The Liberal Label: The Substance is Alive and Well, But the Brand is in Trouble


The American Prospect, September 2003, volume 14, issue 8, pages 36-38


"The masquerade is over; it's time to ... use the dreaded 'L' word, to say the policies of our opposition ... are liberal, liberal, liberal."


SINCE THE 1930S, THE LANDSCAPE OF AMERICAN POLITICAL discourse has been framed by the words liberal versus conservative. In this era, U.S. commentators first began to speak of American politics in terms of the spectrum of left, right and center, words previously used chiefly to describe foreign politics or the factions of radical movements. It was in the same New Deal period, too, that liberal and conservative were settled on as what Franklin Roosevelt described in 1941 as the "two general schools of political belief" of representative government. American political language may evolve along with changing issues and positions. But the background landscape can only be altered surreptitiously, while preserving the illusion of continuity and symmetry.

There's no more impressive example of using language to alter substance than the right's success in turning liberal into a disparaging word. The decline of the label has had a lot to do with the changing political climate, of course, but it has also been the victim of a kind of negative branding: People have more misgivings about the name than about what it stands for.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that just 22 percent of respondents were willing to describe themselves as liberal, against 35 percent who described themselves as conservatives. A separate survey showed that just 11 percent believed the president's tax cuts were very likely to create new jobs. And by 46 percent to 36 percent, respondents felt that Democrats would do a better job than Republicans at making the tax system fair. In short, a lot of people who call themselves moderates hold what most would describe as liberal views.

Even so, the negative branding of the liberal label has had serious consequences for Democrats. Few politicians on the Democratic left will volunteer a liberal allegiance; when pressed, they tend to dismiss the significance of labels in general, paraphrase their way around the word or accept the label with a certain defensiveness ("If being a liberal means a balanced budget, I'm a liberal," Dr. Dean said.).

The stigmatization of the liberal label puts even moderate Democrats in a bind because it leaves them without a philosophical reference point. In the press, middle-of-the-road Democrats are overwhelmingly more likely to be described as centrist than as moderate, whereas middle-of-the-road Republicans are usually termed moderates. That is, the press tends to position Democrats on the left-right spectrum, whereas Republicans are positioned relative to their party's underlying conservative philosophy. It's no wonder many people are not sure exactly the Democratic Party stands for.

"Branding" refers to the process of turning connotations into denotations. At the outset, words such as liberal or conservative have what semanticists would call "attributive" definitions--they simply mean "one who believes or advocates such and such." Over time, though, a label may be associated with various connotations and stereotypes until it ultimately becomes "referential" rather than attributive--its definition is less a matter of "one who believes" than of "that sort of person."

Historically, that shift has been the fate of such labels as Tory, anarchist and Bolshevik. But the democratic left has always been susceptible to a particularly complicated kind of social stereotyping. Bourgeois conservatives and proletarian radicals wear their class interests on their sleeves, but someone seeking to discredit the motives of middle-class leftists has to point to another sort of explanation, claiming they're really driven by social pretension, condescension or effete sentimentality.

Charges such as these have been fixtures of the American right's pseudo-populism since the 1840 presidential campaign. The intellectually challenged William Henry Harrison was an Ohioan from an aristocratic Virginia background; the Whigs successfully repackaged him as a cider-sipping frontiersman in the Jacksonian mode while describing his Democratic opponent, Martin van Buren, as an effete easterner who put cologne on his whiskers and was "laced up in corsets such as women in town wear."

In the 1920s, the right's depiction of the democratic left was summed up in the phrase "parlor pink," a phrase that managed to convey bourgeois affectation, ideological timidity and effeminacy all at the same time. (The variant "pinko" was coined by Time magazine in the 1920s.) And by the McCarthy period, a helping of anti-eggheadism was added to the mix: William F. Buckley famously quipped that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than the entire Harvard University faculty.

Liberal stereotyping took a new form in the 1960s, as Vietnam and the emergence of new social issues created new class antagonisms. To many working-class Americans, middle-class liberals seemed hostile to traditional conceptions of patriotism, personal morality and the family, and liberal support for school busing seemed hypocritical coming from people in white suburbs or private schools. The term "limousine liberal" first surfaced during John Lindsay's 1969 New York mayoral campaign, where the conflict was cast as a clash between affluent Manhattan reformers and New York's working-class outer boroughs. By the 1970s, lifestyle and consumer preferences were becoming the surrogates for social class and ideology. When first coined, phrases such as "Volvo liberals" were as likely to be used by movement leftists as by the right. But within a few years, the right was using those phrases to tar liberals with a kind of guilt by brand association. The brand image of the Volvo--an ugly car from socialist Sweden that people bought simply because it was safe, and whose name had a serendipitously gynecological resonance--was ideal for this sort of stereotyping. So were white wine, quiche, brie and later caffe latte, all soft and light comestibles with effete connotations.

