The Irony of “Liberal”

In a lecture he gave to the Kansas City Public Library, Kevin Williamson, a writer for National Review magazine, alluded to a stark and pernicious element that underlies modern political rhetoric, emphasizing the importance of “call[ing] politics by its true name” – not only so that we can have sensible public discourse about public policy and its effects, but also so that we can understand the political world in a larger and more fundamental sense. Williamson proceeded to conclude with exasperation: “People who want to return us to 1930s-style central-planning policies that have their origins in the administration of Bismarck are progressives … [people] who, under the guise of civil rights law, would like to tell you from their offices in Washington D.C. how you have to run your bakery in rural Colorado.” As Williamson pointedly intimated, we call these people liberal, perversely enough, and have allowed the development of a blistering irony, wherein our contemporary descriptive rhetoric has become so problematic that it looks to those who wish to invest the federal government with the power to determine wage rates – to those who support the President’s policy of changing immigration law without the consent of Congress – and attributes them the title, “liberal.”

If anything, Williamson seemed to be indicating a particularly discouraging and sobering reality about the current political theater – that people simply no longer know what liberalism is and that they have been goaded by Democrats into thinking that the name is an ideological fashion statement, worn upon one’s proverbial sleeve.

But if any definition of liberalism is to be honored, it is Thomas Jefferson’s, a man who in my mind will always rank as one of the United States’ most thoughtful political thinkers. Jefferson once wrote that “rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others,” classifying a liberal as someone who upholds that and other enlightenment principles which reiterate government as an extension of a body of citizens – a body that is refulgent with the natural rights to which Jefferson, himself, referred in the Declaration. Williamson’s original statements can accordingly be restructured as such: Modern liberals, as represented in the political world by someone like Barack Obama or in the media realm by a journalist like Rachel Maddow, are not liberal – in fact, they do not even resemble true liberalism in any recognizable sense. Instead, modern liberals are among the most illiberal members of the legitimate political world, and our confusion of rhetoric in referring to them with a word related to liberty is a thing to be mourned.

So what do these modern liberals mean when they discuss their supposedly liberal ideas? Do they mean that the proper expression of liberty is one that excludes economic freedom, but simultaneously allows women to sanction a doctor to dismember a fetus without repercussion? Does it mean that the lazy can freely smoke marijuana, as long as the drug is provided equally by a coercive, bureaucratic body that taxes the middle class into extinction? Astonishingly, because modern liberals are merely disguised “illiberals” who despise individual devices and the laissez-faire mindset, the answer seems to be an emphatic “yes.” And thus we get the gross irony of the current political system – that those who are most hostile to its original constitutional and republican bases are the same politicians who have duped us all into calling them “liberal,” as if they had any respect for liberty in the first place.

Such disrespect for the notion of liberty seems to me to find its home on the college campus, where progressivism is so overwhelming that the few conservatives who live there are forced to purge themselves daily by reading National Review and by watching an hour of Fox News after classes. Indeed, there’s a reason that it is rare to encounter conservatives at state schools and elite, private institutions all over the country, and it would be a mistake to chalk it up to the Republicans’ poor social media skills: When a clueless, eighteen-year-old freshman strolls around campus his first year as student-life organizations of all sorts yell at him to support the newest environmental fad, to what extent can you expect him to avoid the actions he needs to undergo in order to be an accepted entity? He will be told over and over again that Republicans are evil, that conservatives hate poor people, and that southerners are politically ignorant – not just by misunderstood students, but also by professors with intellectual chips on their shoulders, who in turn make it difficult for anyone to escape such a predetermined political route in challenging the glib assumptions held by women’s studies majors or abortion fanatics. For those on the left who grace college campuses nationwide, the goal is to ensure the survival of their ridiculous maxim that liberalism has nothing to do with the pursuit of policies that limit the federal government’s scope, but everything to do with pitiful social acceptance and integration. In their arena, “liberal” becomes a social category that aspires to frivolously free thought defined only by an immature hatred of conventional thinking. It is a title that describes teenagers who look back to their parents and think, “I’m going to believe the exact opposite of what you do, simply because you are old, I am young, and I want to be cool.”

