After peaking during the mid-1960s, the “liberal” political brand entered a prolonged crisis from which it has never recovered. Many blue-collar Democrats and increasing portions of the middle class rejected what they perceived to be the unpatriotic nature of the anti-Vietnam War movement and countercultural attacks on traditional morality and family values. Likewise, working-class Catholics, one of the pillars of the Democratic Party, opposed its pro-abortion stance. And substantial numbers of white Southern voters who resisted the expansion of civil rights switched to the Republican Party.
As a political category and as an ideological package, American liberalism hit rock bottom in the 1972 elections, when incumbent Republican president Richard Nixon defeated Democratic challenger George McGovern. It was the second-largest electoral landslide in U.S. history: 520 electoral votes for Nixon, only 17 for McGovern. The Republican message that Democrats had become the party of “Amnesty, Acid, and Abortion,” (the amnesty being for draft-dodgers) was successful.
It did not help that the last Democratic president to embrace the “liberal” label, Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), had a lackluster, and in the eyes of many, failed presidency.
According to University of California, Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, the Republican attack on the term “liberal” originated during Nixon’s 1967-1968 campaign, when Republicans coined the term “liberal elite” to decry their opponents’ lack of being in touch with common men and women. Other derogatory terms such as “Volvo liberals” and “chardonnay liberals” followed.
By the time Ronald Reagan reached the White House,”liberal” had become a political insult. As Reagan famously put it in a 1988 speech, “it’s time to use … the dreaded ‘L’ word, to say the policies of our opposition … are liberal, liberal, liberal.”
The biggest proof of the success of the attack on “liberal” is that liberals gradually stopped identifying themselves as such, preferring “progressive” instead, a vaguer term with less negative historical baggage. Actually, rather than neutral, the word “progressive” has a positive ring and welcomed connotations.
Reagan and his British counterpart, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not only succeeded at denigrating liberals and defeating their candidates, but also undermined the sociopolitical structures built during decades of liberal rule. This included tax cuts, liberalization of international trade, weakening labor unions and sharp reductions in social spending and welfare.
While their parties eventually lost power in 1993 and 1990, respectively, their agendas and legislation have survived them, opening the doors to the acceleration of globalization since the 1990s. In fact, rather than a full swing back to liberalism, former President Bill Clinton and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s governments were characterized by what some call “new politics” and others “the third way”: a hybrid, centrist model that reconciles center-right economics (i.e., NAFTA) with center-left social positions such as maintaining a somewhat weakened social safety net (i.e., workfare).
It was the other Clinton, Hillary, who most forcefully wrote the “liberal” label’s epitaph, beginning in 2007, when in a primary debate she refused to describe herself as “liberal” but rather “a modern progressive.” During her second run for president in 2016, she explained that “liberal” “has been turned up on its head and it’s been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early 20th century.” “I prefer the word ‘progressive,'” she continued, “which has a real American meaning, going back to the Progressive Era at the beginning of the 20th century.”i
The importance of ideology in general has declined during the first two decades of the 21st century, culminating in the election of former Democrat, now-Republican, Donald Trump, known for his ideological opportunism â much of it in contradiction to traditional conservative values such as fiscal conservatism, foreign policy hawkishness and free trade. His brand of right-wing populism is more about the cult of personality than any coherent ideological package. It is the political echo of globalization which, like in Europe, feeds off the discontent of millions who feel aggravated by the seemingly irreversible processes of corporate outsourcing and deindustrialization, and their concomitant rise in unemployment, lower wages and mass immigration.
The year 2016 was, indeed, the third crisis of liberalism in the last 50 years, regardless of what its leaders called themselves. The first pushed millions of Democrats to support Nixon in 1968 and 1972; the second gave rise to the so-called Reagan Democrats of the 1980s; and the third to Trumpism.
Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at [emailÂ protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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