In truth, those stereotypes had little basis in reality. Upscale urban consumers may favor products such as brie and chardonnay, but the preferences have no political significance. In fact, an article in American Demographics reports that the great majority of brie consumers are moderate Republicans--not surprising, perhaps, considering their incomes. In the luxury marketplace, demographics always trumps ideology.

The new stereotypes are plays on pure brand aura. They're meant to connote what the National Review's Richard Lowry describes as the "'tall-skim double-mocha latte, please' culture of contemporary America," and if the latte sipping classes actually contain large numbers of conservative Republicans, they'll presumably contain their objections. Not long ago, Lowry recast Buckley's aphorism in consumerist terms, saying, "I would rather be governed by 2,000 motorcycle riders than all the Volvo drivers in the United States." The reformulation is revealing, and not just about Lowry's inner life--it suggests that consumer choices have become the most reliable indications of temperament and character.

It's no accident that phrases such as "chardonnay liberal" became common as the gender gap began to emerge and men started to desert the Democratic Party in large numbers. Those phrases didn't simply recast the old feminized stereotypes of liberals in terms of exotic products that are rarely found on the shelves of Rust Belt grocery stores. Once you turn political orientation into a kind of consumer preference, rat her than a deep, class-based judgment, it's natural to see it as a decision that men and women feel free to make independently, even if they're in the same household. He drives a Chevy Avalanche and drinks long-neck beer; she drives a Toyota Echo and drinks white wine. Why shouldn't they vote for different parties as well?

From a semantic point of view, this negative branding campaign has largely succeeded in changing the meaning of the word liberal itself. In major newspapers, for example, the phrases "middle-class liberals" and "middle-class Democrats" are used with about the same frequency. But the phrase "working class liberals" is almost nonexistent; it's outnumbered by "working-class Democrats" by about 30-to-1. And while "white liberals" is used about as frequently as "white Democrats," the phrase "black Democrats" outnumbers "black liberals" by better than 15-to-1. The patterns are similar if you plug in "African American," "Latino" and the like.

By contrast, the press refers to working-class conservatives as frequently as it does to working class Republicans--and far more frequently than it refers to working-class liberals. And there are five times as many references to black conservatives as to black liberals, though references to black Democrats vastly outnumber references to black Republicans. The implication is that unlike conservatives, liberals are rarely found among minorities or the working class. When those groups vote Democratic, it's presumably out of narrow self-interest or traditional party loyalty rather than because of any underlying ideological commitment. From that point of view, the political attitudes that make someone a liberal are simply the outward expression of a particular social identity, no different from a predilection for granite countertops or bottled water. For all intents and purposes, liberal has become as much a referential term as Bolshevik was.

HOW CAN LIBERALS--AND DEMOCRATS IN GENERAL--respond to this? Many have simply opted to bail out on the liberal label, something like what the Ford Motor Company did in 1960 when it discontinued the Edsel line but continued to market the same car with a different grille under the name of Galaxy. In his 1992 presidential bid, Sen. Tom Harkin announced that America needed a "populist and progressive" leader. I recall thinking at the time that progressive wasn't likely to catch on generally as a replacement for liberal. Even if few people still had memories of Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential bid, progressive seemed too redolent of the left's disdain for mealymouthed corporatist liberalism--a word you'd encounter on Pacifica but not on National Public Radio.

But the progressive label has become twice as frequent in the press since then, and its associations are increasingly mainstream. Not long ago, California Gov. Gray Davis said he was confident that he would prevail in next fall's recall vote because, "I don't think they're going to replace my progressive agenda with a conservative agenda"--this from a Democrat who rarely cruises in the party's left lane. And in The Emerging Democratic Majority, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira argue that the Democrats are becoming "the new party of progressive centrism," a phrase that happily suggests both the 19th--and 21st-century senses of progressive.

There's a lot to be said for progressive: It conveys the right message to sophisticated left-of-center voters without connoting anything negative to the majority of the electorate. (To most, it still doesn't connote much of anything at all.) In fact, the word has been turning up more frequently in the pages of conservative publications such as the National Review, very often set in quotation marks, the refuge of those who have allowed the other side to stake out the linguistic territory.

But the branding of liberals can't be undone simply by getting rid of the name. You also have to dispel the fatuous archetypes that have accumulated around it--archetypes whose purpose, as Peter Viereck put it 40 years ago, is to make people ashamed of generous social impulses. And the right couldn't have succeeded in its branding campaign if liberal Democrats hadn't left themselves vulnerable to it by failing to address many of the concerns of working-class Americans.

Whatever word it ultimately goes by, liberalism can't reclaim its good name simply by remarketing the same product with new slogans and a NASCAR-approved grille. It has to reinvent language as well as program to convey a sense of fairness, strength, pride and common purpose, and to reconnect with people who no longer feel it has any relevance to their lives. That's a challenging task. But as the other contributions to this section point out, liberals have rarely had such a plenitude of opportunities to make their points.