What Does It Mean to Be a Liberal?

liberal, progressive, Write Anything Wednesday, FDR
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is seen as a liberal hero in some circles for his New Deal Policies.

Do you think you know what it means to be liberal?

While doing the research for this post, I had a general idea, since I consider myself a liberal. In simple terms, liberals generally support economic policies that favor regulatory markets. According to a simple scale, that makes us “left-wing.”

liberal, political scale, left wing, Write Anything Wednesday

But we generally refer to liberals as people who support certain social policies and reforms. Basically, liberals support equal rights, including policies to help gays, women, and people of color. We generally support policies where the government will ameliorate certain situations in order to facilitate change.

Is There a Definitive Definition of What a Liberal Is?

As the studious person I am, I decided to look for textbook definitions as well as the perspective from a self-professed liberal.


One of my first stops was Merriam-Webster Online, which had two definitions of the word “liberal” and an entire post dedicated to what liberal meant.


From the first definition, I pulled these two items:

5:broad-minded; especially:  not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms

6a: of, favoring, or based upon the principles of liberalism; b capitalized :  of or constituting a political party advocating or associated with the principles of political liberalism; especially :  of or constituting a political party in the United Kingdom associated with ideals of individual especially economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives

Here is the second definition:

  1. :  a person who is liberal: such asa :  one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways b capitalized :  a member or supporter of a liberal political party (see 1liberal 6)c :  an advocate or adherent of liberalism especially in individual rights

And here is a definition of the word “liberalism”:

a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (see autonomy 2) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically :  such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class)


In short, there are definitive terms of what it means to be liberal, but the word itself is so dynamic and multifaceted. The word liberal evolved from the root Latin term liber, which means “free.”

But the word as we know it wasn’t used in the political sense until the around the 19th century. That was when the British Whigs and Tories began to use the terms liberal and conservative as opposite descriptors.

Now, the U.K. still has the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, among other parties. The Labour Party was long viewed to occupy a space left of center, but it became more of a neoliberal party under Tony Blair’s leadership. The party’s current platform seems far more progressive, however.

The Huffington Post

In a March 26, 2013, blog post for The Huffington Post, Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, reposted a list of 10 propositions he had shared 7 years prior. The list, in his opinion, signified the values that define liberals.

Stone identified as a liberal and he was appalled by the way those of that ideological title failed to define themselves and cower from being identified as liberal. As I had noticed, the word liberal had been used as a pejorative. It had become a “dirty” word and conservative pundits had long used it (like in terms like “pinko liberal”) to paint their ideological opponents as weak and aimless.

Here is a sampler of the proposals:

4. Liberals believe “we the people” are the governors and not the subjects of government, and that government must treat each person with that in mind.

6. Liberals believe government has a fundamental responsibility to help those who are less fortunate.

9. Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, for without such protection liberalism is impossible. This, of course, is less a tenet of liberalism than a reply to those who attack liberalism. The accusation that liberals are unwilling to protect the nation from internal and external dangers is false. Because liberals respect competing values, such as procedural fairness and individual dignity, they weigh more carefully particular exercises of government power (such as the use of secret evidence, hearsay and torture), but they are no less willing to use government authority in other forms (such as expanded police forces and international diplomacy) to protect the nation and its citizens.

(I happen to agree with all ten of Stone’s proposals.)

What Is a Radical?

When you hear the term “radical,” what do you think of in the political sense?

I usually think of groups like the Environmental Liberation front or anarchists. There are eco-terrorists who end up going against the cause they supposedly support and then there are those who want no government and/or chaos.

However, there is a positive application of the word radical to politics, particularly when you look at American history. In short, radicals are “individuals, parties, and movements that wish to alter drastically any existing practice, institution, or social system. They are around to “challenge complacency, think the previously unthinkable, and open up space for society’s mainstream to change and progress.”

Encyclopedia.com has a short article on the subject and shows how the word evolved from its usage in French politics. Originally, radicals were lawmakers seated farthest to the left of the King. In the United States, radicals were those who called for rapid and drastic social and economic changes, namely during Reconstruction.

Some of our first radicals were from the Republican Party. They asked for social reforms to help freed slaves and even land redistribution. (That’s where we got the phrase “forty acres and a mule.”)

Many of the radicals we had in the United States played key roles in the evolution of the nation. Over the years, radicals joined with liberals to fight for causes like the Civil Rights Movement and the unionization of workers.

What Is a Neoliberal?

A neoliberal follows an ideology based on the “principles” of privatization, deregulation, lower taxes, global markets, and decreased government spending (austerity). This “secret ideology” was developed in France during the 1930’s by Austrian scholars. It was brought to the United States by men like Milton Friedman.

Neoliberalism is the default economic (and foreign) policy for much of the world, including top Western governments and Russia. The policy was promoted through organizations like the Heritage Foundation, the Cate Institute, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

Although Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan identified as conservatives, they served as two prime examples of neoliberals principles at work. Both rose to power in their respective countries during the 1980’s and both promoted lower taxes for the wealthy and deregulated markets.

