Saturday, 11 December 2010

You Keep Using that Word ...

"Liberal" has been a dirty word in America for some time. But the actual meaning of the term seems to keep shifting rightward while politicians continue to struggle to avoid being tagged with it. Consider an example from a blog posting published in the paper edition of Friday's Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin observes that the Democratic Party of Virginia had the audacity to choose , in her terms, an "ultra-liberal" to lead the state party despite the results of the midterm elections.  Apparently, this was a sign that the Democratic Party didn't get it; the clear message of the midterms was that America will have no truck with the Democratic Party's liberal ways.  Setting aside the question of whether the midterm results indicate a rightward trend (and the deep disdain I hold for political agents who shape policy and pick candidates by identifying the easiest road to victory),  I was fascinated by the choice of the term "ultra liberal" to describe Brian Moran. Why is Moran an ultra liberal? Does he want to nationalize the banks, mandate a 30 hour work week, institute single payer healthcare, establish a national day care program, increase welfare spending, legalize drugs? Well, actually, turns out this "ultra liberal" has twice won a  "Friend of Business" award from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bastion of Marxism, and is a  gun rights advocate.  Furthermore, he is, at best, ambivalent about gay marriage.

Nevertheless, Rubin calls him an ultra liberal because he opposes off-shore drilling and supports organized labour. (Despite the BP oil spill this summer, opposition to offshore drilling is now a hallmark of radical leftism?) So that's all it take then, if you don't think unions are evil and that oil companies should be allowed to drill wherever they please, then you're not just a liberal, you're an "ultra liberal".

I wish that I had the time and energy to better document this attempt to marginalize as radical leftism any and all positions that don't toe the shifting conservative party line. This is less ballsy than the GOP's frequent use of "socialism" to describe a health care plan that was remarkaby similar to that championed by prominent conservatives in the not too distant past, but pretty remarkable nonetheless.  Small wonder that people that people scarcely bat an eye when people describe the NYT or CNN or even the Washington Post as liberal.  Language evolves, of course, but the question of how we're using "liberal" is particularly important because there seems to be some consensus on both sides of the aisle that it denotes the boundaries of what counts as reasonable policy and debate.

ETA: As further evidence of how far we've moved to the right and how the meaning of "liberal" has changed, consider the various progressive policies that Richard Nixon implemented or pursued.  (For example, this is a decent outline: link)  Or try googling "Nixon more liberal than Obama"

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