I've recently registered to Facebook and Quora. It exposed me to a lot of political propaganda, mostly USA-centric. Republicans blaming Democrats and vice versa.

Reading this was an amusing and void waste of time, upon I stumbled on "liberal" blaming. I was quite astonished by the statement that liberals want higher taxes. It could be a single case. But then I've met all posts describing liberals as pretty the opposite of liberals.

In Eastern Europe, we distinct 2 types of liberals.

Economical liberals, who want low taxes, especially for the richest (company owners etc.), and minimal state responsibility. They would limit welfare to the minimum, or even obliterate it. The most radical of them would want private schools and health service, some even would privatize police and military forces.

Social liberals are more or less the direct negation of the Church. They want abortion, homosexual marriages, replacing religion in schools with sexual education etc. Their program is constantly changing and seems to be more or lest reactive and event-driven so I have problem to do the precise summary, but they are generally what is 'left' in Europe in all areas except economy.

Generally speaking, the opposition of the economical liberals are socialists, and the opposition of social liberals are fundamentalists.

I don't know how representative for the political discourse in USA is Quora, but those what they describe as liberalism would correspond to the social liberalism, but in economical aspect it would be a socialism.

So my question is, what is meant by "liberalism" in the political debates in USA?

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  • It is my understanding that in the US, Liberal mostly refers to its societal variant, advocating the right of individuals to be whatever gender they like more so than the right to entrepreneurship for instance.
    – Jivan
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 8:35
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    NB: "They want abortion" is a bit of a mischaracterisation. Many insist that abortion should be legal and accessible, but almost everyone would agree it's better to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place (hence the sex education).
    – gerrit
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 9:34

7 Answers 7


What a strange word "Liberal" is... Almost every country has a party that claims to be "Liberal", yet hardly any two "liberal" parties share the same policies.

The origins of American Liberalism lie in the attempts of the Democratic party to make itself electable again at the start of the 20th century, after being out of the Presidency since the civil war (except for Grover Cleveland). Woodrow Wilson, in 1912, ran on a platform that he named "New Freedom". The key philosophical idea was that monopolistic enterprises were antagonistic to "freedom", and it is the role of government to protect the "freedom" of the people from exploitation by big business.

To this end Woodrow supported legislation that outlawed child labour, set limits on the working day, and outlawing "trusts" whereby companies agreed not to compete with each other (to the detriment of workers and consumers).

It is through this use of "Freedom" that Liberalism came to be known. F.D Roosevelt was the first politician to identify as "Liberal" and the "New Deal" was a Liberal set of policies. These extended the influence of the federal government ever deeper into American economic and social affairs. There is the underlying belief that unless big business is regulated and controlled, then freedom cannot be attained.

Post-war, Liberalism came to be identified with an development of these policies. Liberals supported desegregation, expanded welfare, engaged in grand schemes to build infrastructure, introduce medicare and extend reproductive rights (pro-choice) and oppose communism. More recently, liberals have been identified with policies to extend LGBTQ rights, and environment politics. At the heart of these policies is the core belief:

favoring strict rules to make sure the pursuit of profit doesn't come at the expense of labor rights, consumer rights, the environment or fair competition. (source, via Wikipedia)

One constant over 100 years of liberalism is the word "New". Liberalism is a progressive movement. It tends to believe that changes should continue to be made in the government, and that, in general, the government is entitled (through the democratic process) to create new rules and new regulations. In this they are opposed to the Conservative movement that favours rolling back government and removing rules and regulations.

