My colleague Aaron Blake at the Fix has followed this development in recent years. The term "liberal" has become a stand-in for a kind of progressive, left-of-center American politics, and is being more readily embraced by a generation that's come of age during the Obama administration.
Not long ago, though, the L-word had an almost pejorative valence, conflated by some with political tendencies further to the left such as socialism.
"When Ronald Reagan was reelected in 1984, just 17 percent of Americans identified as 'liberal,'" Blake noted. "And even back when the founder of the New Deal, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took 61 percent of the vote in 1936, it was more popular to be a 'conservative' than a 'liberal.'"
That remains true to this day, as a far larger proportion of Republican voters say they are "conservative" than Democrats who claim that they are "liberal."
The irony, though, is that outside the United States, "liberal" often has a far different echo — and it's nowhere close to socialism. Classical liberalism in Europe was rooted in the emergence of an industrial society, laissez faire trade policies, and an aspirational, bourgeois middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was wrapped around notions of liberty and individual rights and had little to do with policies prescribing state intervention.
For that reason, numerous political parties that Americans would consider right-of-center, including Australia's ruling party, style themselves as "liberal."
The Economist, a British publication that has long been a standard bearer of that older notion of "liberalism," articulated its annoyance with American political language in 2012.
It noted that even the invocation of "conservative" has lost its true meaning across the pond: British conservatism, anchored in a defense of tradition and inherited societal obligations, would have balked at the spirit of the American Declaration of Independence.
In that sense, all Americans are fundamentally liberal.
The Economist article also poured cold water on the way "socialism" gets discussed in the United States:
Socialism is not "the government should provide healthcare" or "the rich should be taxed more" nor any of the other watery social-democratic positions that the American right likes to demonise by calling them "socialist"— and granted, it is chiefly the right that does so, but the fact that rightists are so rarely confronted and ridiculed for it means that they have successfully muddied the political discourse to the point where an awful lot of Americans have only the flimsiest grasp of what socialism is. And that, in a country that sent tens of thousands of men to die fighting socialism, is frankly an insult to those dead soldiers' memories.
This may all seem like pedantry. American and European "liberalism" have separate, long and divergent traditions. In every country in the world, terms ascribing leftist or right-wing politics carry with them different meanings and histories.
But it's worth noting the larger dissonance experienced by many from democracies elsewhere when trying to parse the nomenclature of American politics. And that's especially true in this election cycle, when charges like "fascist" and "communist" have been all too swiftly bandied about and where social-democratic political platforms that would be considered establishment in other countries are somehow cast as dangerously subversive here.
In the chaos of the presidential race, our political speech is perhaps being drained of its meaning. Even as more Democrats declare themselves as "liberal" now, neither Democratic candidate mentioned the word once in speeches that followed the first primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday night.