Thanks to decades of successful right-wing propaganda, the word “liberal” has become so laden with negative connotations that no one in America can claim it any more without apology. Sometime within the past two years or so, I remember being amazed to see a bumper sticker on the back of a sedan that said, “Liberal and Proud of It.” I stared in admiration at the ordinary-looking woman—a middle-class housewife, perhaps—who got out of that car and headed into the store. In mainstream America these days, it takes guts to advertise something so politically incorrect.
It’s the nature of language to evolve. I recently tried rereading Games People Play, which was something of a cult classic when it first came out forty years ago. It’s so full of masculine pronouns, stereotypes, and antiquated attitudes that it’s almost impossible for a modern reader to absorb its meaning without being distracted by the language. It’s like walking into a house and trying not to notice the orange shag rugs and avocado-colored appliances. So it is with the word “liberal,” which can no longer be uttered without either squirming or sneering. (Think Sarah Palen enunciating the equally abused word “socialist.”)
So those of us who believe that making the world a better place is a worthwhile purpose for one’s life, and who believe that government should have a place in that endeavor, can no longer call ourselves “liberal.” And perhaps that’s just as well, because the world is a very different place than it was back in the days when Kennedy was president and it was sexy to be “liberal.” For one thing, the stakes are higher.
The difference between liberals and conservatives used to be more or less a matter of what kind of lens one chose to use with which to view the world. Liberals were focused on the individual—on what was good and fair for the individual human being. Conservatives were concerned about the macrocosm—what was good for impersonal, collective entities, such as banks, businesses, and the Republican Party. There were plenty of people on the conservative side of most arguments who seemed to have a good moral compass—who sincerely believed that what was good for the nation was good for the individual.
That’s all changed now. Those of us who might have been “liberal” during the Kennedy era are no longer starry-eyed and idealistic. The spectrum of what used to be called “conservatism” has diminished to the point that the word has become synonymous with radical, right-wing extremism. “Conservative” now means willfully believing in lies, such as “death panels” and the notion that rapid and dramatic global climate change is just part of the earth’s natural cycle. It means being cynical, negative, and willing to shout down the opposition any time a member of that opposition seems to be making good sense.
The word “progressive” is the up-and-coming way to describe the “other side” these days—those of us who are focused on making positive changes in the world. The progressive attitude is the polar opposite of the “just say no” philosophy of the GOP (General Opposition Party), who are struggling mightily to preserve a status quo that, among other things, made the very rich even richer and duped the poor into believing that Wall Street and big business had their best interests in mind.