That statement is the essence of college-aged liberalism – a childish notion of freedom from one’s elders that is inextricably linked to the nectar of invigorating rebellion and the absence of personal responsibility. But more than that, modern liberals have managed to redefine their “ism” as a hallmark of postmodern acceptance within a thoroughly confused, religious world: Under the guise of tolerance, Elizabeth Warren-esque political operators scream about feelings and grievance – playing the victims to everyone else’s blatant ignorance – while all the while they prove themselves to be absolute enemies of diversity of thought, basking in their cocooned, intellectual sphere. Why else would there be such constant opposition to inviting speakers of a conservative bent, even if those speakers have had experiences that warrant relation on a college campus? Why else do they tolerate those angst-filled protestors – garish teenagers who will actually binge-drink themselves into oblivion because they know their parents would disapprove – who dress in all-black like Hamlet as they arrogantly declare, “I have that within which passeth show”? In a profound sense, modern liberals have allowed – indeed, caused – the notion of liberalism to mean not individualism or responsible self-determination, but rather the propensity to replace dignity with incessant complaint and hyper-sensitivity.

In the context of the current political debate, liberals have also been the troglodytes whose sole mission has been the cultivation of government dependence, touted under the misleading pretense of compassion and social justice – whose “well-intentioned” desires have created a sizable class of dependents that look to the government for their every move and that live with the depressing options put before them by obsequious bureaucrats. What a conversation it would be to tell Jefferson and Madison and Adams that liberals are those who stare in the eyes of the American people and make baseless financial promises about the probability of the welfare state’s survival – only to characterize the true champions of liberty as heartless Machiavellians whose understanding of the world is hampered by greed and materialism. The irony is obvious when you consider that the necessities of living a proud life cushioned by liberty are the very principles that are ever eroding in the face of liberal tactics.

Never has this proclivity for government dependence been better illustrated than by the Democrats’ recent advertising of a fictitious Julia – a woman whose entire life is bolstered by government intervention, formed by the manipulative hands of central-planners, and set into motion by expansive social programming. According to the advertisers’ perverse messaging, President Obama acts the role of the proverbial father of every man and child in the United States, waiting with his credit card to proliferate federal manna to a people hungry because his policies have obliterated wealth-creating, free-market incentives. Indeed, the arrogance is overwhelming, and it is a bit difficult to imagine how the beneficiaries of the “liberal” title can honestly continue to refer to themselves as such, especially when their entire motivation is centered on the flippant undermining of the American vision – to have the federal government so involved in the lives of its citizens that it flaunts the services it provides with taxpayer money as if it were some collective messiah here to transform us into heavenly angels. And it wouldn’t bother President Obama one bit to know that the founders would be crying if they could witness this profound transformation: To liberals the likes of him, liberalism means sacrificing individualism for collectivism, placing equality over liberty in the hierarchy of priorities, and using the federal government as an end-all to enforce their frightening conception of utopia.

This is all not to mention the most economically devastating aspect of modern liberals’ redefinition of liberalism: their obsession with centralization and federal standardization, as manifest in such horrors as the EPA and Common Core, its top-down vision of education reminiscent of something the Soviet Union may have attempted. The idea of allowing a federal entity to form a singular model or standard of performance and to force it down the throats of millions of people who live, act, and think differently is the defining aspect of the illiberal mindset – granting misguided bureaucrats the authority to exercise a position that they could not, under any circumstances, fulfill in any laudable sense. But when you have an ideology that cares primarily about control, the importance of implementing diverse standards – indeed, of eliminating fruitless and expansive models of all kinds – is lost to a seething vision of bureaucratic largess. The end result is that federalism morphs from an assurance of freedom to a useless antiquity – one with an outdated spirit of localization that ought to be cast aside in favor of unmitigated federal autonomy.

To condense, the irony of “liberal” is that the politicos who operate under the title’s contemporary classification manage to profoundly violate everything that classical liberalism signifies in the context of government: Modern liberalism is not a well-wrought philosophy, but rather a label that is paraded in academic circles among students who have nothing better to do than study every conceivable manifestation of grievance in the known world. Ultimately, the process of studying politics teaches that, in the context of the progressive left, liberalism means nothing – it is a clever front which used to mean something to real thinkers and sincere citizens, but that has now been corrupted by big-government sycophants like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid whose addiction to government is downright dangerous.

I would simply ask that the individuals who continue to cause this evolution admit that which is demonstrably true – that they are progressives of a most illiberal and pandering sort.


2 thoughts on “The Irony of “Liberal”

  1. Lewis Dovland Reply

    If you are an example of the next generation of Americans, and maybe leaders, that is emerging, there is hope for this country.

    This article is excellent and right on point. Although I am older than you (much older!), even with my life’s experience and perspectives, I could not have written anything this good on the topic.

    Keep the faith, our political climate is changing for the better.


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