“Liberal is such a beautiful word,” quipped my summer school professor. It was the middle of 2005, during a time that would inexplicably directly shape the next 15 years of my life, and we were discussing a short story that I may or may not have read. I’m not sure what the conversation was exactly over; but for some reason her lament that “liberal” became an epithet over the previous three decades always stuck with me.
And I, too, ran away from the label. I’d say I was progressive. I’d say I was libertarian. In recent years, I’d say I was a centrist. After years and years of hearing how others talked about liberals, I didn’t want to be labeled one. This was despite the fact that I’ve long held beliefs that were undoubtedly liberal.
I would later come to appreciate that liberalism is not something that can be or should be pigeonholed into a single dimension. After all, liberalism is not so much of a political ideology as it is a worldview — that an individual has dignity and it is within our mutual collective interest for that human individual to reach their potential — constructively.
Liberalism is a belief in the freedom of self and the freedom of self-actualization. It’s a conviction that’s rooted in the assertion that all human beings are equal under the law and in each other’s eyes. From a political lens, it represents a juxtaposition: a government that can respect individual civil liberties out of ruling restraint (negative liberty) while at the same time guaranteeing civil, human rights, and free will (positive liberty).
You can believe and advocate for both simultaneously. It’s not an either-or proposition and insisting on that is, in my view, dishonest.
Since the New Deal Era, our “conservative” and “liberal” politics has been mostly consumed by the role of government in its implementation of a liberal democracy in a liberal society.
“Conservatives” believe in a liberalism that is rooted in natural law, personal liberty, and Judeo-Christian ethics. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, the central truth of “conservatives” is that “culture, not politics, determines the success of a society”. “Conservatives” support the idea that liberalism is not necessarily equal; that is, if you can swim, you will swim, and if you can’t swim, you will just sink— all in the eyes and at the mercy of (the Abrahamic) God. It is the liberty to succeed and the liberty to fail; and the liberty to be free from being responsible for the success (or failure) of others to the point of being openly hostile to a government-funded safety net. For reasons of simplicity, I will call this type of liberalism “exclusionary”.
“Liberals” believe that liberalism should be guaranteed and actively protected. True liberalism, in the “liberal” lens, is that all human beings are born with natural rights and, most importantly, dignity. The state has the responsibility to ensure and defend both against any threat, whether that be bad public policy or unencumbered private enterprise. Civil liberties are critical, but not inherently absolute, especially if an absolute view of certain civil liberties could potentially — and needlessly — threaten the lives of others. “Liberals” believe in a fair, just, and humane society and that good government (and good politics) should have a prominent role in its maintenance. As such, I view this view of liberalism as “inclusive”.
As a secular humanist, I agree far more often with the “liberal” or “inclusive” view of liberalism than the “conservative” or “exclusionary” one. Contrary to what “conservatives” or so-called “libertarians” believe, inclusive liberalism is not an act of submission or weakness. In my eyes, inclusive liberalism requires a stronger self-concept and self-efficacy among its adherents. To reach our full potential in a pluralistic society — and, for that matter, a pluralistic existence — we need the natural checks and balances that comes with a government that exercises restraint from toxic paternalism and provides guardianship with our collective consent that comes in the form of a liberal democracy.
Inclusive liberalism is the most reliable path to a stable world; it does not have to come at the cost of personal liberty or individual rights. This is isn’t an either-or proposition; the “conservative” or “libertarian” argument that stretches from liberalism being conditional to some degree of imagined absolutism is, quite frankly, a fucking lie.
We are in complete trouble if we continue to advance the idea that liberalism should prioritize micro-level selfishness over macro-level selflessness. It is just as bad to advocate an approach to liberalism that puts too much emphasis on the exact opposite.
Inclusive liberalism is under threat from various fronts: a toxic right-wing emboldened by an abhorrently narcissistic, opportunistic, and racist megalomaniac of an incumbent, buoyed by a $2 billion echo chamber that seeks to divide, demonize, and conquer; meanwhile, a disgruntled left-wing has developed resentment towards the liberal idea, with some going as far as to saying that liberalism is too tepid.
What frustrates me is that the liberal idea has been turned into a caricature by those that don’t even support it; more often than not, the biggest critics tend to be biggest hypocrites. On the left and the right, “liberal” is an epithet that’s synonymous with weakness. To the right, “liberals” are too caring and charitable and on the left, “liberals” are too timid and passive.
Neither of their views are true. To be honest, the slander has got under my skin — even though I will say that it is far worse on the right than it is on the left; left-wing anti-liberalism just makes my eyes roll at the moment; right-wing anti-liberalism has the potential to be life-threatening. Regardless, liberalism in general is under assault — and that could potentially leave everyone worse off.
For too long, we have allowed those that brandish themselves as antagonists to liberals to define what liberalism is. They have created a caricature of liberalism as an anti-human agenda when in reality, liberalism is the most humane agenda of all. This caricature has crippled our politics, cost people their lives, and caused lingering socioeconomic damage. Populism and authoritarianism are poisonous to a liberal democracy; and here in the United States both have attained a toxic level of influence. By allowing anti-liberals define what “liberalism” is from the comforts of their problematic echo chambers, those of us that are liberals are left to play constant, time-consuming defense.
So I feel that its time for us liberals — the ones that are committed to its inclusiveness — to reclaim it from bullshit narratives and rhetoric.
Liberalism is a check and balance between free will and restraint. Liberalism is about human life. Liberalism is about equality. Liberalism is about the pursuit of self and the collective growth of an entire society. Liberalism is about personal liberty and personal freedom. Liberalism is a necessary part of a functionally sound, universally healthy, and fundamentally stable society.
However, liberalism must be inclusive. Your individual freedom should not be defined by your assets, wealth, living situation, location, health, circumstance, orientation, or ethnicity. Liberalism is selfless, not selfish. Liberalism, ultimately, is a human enterprise that encourages honesty to ourselves and to each other.
That’s why as a liberal, I do support social insurance; do support a strong welfare state; do support a government that protects individual rights and liberties through restraint and intervention; do support internationalism. We have a vested interest in ensuring that even strangers that we don’t know can swim, too; all the while instilling the important values of personal responsibility and self-reliance. Like I said previously, it does not have to be a zero-sum proposition: inclusive liberalism promotes all of this. And for those of us that are inclusive liberals, it’s mission critical.