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    "Conservative" is also a good term to research. Diametrically opposed policies and believes are both described that way. Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 15:54
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    Good explanation of liberalism, but its not quite right to say that Conservative movements favour rolling back government when they are more in favour of police, military and anti-abortion laws. Against rules for businesses, but otherwise they have no problems with rules and the enforcement thereof.
    – MegaCrow
    Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 17:23
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    Norway doesn't have a party with “liberal” in its name, but it does have a party called “the Left˘ that is socially- and economically liberal, a party called “the Right” that is economically- and somewhat socially liberal, a “Progress party” that is national-conservative but also economically liberal, a party called “Centre” that drives both left- and rightwing populism... Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 8:32
  • What a strange word indeed ! Fun fact: the Liberal Party in the UK (and it's predecessor the Whigs) was a major force (ie in Government or as the Opposition) in UK politics from the early 1700s to the early 1900s. Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 19:16
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    And the Liberals in Australia are the right wing party.
    – James K
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 20:09

The term 'liberal', in its simplest sense, refers to any philosophical perspective that advances the rights and liberties of the individual, particularly in opposition to established systemic sociopolitical forces that oppress, expropriate, or otherwise reject or undercut such rights and liberties. The original (16th century) liberal philosophies focused mainly on the rights and liberties of well-off or propertied commoners against the aristocracies and monarchies of Europe, trying to imagine political contexts in which merchants, traders, colonists, financiers, and the like could maintain their wealth and property without undue taxation or seizure by titled nobility. There's a lot of history there to unpack, which I won't indulge in at the moment. I'll just point out that Liberalism in this sense is pervasive in modern industrialized societies. Hereditary (titled) nobility lost that battle long ago, and wields only a small fraction of its earlier power; rights and liberties are the byword of the modern era, so much so that even autocrats and dictators appeal to Liberalism's philosophical perspective.

That in mind, there are broad and difficult divisions within modern Liberal philosophy that have developed over the course of time. We can organize them roughly as follows:

  • Laissez faire Capitalism (sometimes called 'Economic Liberalism' or 'Free Market' systems) which focuses entirely on preserving individual property rights against all comers. Laissez faire Capitalism peaked in the Colonial and Industrial eras, when companies had strong government backing but little government oversight, and is still one of the most prominent forms of liberal philosophy around.
  • Socialism (sometimes called 'social liberalism'), which arose in opposition to the rank individualism of laissez faire Capitalism, and eventually culminated in Marxist thought. Socialism (interestingly) began as a kind of conservative reaction to socially and environmentally destructive practices of industrialism and colonialism, arguing that individuals have intrinsic rights whether or not they have wealth or property, and that communities have intrinsic collective rights, all of which are regularly breached by powerful economic actors seeking selfish enrichment.
  • Fiscal conservatism, which is effectively a toned-down form of economic liberalism. Fiscal conservatives often agree that governments, regulations, and other restrictions on the free market are useful and good, but see excessive expenditures by government as wasteful. They are perhaps the least inspiring category, focused on 'accounting' issues like tax revenues, expenditures, and infrastructure maintenance while largely ignoring more potent socioeconomic questions, but they are perhaps the truest group to the original Liberal philosophical mindset.
  • Progressivism (perhaps best described as 'cultural' liberalism), which acknowledges a wide range of individual, communitarian, cultural, and interest-group rights and liberties, and is deeply concerned with creating a society in which everyone's rights and liberties are equally and fairly protected.

I suppose I should pay lip service to fascism and state socialism while I'm at it. Fascism is a kind of exclusionary liberalism, which holds that rights and liberties must be protected for the 'right' people, while the 'wrong' people can be stripped of rights and liberties without a thought. State socialism, by contrast, enforces broad equality by draconian means, often abridging the rights of everyone in the effort to enforce the rights of everyone. While both these tendencies are rooted in Liberal philosophy, they have each lost the point of it somewhere along the line.

