Are you a liberal, or a conservative? Right-wing or left-wing? Are you male, female, or an Apache Helicopter? Before you go answering those first two, let’s complicate those questions with historical context.
Now, what do we commonly think of when we think of modern day liberals and conservatives? Well, usually when we think of liberalism we think of big government, a more centrally planned economy, and collectivism, and when we think of modern conservatives we tend to think of limited government, free markets, and individualism. Now there are a lot of nuances to the people who identify as either, but for the sake of creating a general model let’s use simplified definitions.
Now, conservatism has existed forever basically, but liberalism, at least as an ideology, is far newer. When thinking about the history of liberalism we usually start with John Locke. Although ideas that would later be recognized as being “liberal” existed before Locke, Liberalism as an ideology didn’t really exist before the enlightenment, so this is where we are going to establish our absolute terms.
So in the 18th and 19th century people like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson would have been seen as liberals, but liberalism then was very different than what liberalism is today. During the days of Locke and Jefferson a Liberal was someone who wanted Limited Government, Free Markets, and Individual Liberty. In case you didn’t notice, that’s basically the opposite of what liberals today usually stand for. The same thing happened to conservatism. At the time of the American Revolution a conservative was a supporter of Absolutism, Mercantilism, which is a kind of centrally planned economy, and paternalism, where the needs of society as a whole are enforced by a god ordained government, which is basically the opposite of what we think of in regards to modern day conservatives. So basically, the definitions flipped. How did this happen?
Today we use terms like Classical-Liberalism or Neo-Liberalism to differentiate liberals from the 19th century and earlier from Liberals of the 20th and 21st centuries, but why did this happen? Why did these two terms flip? Why don’t modern day Democrats just refer to themselves as conservatives, or modern day Republicans refer to themselves as Liberal? Well, there’s historical context, and to the horror of modern liberals, it involves cultural appropriation. To understand this, at least in the American context, we need to understand our political history.
The Constitutional Convention gave birth to the two main streams of American politics. On one hand you had the Jeffersonians, who identified with the liberal ideas of limited government, free markets, and individual liberty. On the other hand you had the Hamiltonians who identified with the conservative ideas of Big government, Mercantilism, and Paternalism, minus the monarchism. The Jeffersonians gave birth to the First Republican Party, while the Hamiltonians gave birth to the Federalists. The membership of these two parties eventually merged together in what historians commonly refer to the Democratic-Republican Party, which broke up in the 1820s into the Democrats, who identified with Jeffersonian-Liberalism, and the Whigs, who identified with Hamiltonian-Conservatism. The Whigs eventually gave way to the Republicans who continued to identify with Hamiltonianism.
Where things begin to get complicated is around the turn of the 20th century in the progressive era. You had Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson occupying intersections between traditional conservative and liberal positions. Taft and Roosevelt were Conservatives in their day, but they embraced Trust-busting, which occupies a strange space in American political tradition. On the one hand, trust busting is supposedly being used to ensure that free-market competition can occur by breaking up monopolies, but on the other hand it is also a means of the government to intervene in the economy, which is more of a central planning tool.
Then you had Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned as a free-market, liberal progressive. However his presidency saw a massive expansion of government that is traditionally associated with conservatism, especially after US entry into the first world war, which saw the federal government essentially take over the entire economy, regulating the usage of nearly every resource. 1920 saw a reaction to Wilson’s big-government progressivism with Warren Harding and his “return to normalcy,” which in the American context was small government liberalism. So here we see the beginnings of an ideological shift between Democrats and Republicans, where Republicans start drifting toward Jeffersonian-Liberalism, and Democrats start drifting toward Hamiltonian-Conservatism, but at this point the words Liberalism and Conservatism are still associated with their 18th century meanings.
This all changes in 1932 and the election between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Toward the beginning of the election FDR accused Hoover of taking the United States down the road to socialism. But in September of 1932 this all changed with a speech FDR gave to the Commonwealth Club. In this speech Roosevelt promoted the ideas of big government.
“The growth of the national Governments of Europe was a struggle for the development of a centralized force in the Nation, strong enough to impose peace upon ruling barons… The people preferred the master far away to the exploitation and cruelty of the smaller master near at hand.”
“They were often cruel in their methods, but they did strive steadily toward something that society needed and very much wanted, a strong central State able to keep the peace, to stamp out civil war, to put the unruly nobleman in his place, and to permit the bulk of individuals to live safely.”
FDR promoted these ideas, which were largely inspired by his time in the Wilson administration, as liberal. The idea that the government can solve economic and social issues was at the heart of early 20th century progressivism, but the Wilson Administration made people despise Progressivism. In order to pursue these policies FDR needed to relabel them, and just like that he appropriated the word Liberal for his own traditionally conservative ideas, and by the end of his presidency in 1945, Liberalism was associated with Big-Government, Central Economic Planning, and Collectivism, and Conservatives became associated with Limited-Government, Free Markets, and Individualism.
The last detail of this story comes from the 1988 election, when Vice President George H.W. Bush managed to make “Liberal” a dirty word in politics, associated with being soft on crime, high taxes, and fiscal irresponsibility. By the end of the 90s the Democrats started calling themselves Progressives as a replacement for the word Liberal, which is more historically accurate to their party’s actual ideology. Because of this history we haven’t seen any significant effort to reclaim the word “Liberal.” You have some like Dave Rubin who occasionally use the word, but for both Conservatives and Libertarians you are more likely to see the term “Classical Liberal” because plan “Liberalism” has too much baggage attached to it now.
There’s the possibility that the Democrats might abandon the term “Progressive” again and pick up liberal, but unlike the early 20th century, we don’t see the word “Progressive” in use anywhere in the Republican Party like it was by Theodore Roosevelt or William Howard Taft, which contributed to public discourse becoming sick of it. So it looks like the loser in all of this is the word “Liberal” itself, who has had its meaning appropriated and slandered to the point of it being untouchable.