by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Concerned about “cultural appropriation” — degrading a culture by misusing one of its images or items? So is Amity Shlaes, as she explains in the latest edition of Forbes.
[I]f prosecution of cultural appropriation has become American doctrine, there’s a chance to litigate a theft of a magnitude greater than tequila, Navajo textile themes or even the details of 19th-century Japanese etiquette: the appropriation of the term “liberal.”
Well into the 20th century everyone knew what liberalism stood for: freedom, property rights, equality of opportunity, markets–”the liberal system of free exportation and free importation,” as Adam Smith put it. Liberalism was common sense; in terms of political real estate it represented the precious middle ground. The liberalism of yore didn’t emphasize groups but rather individuals. Liberalism and autocrats didn’t mix, for there was an inherent civility to this liberalism. Americans discussed issues politely because they respected one another, individually. Those politicians who, in contrast, fought for rights of groups (senior citizens, labor, women) were known, whatever their party, as progressives. …
… Meanwhile, though, progressives had begun renting the term “liberal” and the liberal space, referring to themselves as “liberal realists” or “social liberals.” In the 1930s the same progressive crowd, now New Dealers, slapped the label “liberal” on costly entitlements or political benefits for groups from senior citizens (Social Security) to unions (the Wagner Act). Wendell Willkie, a businessman who ran against President Roosevelt in 1940, made a desperate effort to recapture the purloined label. “The Democratic party sometimes is regarded as the liberal party,” Willkie said. “But now it is in the hands of the most corrupt group of political racketeers in the history of the United States.”
Still, the damage was done: Progressives now owned the valuable name and the key center-stage position. From their secure foothold they shoved the old liberals right. The same man who had been a centrist liberal before World War II was, after the war, labeled a conservative, reactionary or libertarian. Ronald Reagan rashly reinforced the Democratic Party’s claim on the term when he slung it as a pejorative: “It’s time to use the dreaded ‘L’ word, to say the policies of our opposition are ‘liberal, liberal, liberal.’” The hostile tone echoed down the airwaves for a decade, as radio hosts aped Reagan’s antiliberal rants.
The theft of nomenclature matters for reasons beyond politics. In losing the name, Americans lost the concept.