As the modern Right in the US has become increasingly authoritarian and anti-democratic (pushing past the edge of economic liberalism to something resembling fascism), it has increasingly used the term 'liberal' as a pejorative: either they don't recognize that they themselves are a branch of liberal philosophy, or they are consciously trying to disparage the entire Liberal project in favor of something more dictatorial. I don't believe this use of the term 'liberal' has a concrete definition; it's more in the vein of a sneer or slur than a functional element of language. If you hear the term used on Right-wing media (FOX and beyond) you can safely assume it is a synonym for 'filthy murderous barbarian hordes'. If you hear the term used on left-leaning media, by contrast, they probably mean to point at progressivism but are avoiding that term because it sounds too 'edgy'. Beyond that, you'll need to evaluate the term in situ, on a case by case basis.

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    I am purging the comments on this answer before we have to suspend people for insulting each other. If you want to use comments to suggest improvements to an answer, please do so. But please don't post comments trying to win a debate, because Politics Stack Exchange is not a debate forum.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 15:31
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    But posting answers with the goal of delegitimizing entire mainstream political movements is okay? Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 0:27
  • @KarlKnechtel: Not my intention. If you'd like to suggest specific revisions, I will consider them. If you feel my answer is wholly wrong, I'm sure you can negotiate with the mods to unprotect the question long enough to post an answer of your own. But I respect their decision and will not debate the differences in our worldviews further. Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 6:06
  • No need; every other answer here is good enough. Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 17:33

The US is pretty much dominated by the 2 mostly cohesive parties, which wipes out the subtleties you may be accustomed to. In any national election you can vote for the Democrat, who will mostly vote with with Democrats on the Democratic party's platform, or the Republican, who will do likewise.

We don't form coalitions and tend to have winner-take-all. As an example, in the last election the Senate had 50 Democrats, 50 Republicans and the Democratic vice-president as a tie-breaker. The headline that day was "Democrats win the senate", which was true. There's a vote and it could go either way, but it never does. They even kept Nancy Pelosi as the same leader. That might seem crazy since different Democrats were elected, with different ideas, but the parties here are that cohesive. Now, Senator Bernie Sanders isn't with either party -- he's a "Democratic Socialist" -- but he always votes with the Democrats.

As for Liberal being a dirty word, Republicans did that in the late 80's. Before that Conservative meant more Republican and Liberal meant more Democratic. You could have a Conservative Democrat (voted with the Republicans 20% of the time) or a Conservative Republican (never voted with Democrats, pushed to do more Republican ideas at once) or a Liberal Democrat (never voted with Republicans, ...).

But then we got "bleeding heart liberal" and "tax and spend liberal". No one knew what it meant, but it sounded bad. Liberals were weak, too emotional, practically feminine (the British had Margarete Thatcher. In America we just had Madeleine Albright as our only tough woman). Liberal were "soft on crime". Democrats started proclaiming they were strong moderates, not one of those bad liberals. You didn't say certain ideas were liberal -- you insulted someone by calling them a liberal. For example, Democrats/liberals wanted less free trade and some tariffs; Trump did that, but wasn't called a liberal since he's not a Democrat (he was called a "populist").

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    Of course the US has coalitions, they’re just within parties instead of between parties. Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Joe Manchin disagree on very many issues, and yet they both caucus with the Democrats. The Democratic Party is a coalition of interests.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 6:05
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    @MikeScott Manchin is a good example of our lack of terminology. He's been in the news hundreds of times this year, but all we know is he's a conservative Democrat. Technically that makes him an economic liberal but we don't talk that way. "He has to appeal to moderate Republican voters" is as complex as we get here. All we have is a single D<->R gradient. Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 13:58
  • Quibble: Pelosi is the leader in the House, where the Democrats do have an official (if slim) majority. It's not surprising that she'd be kept on, since the House didn't change hands. The Senate majority leader is Chuck Schumer.
    – Tiercelet
    Commented Jun 8, 2021 at 20:23

Closely related, the nearest approximate translation of "economic liberal" into US terminology is "libertarian". This grouping tends to emphasize minimal-government and deregulation as the first-class priniple, and they consider much currently-existing federal government activity an infringement of individual liberty.

