Are today’s liberals really liberal?

Of course, terms like “liberal” and “conservative” change values over time, so there is no permanently fixed answer, but the question is still meaningful. Looking at the general standards of what “liberal” has meant in living memory (the past 50 years or so), today’s liberals are not liberal by a 1960s definition, and indeed, for better or for worse, are working feverishly to dismantle the 1960s liberal vision. The 1960s counterculture liberals pushed hard for a non-restrictive (break all restraints), radically integrationist (everyone share everything openly, regardless of race), and non-puritanical (celebrate all forms of robust sexuality, so long as no one is forcing anyone) vision. Using these three criteria, today’s liberals are by 1960s standards “pseudo-liberal” at best, “reactionary” at worst — i.e., they are restrictive (policing speech and every false move), segregationist (cultural appropriation and do-not-cross lines and “you can’t know my truth” because you’re not my color), and puritanical (crude jokes and clumsy flirtations are actionable offenses, every hint of male heterosexual desire is suspect in a vague consensus that “male pleasure is inextricably tied to victimizing, hurting, exploiting” [Dworkin]).

So are liberals today “liberal”? If by liberal, you mean restrictive, segregationist, and puritanical, yes. Perhaps this is indeed what “liberal” has become. But if you are old enough to have set your benchmarks of “liberal” over a longer range, say reaching back through the hippies to John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, the new “liberalism” (restrictive + segregationist + puritanical) might seem “pseudo-liberal” or even reactionary, in some cases more reactionary than today’s college-age conservatives.

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14 thoughts on “Are today’s liberals really liberal?

    • Let me play the other side for a minute. If we turn from issues of cultural identity to economics/wealth inequality, environmentalism, health care — I think there is greater continuity between 1960s liberals and today’s liberals on those issues. American liberals are still fighting on the same side there, and we lean as your Left does though perhaps more centrist than your left (i.e., our Left, compared to our Right, favors policies to protect the environment and worker rights, reduce wealth inequality, universal health care, etc.) Also, I thought that the British (and to a lesser extent European) Left had picked up some of the same “anti-liberal” academic dogmatics of which my blog complains. E.g., I saw a UK Telegraph survey that said 80% of those polled favored gender equality but only 7% identified as feminist (adjusted for gender, still only 9% of the women polled identified as feminist). This suggests to me that British liberals may have some of the same disconnect between the theorists and the public (with the theorists doubling down on the stifling and divisive rhetoric instead of looking in the mirror). I am only guessing, though, so any extra thoughts on the UK are appreciated. Gary

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      • I think the main point is that Liberalism is not necessarily seen as ‘Left’ in the UK (though all of these terms are necessarily vague and have a lot of overlap). For instance, I would consider myself a social liberal (i.e. broadly in favour of equality, tolerance, ‘negative’ freedom, etc) but I would not consider myself in anyway ‘Left’. From what I have seen, the closest to classical liberalism in the States is the Libertarian party, though they take it by far to the extreme (which seems to be a trend in American politics 😉 ).

        On the point about academics, we do not seem to have the same extreme culture wars going on here – yet – though elements of it have filtered through. There have been some underlying spats about safe spaces, no-platforming of controversial speakers, etc., and of course all of our academics read the stuff coming out of the States (and elsewhere). However, as far as I know we haven’t had students rioting over speakers or anything shocking like that. However, if nothing else, Brexit has shown that there is certainly a disjunct between the theorists (and general elite) and the people on many aspects of life; one of them being ‘political correctness’.

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        • Interesting. In the US, “Left” and “liberal” are often used interchangeably; i.e. I might paraphrase you by saying, “I’m left on social issues.” However, “Left” sometimes suggests a more ideological extreme form of liberal, and at other times they mean other things. E.g., “neoliberal” is strangely synonymous with “conservative” in some circles (Ronald Reagan, e.g., is interchangeably called both), and “liberal” sometimes carries the more historical meaning you assign it. In fact, in the 1970s the fear was that libertarian candidates would pull from the (liberal) Democrats, since on the high-profile issues of the day – freedom to do, think, say, live how you like, and screw convention – 1970s liberals and libertarians were very close if not the same. Now the fear is that libertarians will pull from (conservative) Republicans, as (1) the spotlight has shifted to those aspects of libertarian that align with our conservatives (gun rights, low taxes, smaller safety nets), and (2) our “liberals,” as you note, have drifted away from their traditionally liberal/libertarian core ideas.

          Glad to hear you’ve kept our mindless culture wars at bay. Stay away from those academic theorists! On this the 79th birthday of LSD, Dr. Timothy Leary was never more right: “Drop out, turn on, tune in!”

          Hahaha. No riots or “shocking” behavior by our self-restrained Brit friends. Unless football is involved, I suppose.

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    • Hi Tim. By reactionary, I don’t mean violent in the expression of views, I’m just placing those views on a left-right axis — i.e., conservative means roughly maintaining the status quo against the progressive push for change, reactionary means actually rolling back progressive change (one step beyond mainstream conservative). At least that’s how I’m defining my spectrum.

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  1. I never thought of current liberals as reactionaries, but then again you can go so far left, that you meet up with the right. They are restrictive and intolerant of views not their own. I have problems since I see things in terms of grey, and have been forced by my friends to chose between black and white.

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    • Yes, too much “us vs them” binary thinking right now. Yes, when you start consolidating power, enforcing obedience to your ideological preferences, and vilifying outsiders to your circle, you are leaning in to fascism, regardless of whether the content of your views is, for the time being, labeled “liberal.”

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      • Just remember that fascism has never been successfully instituted by any other group than socialists. Fascism is simply liberal / left / socialist socio-economic theory & practice when it’s forced upon a people. 😉

        Right now we have Antifa as our woud-be SA.

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  2. The ’60s liberals were for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. But, many of them were into sex, drugs and rock-n-roll (a self-absorbed hedonistic lifestyle), and they were for abortion and homosexuality. I do not hold them in high esteem.

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    • Hi Larryzb. I agree with your descriptive info (they were against the war and for civil rights, sex, drugs, rock, gays, and pro-choice on abortion), but I disagree on the evaluative slant. I’m with you on civil rights and war, and with them on sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, gays and abortion. (More precisely, I agree with you that said lifestyle could turn self-absorbed and destructive, but it could also express love, joy, freedom, and community spirit. So we disagree on some points but hopefully can still allow the peace and love to flow between us.)

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  3. Pingback: Did 1960s liberals become today’s conservatives? | shakemyheadhollow

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