Pinochet was another neoliberal, although he was a brutal dictator. He was installed as the leader in Chile in order to promote a radically free market.

The word “neoliberal” and related terms are often not heard on mainstream outlets. The term made it on HBO (via to Cornel West) and was recently mentioned by Bill Maher, who rebuffed the implications.

But in all honesty, many people blame the current state of world economies, including those in the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Spain, on neoliberal policies. I agree with this.

When things like privatization and deregulation are introduced, businesses and wealthy individuals have no incentive to self-regulate. This leads to wide-scale abuses. Prices rise, wages fall, and the wealth gap increases. Quality of service also falls by the wayside, especially as the “winners” punish the “losers” and game the system in order to kill competition and crush dissent. Things are exacerbated as this way of thinking is exported around the world.

And What Is a Progressive?

This term is the hardest to define.

From a simple Google search, I was able to find one definition. Here is what you get from the second item:

(of a group, person, or idea) favoring or implementing social reform or new, liberal ideas.

“a relatively progressive governor”

favoring or promoting change or innovation.

“a progressive art school”

Synonyms: modern, liberal, advanced, forward-thinking, enlightened, enterprising, innovative, pioneering, dynamic, bold, avant-garde, reforming, reformist, radical; informalgo-ahead

“progressive views”

This definition really fits past American presidents like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Roosevelt was especially progressive, based on movement that had developed around the 19th and 20th centuries. He promoted fair wages, child labor laws, and busted up monopolies. He also was a moderate when dealing with racial inequality.

Despite the definition above, modern progressivism is not tied to one ideology. According to Andrew Garib, it isn’t even an ideology but a pragmatic and value-driven view of the world. There is a push to adapt to the way the world is and modernize economic, social, and infrastructural systems. Progressives also encourage others to talk part in their government.

However, that has not stopped people of certain ideological tilts from adopting it.

In Great Britain, political leaders like to borrow the term because they believe it makes them seem more compassionate.

In the United States, progressives are maligned but many proudly use the term to describe themselves as people who support economic and social reforms championed by both Presidents Roosevelt. American progressives generally reject neoliberal policies and endless military interventions.

What Are My Thoughts?

I don’t see liberalism or conservatism as being bad things. In fact, I believe each ideology is unavoidable and necessary. And on the whole, I like progressivism.

We need liberals insofar as they are people who strive to move society forward. Change is inevitable and society needs to adapt in order to meet that change. Also, if there are areas were society can improve, it makes perfect sense to promote those changes. People need to look for problems in order to address them and avoid complacency.

We need conservatives in that they are people who temper that change and uphold important traditions and standards. At best, conservatives support the Constitution and the ideas of equality and fairness among all Americans.

True progressivism takes the best ideas from both camps to find an equable solution for the less fortunate.

Now, I do have a problem with the conservative line of thought that liberalism or progressivism is weak, lacking in morality, or something like a mental deficiency. That way of thinking is a projection by the person making such statements.

I also have a problem with the “neos.” I see nothing but harm in neoliberalism, and neoconservatism. Both have skewed the political spectrum in the United States. Both have negatively influenced American policy for the past 40+ years and infected both major parties.

Neoconservatism and neoliberalism are perversions of their precursors. Both are right-wing, reactionary, corporate, and they both support endless foreign wars. And when they are applied, they only benefit a select few, including war profiteers.

Works Cited

Clark, Thomas G. “What Is Neoliberalism?” Another Angry Voice. 23 Sept 2012. Web. <http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.com/2012/09/what-is-neoliberalism-explained.html>.

Garcia, Arnoldo and Martinez, Elizabeth. “What is Neoliberalism?” CorpWatch. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=376>.

Garib, Andrew. “What is Progressive?” Alternet. 25 July 2005. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.alternet.org/story/23706/what_is_progressive>.

“Liberal | Definition of Liberal by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/liberal>.

“Liberalism | Definition of Liberalism by Merriam-Webster.” Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/liberalism>.

Monbiot, George. “Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems.” The Guardian. 15 Apr 2016. Updated 2 May 2017. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot>.

“Neoliberalism.” Investopedia. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/neoliberalism.asp>.

“Radicals and Radicalism.” Encyclopedia.com. The Gale Group, Inc. 2003. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/radicals-and-radicalism>.

Stone, Geoffrey R. “What Is a Liberal?” The Huffington Post. 26 Mar 2013. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/geoffrey-r-stone/what-is-a-liberal_b_2545206.html>.

“Teddy Roosevelt and Progressivism.” Slavery by Another Name. PBS. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.pbs.org/tpt/slavery-by-another-name/themes/progressivism/>.

What Exactly Is a ‘Liberal’? Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/liberal-meaning-origin-history>.

Wheeler, Brian. “So what exactly is ‘progressive’ in politics?” BBC News. 16 Nov 2010. Web. Retrieved 17 May 2017. <http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-11785483>.


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