In practice, they find themselves often aligned with conservatives on social issues, with some exceptions, such as legalizing marijuana, or isolationist foreign policy preferences. While they have some representation within the Republican party, and are more likely to vote Republican, for the most part they have very low expectations of either of the 2 US political parties.

In times when populist sentiments rise on the right side of the US political spectrum, that last aspect -- general distrust of their own main-party -- by default awards libertarians disproportionate ideological influence. In particular, there was substantial cross-pollination into the "Tea Party" movement, which shook the foundations of the mainstream Republican political machine in the early 2010's. There is also powerful institutional support on some topics from top-ranking organizations on the US right, such as the Federalist Society.

  • I remember the old Libertarian hand-outs with the 2 social/economic axis where they said Republicans were economic liberals (but social conservatives). The Tea Party seemed idealogically incoherent. They wanted term limits, smaller government, and more social security and medicaid. Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 14:11
  • Why is that ideologically incoherent? There are any number of other things government could be spending money on that someone might object to, and any number of other ways government could interfere in the lives of private citizens. For that matter, it's easy to see why someone might not see social security or medicaid as "interference". Commented Jun 10, 2021 at 0:28

As of this writing, we have plenty of answers that give you extended treatises on the history of philosophical Liberalism, but nothing that actually tells you what you actually asked--what the word means in US political discourse.

The answer is it is completely dependent on who is using the term.

In right-wing discourse (the kind you're likely to see on Facebook), "liberal" roughly means "aligned with the Democratic party," but is mainly a snarl word to invoke a series of stereotypes related to insufficient toughness and create feelings of mistrust. Something like a Fox News headline, "Even liberal media fed up with Biden administration" serves to communicate several identity-forming messages: first, that most media is controlled by dangerous people opposed to the interests of Fox News' presumed viewer base (messages they clearly receive, as this Washington Post article documents). This language has no clearly and tightly defined referent: its intention is to create fear and tribalism, which is also why Fox News headlines will try to paint Biden as extremely liberal, while centrist media sources describe him as moderate.

Outside of these discourses, the term "liberal" has a much more finely debated term. There is a long-standing distinction in American left-wing public discourse between "liberal" and "Left," where "liberal" is usually understood to mean "self-serving centrist." See Love Me, I'm a Liberal by 1960s left-wing folk singer Phil Ochs (analyzed lyrics here). Some decades ago, the distinction one tried to draw was between liberal and progressive, though as left-wing opinions have gotten more popular in the last ten years, "liberal progressive" outlets like The Young Turks or the Huffington Post ("described as liberal-leaning") are viewed as too close to establishment Democrats by socialist voices such as Jacobin. In general, in left spaces, "liberal" is most closely associated with "establishment" (as in this headline about a man who had rather a thing or two to say about liberals).

In short, when Fox News says something is "liberal," they want you to hate it because something something guns immigrants; when CNN says something is "liberal," they mean "anything left of Joe Manchin," and when a socialist says something is "liberal," they mean it doesn't realize how self-interestedly right-wing it is.


The Latin root word of "liberal" is liber, or "free", the term can attached to any given object that some person, party or sect wishes to be free from. The term also connotes bestowing, which can apply to the increase of any objects or projects that some person, party or sect believes are sound national investments.

In the US the two most common current usages have often been political opposites:

  1. "Liberals", who support freedom from many kinds of censorship, freedom of religion, freedom from various legal restrictions pertaining to an individual human body; combined with support for various ambitious public projects intended to raise national economic and social baselines.

  2. "Neo-Liberals", who support freedom from interstate and international tariffs, taxes, and regulations regarding trade, markets, and property. Adherents often argue, and sometimes believe, that such freedoms are the best, or only, way to accomplish most of the same aims as the public projects of Liberals (sense 1).

    The prefix "Neo-" signifies a (then new) late 20th century enthusiasm for free trade policies resembling and sometimes modeled after the free trade Liberals of the 19th century.

