort, somehow my orneriness does. I blogged about all of this today: http://fionnchu.blogspot.com/2010/01/object-of-my-disaffection-political.html

  9. I can only take credit for c. 140 of those comments, as the discussion at LR has moved to whether the Buzz Boys are really gay, really pumas, or really Darth Limbaugh’s droids.

    O-stole says they “do not want to associate with either party”, which is why I too am a former Dem, and currently picky and choosy. I didn’t leave the Democratic Party: it left me. Yet other ex-dems have, either for revenge or a compulsion to belong, have embraced the GOP.

    The GOP was never the answer, and is not now. If the Dems were to regain their sanity, escape from the Obamalonian Captivity, great. I’m not optimistic, so we liberals need to explore a third option.

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