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Liberal’ is not a dirty word

Jonathan Klingler | Tuesday, October 3, 2006

It may surprise some readers when I say that I am a liberal, and proud of it. Classical liberalism holds liberty to be the chief political virtue, and over the past two and a half centuries, the liberal revolution has triumphed in the Western world and has made significant headway in almost every corner of the earth. The revolution I seek to advance in this column is the liberal revolution, which places the liberty of the individual first, expands virtue through the free flow of ideas rather than coercion or indoctrination, demands a minimal, restrained and effective government and places demands on individuals to pursue social justice out of moral imperative rather than fear of their government.

The foundation of the United States rests upon classical liberal ideas, and American conservatism seeks to conserve and expand the core principles of the American liberal revolution. According to the Oxford Manifesto of the Liberal International, liberalism seeks a society characterized by freedom of thought for individuals, limitations on power, especially of government and religion, the rule of law, the free exchange of ideas, a market economy that supports relatively free private enterprise and a transparent system of government in which the rights of all citizens are protected.

In recent years, a number of articles have been written lamenting the fact that the term liberal has become a dirty word in American politics. As early as 1988, former president George H. W. Bush denigrated his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis, as a “northeastern liberal.” According to Rich Noyes, research director for the Media Research Center, “Reporters sort of agree with Democrats that liberal is a dirty word, so they get very defensive when the word liberal is used.”

I stand among those who will attempt to clear the term of its negative connotations. However, the first step I would have to take is to point out how little modern American liberalism has to do with the foundational underpinnings of liberalism as an ideology. I believe that the reason why the term liberal is held in such low esteem in this country is because those who wear the badge most proudly have taken up arms against its cornerstones, namely, freedom of thought, the rule of law and the right to own property.

Liberals at many college campuses across the country have enacted speech codes which suppress or limit student voices, threatening fines or expulsion for the expression of offensive ideas. Simultaneously, modern American liberals have succeeded in creating hate crimes which enforce additional penalties on criminals, not for violent acts, but for their motives for committing those acts. Though we all seek a more respectful and loving society, penalizing individuals through coercion for thoughts or words is not consistent with an ideology that supposedly is first and foremost committed to expanding liberty.

In addition, the New Deal, the collection of policies implemented by President Roosevelt to combat the Great Depression, is arguably the foundation of modern American liberalism. Unfortunately for liberals of FDR’s day, many of the programs of the New Deal were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because they exceeded the powers given by the Constitution. The New Deal was only upheld in full after President Roosevelt threatened to “pack the court” with his supporters. The modern federal welfare state, which is the foundation of modern American liberalism, was created by conjuring up a new interpretation of the Constitution, and the theory of the living Constitution was an attempt to justify the practice. The rule of law holds that governmental authority is exercised legitimately only in accordance with written and disclosed laws adopted and enforced according to accepted procedure. The theory of the living Constitution, which is a pillar of modern American liberalism, is a threat to the rule of law because the Constitution ceases to be written or disclosed when it can be accessed only through the endlessly changing prognostications of an elite cadre of judges rather than through the document itself.

Modern American liberals consistently pursue policies which restrain the rights of individuals to engage in private enterprise and hold property. Right or wrong, most modern American liberals believe that working families whom are better off should be coerced by the government to transfer funds to other working families who make less. This belief shows up in the New Deal, the Great Society and in opposition to welfare reform in the 1990s. Liberalism places the responsibility of that activity on individuals, and all people have the moral judgment to see that we have an obligation to give more than we can to our neighbors who are hungry, cold and overworked. Social justice can be achieved by arguing this fundamental truth through a free exchange of ideas. We can create a beautiful culture of voluntary sacrifice, where each of us expresses the great love to give up ourselves for our neighbors. However, liberals choose to place forced redistribution of wealth above liberty time and again.

In short, the term liberal has gained a negative connotation in this country because modern American liberals have replaced liberalism’s focus on liberty with a focus on material equality and intellectual uniformity achieved by overpowering individual liberties through coercion. That is the opposite of liberalism. To those of you who are angry that liberal has become a dirty word, call yourselves progressives or call yourselves socialists, but don’t call yourselves liberals. It no longer fits.

Jonathan Klingler is a senior management consulting major and the President of the Notre Dame College Republicans. He currently resides in Keenan hall and enjoys Tolstoy and Matlock. He can be contacted via e-mail at jklingle@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.