Connect with Isthmus on Twitter · Facebook · Flickr · Newsletters · Instagram 
Saturday, September 20, 2014  |   Madison, WI: 77.0° F  
THE SCONZ: Breaking news and commentary on campus, city and state politics
Share on Google+
What makes 'liberal' a bad word?
on (22) Comments

The president of Sconz Nation had the pleasure of attending a ground-breaking diplomatic summit yesterday with the Squire of the Stately Blaska Manor at the Shamrock Bar. I figured there would be no better companion for my first venture into the Madison gay bar scene than the Squire, who honored his promise to buy me two beers if Jim Holperin prevailed in the Senate recall race Up North.

Although it would be a serious breach of diplomatic privilege to disclose any of the specifics of the historic accords, I will mention that one of the many topics we addressed was the ideological make-up of the United States. Specifically, how many of us should be identified as liberals, moderates or conservatives.

The U.S. has a very unique political lexicon. It is probably the only western country in which "liberal" is associated with the left, rather than with those who support free-market economics. For instance, The Economist refers to itself as a "liberal" magazine because it supports free trade and fewer government regulations. But words that work for the rest of the world apparently don't work for us.

Polls have shown that many more Americans call themselves "conservative" or "moderate" than "liberal." Predictably, many commentators have interpreted those results as evidence that America is a "center-right" country. I don't share that interpretation. While I think there are a variety of cultural and political characteristics that make the U.S. more conservative than many other Western societies, I think that semantics play a much bigger role in the disparity. Let me explain.

The word liberal has been very effectively demonized in the past 20 years by the GOP and talk radio. The defining moment is probably the 1988 presidential campaign, when Michael Dukakis was successfully portrayed as a pointy-headed liberal elitist, who supported positions (most notably weekend furloughs for dangerous felons) that were radically at odds with mainstream public opinion. In response, the Democratic Party tried to distance itself from the label, rather than trying to redefine what it means to be a "liberal."

As a result, even mainstream politicians who were pushing policies that would most would identify as "liberal," (higher taxes on the wealthy, increased social services, gay rights, abortion rights etc.) avoided the term. Hence, many supporters of these politicians also did not identify as "liberal." Those who did refer to themselves as such were generally those who were comfortable supporting non-mainstream politicians or got their information from non-mainstream media outlets.

However, even as Americans increasingly associated the term "liberal" with the far left end of the political spectrum, politically-active Madisonians still used the term to refer to mainstream Democrats, as opposed to more left-leaning "progressives."

The irony is that as left-leaning politicians across the country seek to find a term that does not carry the negative connotations that "liberal" has picked up, they have turned to "progressive." Hence, there is a Congressional Progressive Caucus, but not a Congressional Liberal Caucus. Tammy Baldwin touts herself as "A Progressive Fighter for Wisconsin," not "A Liberal Fighter."

Follow The Sconz on Twitter or Facebookto get regular updates on city and state politics. Tune in to the radio show everyday between 10-11 a.m. on 1670 AM WTDY. Please send anonymous tips, interview requests or any other comments to

Share on Google+
Show 22 Comments

Log in or register to comment

Promotions Contact us Privacy Policy Jobs Newsletters RSS
Collapse Photo Bar