The Spectacle Blog

Is “Liberal” No Longer A Dirty Word?

By on 2.7.14 | 10:55AM

In a piece worth reading, Peter Beinart of The Atlantic takes a look at what he sees as the fall and rise of the term "liberal." Beinart describes how the label, once proudly worn by New Dealers, fell out of favor with the cultural tumult of the 1960s:

Over the next two decades, being a liberal came to mean letting criminals terrorize America’s cities, hippies undermine traditional morality, and communists menace the world. It meant, in other words, too much liberty for the wrong kind of people. Fearful of its negative connotations, Democratic politicians began disassociating themselves from the term...

He goes on to cite Gallup polling data that suggests that an increasing number of Americans are once again common with the label, though he concedes that this same data shows that liberal self-identification still trails conservative self-identification by 15 points. But he claims—supported by the work of academics at Washington University in St. Louis—that people have unfairly positive associations with the word "conservative" and unfairly negative associations with the term "liberal," while those same people overwhelmingly support liberal policies:

But even more important, Claassen, Tucker, and Smith suggest, may be the negative way in which “liberal” is publicly discussed. “When certain labels are emphasized or favored by political and media elites,” they write, “the public is more likely to identify with them than others. Public framing often promotes the term ‘conservative,’ while the term ‘liberal’ is used with much less frequency and has long had a more negative connotation.”

In other words, a biased media has done the dirty work for conservatives in making "liberal" a bad word. This claim should be difficult to swallow for anyone who has even casually observed media behavior over the past several decades. Was the media carrying water for conservatives in providing disproportionate and glowing coverage to the small rabble that was the Occupy Wall Street movement? Was Candy Crowley stretching out her conservative bona fides in derailing Mitt Romney's presidential debate performance? And if academics believe that people embrace the word "conservative" only because of positive media coverage, why doesn't the same hold true for the liberal policies which they claim people support? How is favoring, say, Obamacare any more or less influenced by outside factors than identifying as a conservative or liberal?

But where Beinart really loses me is his account of just why it is becoming vogue to wear the badge of a liberal again:

But that political logic may be out of date. “Liberal” became a dirty word at a time of soaring crime, when Democrats came under attack for allegedly prioritizing the rights of criminals over the safety of everyone else. Today, crime has dropped so dramatically that even prominent Republicans advocate less punitive sentencing. The decline of “liberal” into epithet status also coincided with a cultural revolt, especially on sexual issues like abortion and gay rights, which frightened many middle-aged Americans. But today, the people demanding greater cultural liberty—whether they be gay couples wanting to marry or individuals wanting to legally smoke pot—don’t seem nearly as radical.

I won't address the issue of the culture, other than to say that I bet citizens of Rome enjoyed greater "cultural liberty" before the fall. Beinart seems to conflate "liberty" with "libertine," and to take it at face value that this new fangled "liberty" is heading in a positive direction. But crime is an area where we can draw much stronger conclusions based upon existing evidence, despite Beinart waving it away in two sentences.

Liberals of the '60s and '70s were not allegedly soft on crime. They were soft on crime. The New York City of the era is a emblematic. Judge Bruce Wright earned the nickname "turn-'em-loose Bruce" for being soft on those who passed through his courtroom, the subways and other public spaces were covered in the marks of vandals, and people carried "mugger money," wads of small bills to hurl at would-be assailants in order to distract them. New York and other American cities were not cleaned up because of good fortune. A concerted effort was made to back away from the liberal policing policies that had spelled ruin.

Beinart, however, severs this cause-effect relationship without consideration. I am reminded of Fox Butterfield, the New York Times reporter who famously wrote a piece called "Despite Drop In Crime, an Increase in Inmates." Beinart and Butterfield are smart men. They have studied at Oxford and Yale and Harvard. They have written for and edited the publications that sway the intellectual elite. But they need to be reminded of the simple axiom that given the pursuit of the wrong policies, soaring crime will return.

Everything old is new again. Just as the term "liberal" is coming back into fashion, New York City—that citadel of the bad old days—has sworn in perhaps the most liberal mayor in the country. Yet Bill de Blasio made a good move in making Bill Bratton his police commissioner.  Bratton helped usher in the turnaround in New York before plying his craft in Los Angeles and other cities. On the other hand, de Blasio has announced he will end the city's fight to preserve the controversial policing tactic known as stop-and-frisk, a policy which had been derided by civil libertarians and celebrated by cops. Liberalism as we understand the term today has a proud history and is a movement that provides a worthy adversary for those of us who consider ourselves conservatives. But it need not be a suicide pact. Will New York City once again become a reminder of why people backed away from the word "liberal"? Only time will tell.

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