Activists Must Reclaim Language of the Left

Will Rubenstein, Opinions Editor

Depending on your political orientation, Oberlin has been either fortunate or unfortunate enough to play host to two prominent Republican figures in the past week and a half: former UN Ambassador John Bolton, whose Feb. 29 lecture has received attention in this and past issues of the Review, andNew York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who appeared March 7 in a discussion with formerNewsweek editor Jonathan Alter moderated by President Krislov. The two events were about as far apart in tone and atmosphere as one could imagine, with Bolton’s talk interrupted by a student walkout (which was met with derision from the bused-in gray-haired conservatives who formed the bulk of the audience) while Douthat and Alter’s conversation went as civilly and cordially as you please.

Seeing such a relatively reasonable conservative a week after such a relatively unreasonable one, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves when both Bolton and Douthat unhesitatingly and across the board referred to their Democratic opponents as “liberals” — a deeply problematic term as a universal moniker for the political left. This notion might seem strange in modern U.S. politics, since the liberal/conservative dichotomy rolls off most people’s tongues as readily as left/right or Democrat/Republican. Still, liberalism has several meanings with different political ramifications that deserve some scrutiny before we embrace the framing of “liberal equals left-wing equals Democrat.”

To a classical liberal thinker, the description of left-wing economic collectivism as liberal would have been an inherent contradiction. The first liberals in early modern Europe advocated freedom from feudal economic institutions as well as social institutions, striving for a global capitalist system based on the principle of economic liberty. (From this definition springs “neoliberalism” as a term for modern right-wing economics.) Collectivism, by contrast, implies a central authority imposing at least some limits on economic freedom; and while it’s possible that liberals like John Locke would have reconsidered their views had they seen the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution, their vision of a largely ungoverned economic commons is still anathema to the economic agenda of the left.

To the left-wing movements that started to gain sway in the 19th and 20th centuries, the negative impact of liberals’ vague platitudes toward economic freedom outweighed their desire for progress on social issues like racism or women’s rights. In the same sort of terms that many of today’s conservatives describe social liberalism as a naive agenda sending our society hurtling down a slippery slope toward Sodom and Gomorrah, so too did many prominent leftists as recently the mid-20th century see the liberals to their right as naive and uninformed about the nature of economic exploitation: “Ten degrees to the left of center in good times, 10 degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally,” in the words of folk singer Phil Ochs. But in an era when anti-communist hysteria was a dominant force in U.S. politics, an increasing majority on the left came to see liberalism as a safer label than the European democratic socialism that all too often was (and still is) conflated with Soviet-style communist dictatorship.

It hardly seems like a coincidence, then, that as the reflexive association of liberalism with the left has solidified, Democrats have seemed increasingly eager to abandon collectivist economics altogether. Aside from obvious milestones like Bill Clinton’s famous declaration that “the era of big government is over,” the shift is evident in the rise of “Third Way” and “Blue Dog” Democrats, who lambaste their party for failing to support draconian enough cuts to social services and whose outstretched middle fingers toward the poor are every bit as sincere as Newt Gingrich’s or Paul Ryan’s.

This is part of what Bolton meant after student protesters walked out from his talk, speaking to an audience closer in both age and ideology to a Tea Party rally than a typical Oberlin political event, when he claimed that such protests are “nothing” compared to those of the ’60s. He’s right: In contrast to the proud radicalism of groups like Students for a Democratic Society, many modern left-wing activists in the U.S. have accepted “liberal equals left” and unthinkingly embraced the label with all its historical baggage, helping to effectively neuter their critique of neoliberal right-wing economics from the outset.

In our elders’ defense, they lived their childhoods in such overwhelming fear of the nuclear missiles aimed at them by “socialist republics” that it’s no wonder several decades of political rhetoric were twisted into near incoherence by their paranoia. As the first generation to have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, today’s college students have an opportunity to treat these labels a bit more rationally. Hopefully if we can reclaim the vocabulary of the left and decisively reject the notion that European-style social welfare programs are inevitably a stepping stone to Stalinist Gulags, and if we can redefine liberalism to mean roughly what we currently mean by “libertarianism” (which is how liberalism is understood everywhere outside the United States, by the way), we can arrest the steady rightward march of our political discourse and start to make some real progress. But for Pete’s sake, first we need to stop calling ourselves liberals.