Some libertarians, meanwhile, are trying to grab the word for themselves. Former Michigan congressman Justin Amash, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Libertarian, tweeted in mid-January, “I hereby reclaim the word ‘liberal’ for classical liberalism. This serves as an official notice.” Bari Weiss, a centrist former Times opinion editor, recently tweeted support for Amash’s idea of forming a new political party. But she can’t really be described as a libertarian herself — and recently wrote an essay for Tablet magazine aligning with liberalism in yet another way: not “in the narrow, partisan sense” but in the sense of broader virtues like pluralism, individualism and “liberty of thought, faith, and speech.”
Longtime Slate writer Will Saletan, another centrist, has embraced the label in a similar fashion, telling conservative commentator Matt Lewis, “Nowadays, to me, [liberal] doesn’t mean ‘as opposed to conservative.’ Nowadays it means ‘as opposed to illiberalism,’ which exists in various forms on the left and right. I notice that Bill Kristol, for example, has been using the word ‘liberal’ a lot lately.”
Kristol — who, in his incarnations as chief of staff to Dan Quayle and longtime editor of the Weekly Standard, would never have been considered a friend to liberalism — told me there could be “not exactly a political alliance or party, but a kind of intellectual alliance” between center-left and center-right “in defense of liberalism broadly speaking. ... Liberal democracy seems to be what is at stake around the world — the defense of liberal democracy against a kind of populist authoritarianism on the right and various illiberal trends on the left.” (“If someone like Bill Kristol is thinking about identifying as a liberal,” Gray told me, “that should give liberals who see themselves as progressive some pause.”)
For most of the 20th century, things were a bit more straightforward. Democratic leaders were content to call themselves liberal — by which they meant they were committed to both personal freedoms and a role for government in regulating and softening (but not undermining) capitalism. Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy all used the word to describe their visions of a strong federal government.
Then, in the 1980s, an ascendant conservative movement began a blistering rhetorical assault on what Ronald Reagan called the “dreaded l-word.” In a 1988 speech attacking Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, Reagan used the word “liberal” or “liberalism” nearly two dozen times. Dukakis initially ran from the term before ultimately embracing it — and going down in a crushing defeat. By 1992, Bill Clinton was running for the White House on ostentatiously moderate “third way” politics.
“The negative connotations in the ’80s and ’90s were a kind of softness on the most divisive social issues: crime, parental authority, drug abuse,” says David Kusnet, who was Clinton’s chief speechwriter after writing for Dukakis during the ’88 campaign. He adds that the word was “drained of the positive connotations of economic liberalism — being for working people, resisting excesses of corporate power, protecting people in times of need.”
Sanders invoked that kind of governing philosophy during his campaigns when he compared himself to Roosevelt. But some liberal critics question the comparison, noting that even FDR bargained with corporations and made concessions to Wall Street. “The Roosevelt thing is a bit of spin,” says New York Magazine’s liberal stalwart Jonathan Chait, “or at least a tendentious effort by the left to turn Roosevelt into usable history.” Chait notes that “Roosevelt was a liberal who toggled between the left and the center, and the left was pulling out its hair over Roosevelt more than half the time.”
The confusion over who on the left should qualify — or even wants to qualify — as a liberal has created an opening for libertarians. Before the 20th century, “liberal” generally meant what we now call libertarianism: government taking a hands-off attitude in both the social and economic realms. Stephen Kent, a spokesman for the D.C.-based public relations firm Young Voices, told me libertarians like him have “an opportunity to drop ‘classical’ from the way we describe our liberalism and just step in as the champions of liberal thought and the open society.”
Or maybe a broader-tent approach could carry the day. Emily Chamlee-Wright, president and CEO of George Mason University’s classical-liberal Institute for Humane Studies, says she’s “interested in engaging in a broader family conversation amongst liberals,” be they left of center, classical or conservative. “Families can disagree about a lot of things, but they still recognize the family resemblance and come back for holiday dinners,” she explains.
Even among movement conservatives — many of whom have long delighted in “owning the libs,” as they put it — there have been occasional (sort of) nice things said about liberalism lately. Ben Shapiro claimed on his show that he scrapped his company’s plans to make a “LIBERAL TEARS” mug and instead made one that said “LEFTIST TEARS.” He said that while liberals are people he “disagrees with on taxes and government interventionism,” leftists want to target his advertisers, deplatform him and ensure he can’t make a living. Fellow talk-show host Dennis Prager has made the case that leftists, not conservatives, are liberals’ true enemy.
Then again, Shapiro and Prager both used their enormous platforms to support Donald Trump. Liberalism may be a capacious idea, but one thing’s sure: Trumpists don’t claim it or get to define it.
None of this jockeying over “liberal” is likely to go mainstream anytime soon, particularly since most politicians remain averse to the label. Gray, the former Sanders press secretary, wishes all progressives would wise up and call themselves leftists, but she understands these semantic discussions are taking place among a tiny subset of highly engaged citizens. She’s ultimately focused on the substance of politics, not evolving labels.
Still, it’s telling that, for all the criticism of liberalism, influential voices are still fighting over its meaning — and reimagining it to serve their ends. That impulse — not to own the libs but to hone the libs — seems destined to endure.
Graham Vyse is a Post Magazine contributing writer and an associate editor for the Signal.