Some comments on another question show confusion over the definition of “liberal”:

@Eva, still going to have the same problems. For example, what is the liberal position on economic freedom? Liberals are for people keeping more of their money, and are against higher taxes, welfare, and probably "government programs." The OP question states that those specific positions are liberal. So is the conservative position supposed to be the opposite of the liberals position on economic freedom, or specifically against the positions stated above? – user1873

@user1873 Wikipedia mentions higher taxation, welfare, and government programs as liberal. That's why I mentioned them in my question. I'm really just going by Wikipedia since there's not really a set definition. – Eva

I understand that other countries associate the word “liberal” with lassez-faire capitalism. In the US, it means support for completely opposite “tax-and-spend” “big government” policies (combined with social issues views based on secularism and sexual expressionism). Why the difference?


Here is what one writer had to say (Daniel Yergin, The Commanding Heights):

How was the meaning of this word altered so dramatically in the United States? During the First World War, some of the leading Progressive writers began to use the word liberalism as a substitute for progressivism, which had become tarnished by its association with their fallen hero, Theodore Roosevelt, who had run and lost on a Progressive third party ticket. Traditional liberals were not happy to see their label transformed. In the 1920s, The New York Times criticized "the expropriation of the time-honored word 'liberal' " and argued that "the Radical-Red school of thought ... hand back the word 'liberal' to its original owners." During the early 1930s, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt duked it out as to who was the true liberal. Roosevelt won, adopting the term to ward off accusations of being left-wing. He could declare that liberalism was "plain English for a changed concept of the duty and responsibility of government toward economic life." And since the New Deal, liberalism in the United States has been identified with an expansion of government's role in the economy.

And here is the NYT article which the above quote refers to:

*New York Times*, Sep 28, 1924, pg. E4, "Homeless Liberals"

  • 1
    NYT text is a bit blurry. Corrected OCR would be better. – agc Feb 5 '17 at 17:53
  • 2
    Today I replaced the blurred and jaggy NYT text image with a hand cleaned OCR'd copy. The edit was accepted. Tonight this useful edit has been rolled back. Please explain the reason for the rollback. – agc Feb 6 '17 at 5:02
  • 1
    I agree with @agc , why has the OCR version been deleted? it could at least been preserved together with the original scan. – Federico Feb 6 '17 at 7:46

As for the 'socialism' connection, it typically refers to a promotion of social programs, which got a foothold during/after the Great Depression. According to Wikipedia:

Without a qualifier, the term "liberalism" since the 1930s in the United States usually refers to "modern liberalism", a political philosophy exemplified by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It is a form of social liberalism, whose accomplishments include the Works Progress Administration and the Social Security Act in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Community Reinvestment Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


"Liberal" and "conservative" (in the modern sense), polarized in support of, or opposition to, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s.

The "first" New Deal of 1933-34 was broadly based on economic relief, and included banking and industrial interests, as well as farmers and laborers. But the second New Deal (of 1935-38) was tilted toward the latter two groups as well as old people (social security) and young people "make work" programs.

These programs were precursors to "affirmative action" programs in the 1960s and 1970s in favor of women and minorities. Because they were aimed at "social," as well as economic reform, American liberalism took on the connotations of socialism.


In Russia "liberal" means people who oppose welfare state, free education and medicine, support privatization and free markets, oppose protectionism and government regulation, support the US and NATO on international issues (such as NATO bombings).

Liberals also support gay rights, feminism and in general support copying Western practices in every detail (which are usually opposed by the left-wing and "patriots"). It would be close to the truth to say that a "liberal" in Russia is someone who is pro-US and pro-West in general.

As such I was very much confused when the Americans used the word to mean leftist policies.

  • 1
    > As such I was very much confused when the Americans used the word to mean leftist policies. it is common sense to think that different peoples may have different meanings for the same word. Thus the importance of NOT assuming anything in a discussion involved people of diverse background. – dannyf Feb 5 '17 at 20:05
  • 2
    This is a comment or expansion of the question as it basically asks the same question. It basically how did the leftists take over and corrupt the liberal agenda. – sabbahillel Feb 6 '17 at 1:43

Conservatives managed to turn "liberal" into an insult in the 1980s Source

After the economy tanked under Jimmy Carter and his programs only served to make the problem seem worse in most cases, the GOP was able to brand the Liberal label that many prominent Democrats claimed, as something to be shunned. It was associated to the Oil Embargo, rationing, failed social programs, and a perceived weakness that resulted in the Iranians taking over our embassy.

Reagan and the GOP machine were able to reverse the course with a series of strong and decisive actions that were the antithesis to the Jimmy Carter patient suffrage approach. It should also be noted that he was able to do this without ever pointing the finger directly at Carter but by asserting how he changed the policies and the effects they were having. And while there is great debate about how effective the Reagan policies actually were, there is no doubting the effectiveness of his campaign for the hearts of Americans, or his demonization for the word Liberal. And this was done by labeling those politicians who supported socialist/big government programs as liberals.

  • 1
    @DA - According to the source I linked they say that it is more popular today than it has been since carter though still not at the same level as it was then. late 70's 28% self identified, today 25% self identify as liberal. It was only 22% in 2008 so it is still on the upswing. – SoylentGray Jun 25 '13 at 14:15
  • 1
    @Chad - "while there is great debate about how effective the Reagan policies actually were" - whether this is true or not, it's totally irrelevant to the question, so the only reason to add this caveat is to note that there is a debate and reagan's policies may not have been as effective. – user4012 Jun 25 '13 at 14:58
  • 1
    @DVK - OK I connected the final dot for you. And Reagan did demonize the word and he was proud of it. He labeled his opposition with it, and then did everything he could to make it a dirty word and it was very effective. And while many Democrats who got rich during the Reagan era because of his policies now decry them as heartless and ineffective, only the foolish argue about his political success. – SoylentGray Jun 25 '13 at 16:09
  • 1
    @dvk I'm confused. You're griping about the terms 'perceived' and 'machine' here, but you defend your own use of 'ignoramus' and 'idiot' in your answers elsewhere? I know you believe there's no dissonance in that, but surely you must see that others may indeed find that incongruous? – user1530 Jun 25 '13 at 16:09
  • 1
    @DA If you follow the link on the source it links to the washington post that has only 21% Self-identifying as liberals in 1976 so it would seem that the label is no longer turning off as many people. – SoylentGray Jun 25 '13 at 16:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.