Similarly, the verb "conserve" can be applied to any objects a political group wishes to keep around.

Since all groups have many things they'd like to keep around, and things they wish to be free of, it follows that with ingenuity any group can describe themselves as either liberal or conservative with regard to their respective sets of wanted and unwanted objects.

So an advocate for legalizing black market drugs could label themselves conservative -- they'd like to drink Coca-Cola the way their great grandparents did, with a dash of cocaine; or preserve Native American psychedelic religious traditions; or the advocate could label themselves liberal, since they wish to be free from the personal restrictions and abuses of "The War on Drugs".

Similarly, an opposing advocate for criminalizing such drugs could label themselves conservative, because they wish to preserve as much as possible of those innocent times before opium was discovered; or they might label themselves liberal, and support "The War on Drugs" to free the nation from the scourge of drug addiction.

(There might be a some kind of Gold Rush claim rule that underlies the labeling, so that no group can pick the label liberal or conservative if an opposing group has beaten them to it.)

  • "Adherents often argue, and sometimes believe..." Are you implying that most adherents don't believe what they argue?
    – user76284
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 8:15
  • @user76284, No. I wouldn't have implied that, since I didn't and don't know that most adherents are insincere. For the correct meaning think "sometimes" as in not always. Meaning I believe there's at least one insincere neo-conservative out there. (OTOH, if `s/imply/insinuate/', oh perhaps.)
    – agc
    Commented Jul 4, 2021 at 0:07

Short answer:

In your East European terms,

  • the US liberals or "left" are social liberals but economically nearest to being socialist,
  • libertarians (a comparably irrelevant political minority) are economic liberals, and
  • conservatives or the "right" are closer to being economic liberals (but like to exaggerate how socialist US "liberals" are), and social fundamentalists (especially when animated by Christianity, although in recent years they've found more secular bases for these attitudes, and "fundamentalist" doesn't properly convey this).

This places libertarians between liberals and conservatives.

Long answer:

The above points overlook any number of subtleties, such as the following:

  • There are a lot of spectra here at danger of being seen as binaries. If we compare political parties from many nations, we can discern spectra that may not be easily seen in one two-party system. For example, the American left doesn't advocate full-blooded socialism as such, nor do they advocate things likely to be conflated with them either economically, politically or socially, such as Communism.
  • The specific wedge issues, or the extremity of their positions on one side or the other, are different in the US. For example, in the US no-one wants to privatize the military, but both sides are happy for private companies to make their equipment, some of which goes to "militarized" publicly funded police departments after a few years. As for religion, the Constitution enshrines a degree of Church-State separation that is the subject of some jostling, but no religion is at risk of being banned or being made a state religion.
  • It takes some effort to work out what each side wants, because they're motivated to seem less radical and exaggerate the other side's extremism, voicing their most popular policies and critiquing certain policies of the other side, even making up some for good measure. (I'll be accused of false equivalence if I don't mention this is mostly a case of the right doing these things to the left; I hope keeping this comment parenthetical is a compromise that will save me being called biased for acknowledging as much.)
  • A further consequence of these motives is that, insofar as either side seeks to characterize one or both sides with a specific narrative, the left largely talks about its differing from the right in being economically maybe-not-quite-socialist, while the right largely talks about its differing from the left in being worried about social liberalism (rather than admitting how much more economic inequality they want.) This leads to a left/right distinction, collapsing the full variation allowed in your two economic/social dimensions to reflect what is typically called for in the US. (You'll already be largely aware of multiple-dimension ways of looking at it.)
  • Both sides are divided anyway (especially among non-politicians, so see everything I've said here as most easily applied to politicians rather than e.g. voters, even with my qualifications). They each have an "establishment" who like much of the status quo, as well as another contingent who have specific changes in mind. On the left, these are progressives; on the right, these are Trumpists.

And of course, existing answers' details complicate matters further in ways I shan't repeat.

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