Why Is “Liberal” a Dirty Word…And Does It Matter?

A recent AP/Ipsos poll asked the question: Are you a) very conservative, b) somewhat conservative, c) moderate, d) somewhat liberal, or e) very liberal? The results: 14% very conservative; 27% somewhat conservative; 34% moderate; 15% somewhat liberal; 6% very liberal. If you lump together the results you get:

Conservative 41%

Moderate 34%

Liberal 21%

Yet, when Americans are polled they overwhelmingly support liberal policies (universal health insurance, social security, education, gun control, minimum wage, etc). Apparently, people are afraid to self-identify themselves as liberal. Clearly, the right-wing has won the branding wars. “Conservative “ has a positive connotation which people are eager to identify with (fiscal discipline, strong national defense, small government). “Liberal” is a dirty word because progressive’s have been unfairly stereotyped as tax and spend, anti-military, I-hate-America bureaucrats. Now throw in the incendiary social wedge issues of guns, God, and gays and you begin to understand the poll results a little more clearly.

Does any of this really matter? Absolutely. This sort of fearfulness has a direct effect on public policy and here’s why: if liberals are timid we tend to nominate safe “centrist” candidates (i.e. the 2000 era Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and the 2004 version of John Edwards).

So. Problem number one is that Democratic centrist candidates lose a lot of elections. Problem number two is that liberal candidates who move to the center to get elected have already compromised their ability to govern progressively. The conservatives are not interested in meeting in the middle. If liberals unilaterally move to the center then, by default, the right has succeeded in fighting the battle on their terms. By the way, the only time you see conservative candidates moving to the center to get elected is when it is part of a bait-and-switch strategy like “compassionate conservatism.”

C’mon folks. If you want to see progressive policies enacted then we need to elect progressive candidates. People who give lip service to progressive policies, but won’t enthusiastically support openly liberal candidates, are playing right into the hands of Karl Rove. Progressives need to be more bold and less submissive. We need more Russ Feingold’s and fewer Joe Lieberman’s.


  1. Jerimee

    March 21, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    If “Liberal” is a bad word and “Conservative” is not, I doubt it has much to do with the individual people associated with the tag. More likely it is the general connotation of the word.

    A progressive parent talks to their child, rather than spanking him or her, when he or she does something wrong.

    A liberal parent lets their child do whatever they please.

    Why do we continue to allow conservatives and fundamentalists to choose what to call us?

  2. sturner

    March 21, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Like it or not, Jerimee, words matter (i.e. “death tax” vs inheritance tax). In this post, I assumed that “liberal” and “progressive” were synonymous. I thought the only reason we started calling ourselves progressive was due to the hopelessly negative images implied by the word “liberal.”

    Your example above using a parent/child relationship is very interesting. George Lakoff (a Linguistics Professor at University of California, Berkeley) wrote an excellent book called “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.” Lakoff asked a friend if he could think of a single question, the answer to which would be the best indicator of liberal vs. conservative political attitudes. His response:

    “If your baby cries at night, do you pick him up?

    Lakoff says the attempt to understand the answer to this question led to his book. The short version of his answer is:

    Conservatives have a Strict Father model (tough love): self-discipline, self-reliance, and respect for legitimate authority are the crucial things that children must learn.

    Liberals have the Nurturant Parent model: love, empathy, and nurturance are primary, and children become responsible, self-disciplined and self-reliant through being cared for, respected, and caring for others, both in their family and in their community.

    Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that, but it’s an interesting point to start a discussion.

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