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?


4 Answers 4


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 (1923-Current file); Sep 28, 1924;
ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851-2009)

pg. E4

Changes Wrought by the World War have not been confined to a shifting of frontiers, of economic power, of military domination, of ethical standards and of ideas in general. There has also been a change in names and labels. One such notable case at revolution in nomenclature has been the expropriation of the time-honored word “Liberal." Before the war the spectrum of party alignments was well established. Reading from right to left, we had the Conservative, the Liberal, the Radical, and the Revolutionary or Extremist. And they stood, respectively, for a minimum of social and political experiment, for generous experiment combined with a certain degree of caution, for bold experiment without excessive counting of the costs, and for change at any price. The armistice and after brought about a violent telescoping of the last three terms into one. In the newspaper headines it was merely a question of space whether something was Liberal, Radical or Red.

Out of that confusion we are beginning to merge. That much still remains to be done in the interest of clarification is strikingly shown in ERNEST BOYD’S “Portrait of a Liberal” in the October Bookman. It is a brilliant and mordant character study in which there in some exaggeration and a great deal of truth—provided we concede the writer his definition of Liberal. The man Mr. BOYD has in mind is obviously not the pre-war liberal of the Woodrow Wilson or Lord Morley and Haldane type. He is thinking of the “Liberal" weeklies which are not Liberal at all in the established sense, but which represent a blend of the pre-war Radical and Red. Of the "Liberal" of today Mr. BOYD says, among a good many other unpleasant and true things:

He is perpetually engaged in querelous denunciation of the evils of political democracy, and more often than not, he has discarded the simple gospel teaching of his parents. * * * Whatever is, is bad; whatever was, is worse; whatever will be, is better.

It may be that reaction to the Conservative side and raids from the radical side have cut into the Liberal strength; but to the extent that the Liberal, the historic middle-of-the-road man survives —and there are still a great many millions of him — the Liberal has not abandoned his faith in political democracy for Mussolinism on the one hand or the Economic State on the other. So, too, it is obvious that Mr. BOYD is not speaking of true Liberal at all when he purports to describe an attitude to one result of the war:

The oppressed nationalities, whose woes had formerly incited him to such tearful eloquence turned out to be monsters of imperialism, drilling and arming and taxing, oppressing those in their power, in a thoroughly democratic imperialist manner.

This does not come home to the pre-war Liberal, though it holds perfectly for Radical-Red opinion. The Liberal is not particularly delighted with the symptoms of exaggerated nationalism in Poland, in Yugoslavia, in the little two-by-four nationalities which the war liberated or restored. But he does not tear his hair about it. He regards these manifestations as inevitable growing pains which will he outlived, as almost natural symptoms in nationalities which have been oppressed for centuries and are now experiencing a rush of freedom to the head. There are still millions of Liberals who refuse to think that the way to bring peace to the world is to tear up every peace treaty and start all over again—for chaos.

From only one point of view may a general recasting of the peace treaties and undoing of the war facts be considered desirable. When Alsace-Lorraine has been handed back to Germany, Prague to the Hapsburgs, and Arabia and Palestine to the Turks, the Radical-Red school of thought might be compelled to hand back the word “ Liberal" to its original owners.


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.


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.


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