Sometime following the smashing 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater by Lyndon Johnson, conservative leaders got together to develop a plan for a counter-attack against the liberal mainstream. It is a matter of opinion how liberal the mainstream was, but clearly it was very liberal compared to today. Today, we can hope that the rightward swing of public opinion is on its way to a decisive reversal.
The conservative counterattack was to leverage their funding advantage and buy up the media. This would allow them to control the flow of information and opinion and eventually influence public thinking. In very large part they accomplished this plan and brought about the Reagan revolution which has culminated in the Bush catastrophe of the last eight years.
In the 1960's I would have described myself as slightly liberal, but basically a moderate. My political and economic views may have matured and since that time but they have not changed substantially. However, I can no longer describe myself as either moderate or liberal. The problem is that conservative propaganda has, in the last thirty years, corrupted the meanings of both of these words.
It is perhaps understandable that the word moderate should have changed; mainstream opinion has shifted to the right and by moderate we mean mainstream. What seemed a radical right-wing viewpoint in 1965 is now a mainstream or moderate view. It can be argued that the rightward shift in views is a consequence of the shift in media voices, but it is the shift in views that is responsible for the shift in the meaning of the word moderate.
The word liberal has undergone a similar transformation, but the media voices are more directly responsible for the change. Historically, the word liberal has been associated with the enlightenment period. In this time, roughly the time of the American revolution, the notion that human intelligence could be applied to political issues was afloat. Conservatives were those who still thought that religion and tradition held all the answers but liberals were the people who subscribed to this new idea that we could actually study problems and invent new solutions. Liberals were apt to favor democratic ideas and to favor the needs of ordinary people, but the truly radical idea of the liberal movement was to value human intelligence over mindless tradition.
When I say that I was a liberal in the 1960's, I meant it with this traditional meaning. In fact, most of the world still uses the term with this meaning, but the media has helped to alter the meaning of this word, at least in the United States. Today, the word liberal is used to describe someone who favors uncontrolled taxing and spending, someone who favors an uncontrolled growth in government size and power.
I would venture to say that with this newly corrupted meaning for the word liberal, with the possible exception of some high government officials (of any party) liberals are a great rarity. Is it any wonder that so many people now prefer to describe themselves as progressives rather than liberals?
Language is certainly important; it affects our thinking in a very intimate way. Perhaps now, with the conservative movement in temporary retreat, it is time to take some of our language back and redefine at least the word liberal. It is a proud tradition that does not deserve the slander of having its very meaning corrupted.
Attended college thanks to the generous state support of education in 1960's America. Earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Illinois followed by post doctoral research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. (more...)