Social Question

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

How or when did the word liberal become such a nasty word?

Asked by Hypocrisy_Central (26871points) August 26th, 2010

When did the term liberal become such a bad taste in the mouth or some scourge of the Earth? I remember growing up liberals were seen as innovative, flexible open-minded people could be due to the fact it was the liberal 60s. Today if one wants to discredit another especially politically they try to brand that person as a liberal as if to say liberals are easy on criminals, want everyone to be dope addicts, and basically are just sinful. That is one of the reason I affiliate with no party because as I see it there are no real liberals or conservatives; it is just a hodgepodge in the middle and it comes down to which end you are closest too. There are good points in conservatism as there are liberalism, but I can’t see how liberals got such a bad wrap over conservatives?

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42 Answers

kenmc's avatar

It became one when you let it become one.

MacBean's avatar

I’m unaware of this. I see “conservative” thrown around as the “dirty word” far more often than “liberal.”

BarnacleBill's avatar

I’m always amazed that there is a segment of the American population which construe liberal to mean socialist. It comes from Rush and dittoheads.

Deja_vu's avatar

Far left-wing extremist take things too far sometimes. But agreeing with @MacBean, “Conservatives” have a the bad wrap over “liberals”. I thought it seemed the otherway around only on Fox News.

Austinlad's avatar

Channeling George Carlin, @Hypocrisy_Central, I’ll go you one better. When and why did any word in and of itself become nasty? I remember a time when Left and Right referred only to hands, feet and turn signal lights.

Cruiser's avatar

My own perception and this is just how I see things is way back when I was young and much more feisty and even liberal…I saw liberalism as a means to change the system. The past decade or so I have seen a shift to where liberals now want to “expand” the system as in Government to improve the common mans way of life.
Now…again IMHO, we have long ago passed the point of return on our investment and are paying dearly for a bigger is better mentality that is costing us instead of providing true benefit based on the return of each dollar invested in our Government.

Hard core conservatives scare me almost as much in that they trumpet all sorts of change and limits to the Government with little evidence of just how that is supposed to happen which is heading down the same path that Obama led us during his election Campaign. I am simply tired of empty promises rhetoric on both sides of the isle!

marinelife's avatar

The origin of branding people as “liberals” with a pejorative meaning comes from former Vice President Spiro Agnew.

From the wiki:

“Agnew was known for his scathing criticisms of political opponents, especially journalists and anti-war activists. He attacked his adversaries with relish, hurling unusual, often alliterative epithets — some of which were coined by White House speechwriters William Safire and Pat Buchanan — including “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “nattering nabobs of negativism” (written by Safire), and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history”.[7] He once described a group of opponents as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.””

tedd's avatar

Its only a bad word in the eyes of the polar opposite group really.

And even then, regular every day conservatives don’t think liberals or bad, or vice versa. It really only becomes a bad word when you get into groups of people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and conservative only becomes bad in groups of people on the other polar side.

ETpro's avatar

The Republican conservative wing went to work demonizing the word back in FDR’s time and has been doing so ever since. It’s actual dictionary meaning is very positive, just as your early perception of it suggests.

Merriam Webster says it means (non-political definitions omitted):
1a : marked by generosity : openhanded <a liberal giver>
1b : given or provided in a generous and openhanded way <a liberal meal>
2.   not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms
3.   of or constituting a political party advocating or associated with the principles of political liberalism; especially : of or constituting a political party in the United Kingdom associated with ideals of individual especially economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives

But conservatives aghast at Roosevelt taxing rich people to try to pull the poor out of a desperate situation and starvation in the Great Depression set about turning it into a vile pejorative, and they have largely succeeded. They are hard at work turning “progressive” into the same sort of taunt today. Google stupid progressives or any such phrase and you will find tons of hate-speech sites.

However, such efforts have their backlash, and the word conservative is becoming ever more a pejorative as well. That’s sad, because like liberal and progressive, conservative is a positive word as well. Merriam-Webster has it meaning:
1a : of or relating to a philosophy of conservatism
1b : capitalized : of or constituting a political party professing the principles of conservatism: as (1) : of or constituting a party of the United Kingdom advocating support of established institutions (2) : progressive conservative
2a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional
2b : marked by moderation or caution <a conservative estimate>
2c : marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners
(Again, meanings outside politics omitted)

In truth, the conservative approach, keeping things on a steady, known track and preferring tried-and-true solutions where they work, is perfectly sensible and arguably the best policy for governance when it will work. However, nothing is constant except change. What was great body armor in the age of the crossbow is pretty darned useless when defending against automatic weapons firing armor-piercing bullets at 800 rounds per minute.

There are times when new approaches, progress and innovation are not just good, they are essential for survival. No political party mired in either one of the other approach can govern effectively. Getting stuck on either conservative or liberal dooms a government to failure. The sooner Americans all recognize this and quit fighting about which approach is the right one, the better.

wilma's avatar

Gee Wiz @ETpro I’m going to have to agree with you again.
we have to stop meeting in the middle like this! ;)

mammal's avatar

neoliberalism is a particularly nasty word. Apparently it’s the bestest, most trustiest economic policy the world has ever known. That’s fine, except when it fails utterly see banking crisis and life takes a surreal twist with a panic stampede to the extreme left, suddenly it’s all the rage to redistribute wealth, nationalise or part nationalise, or simply offer welfare to the poor, sick banks, public money gets pumped into the private sector, like water to the towering inferno, suddenly it gets diverted away from it’s intended public use, straight into the capitalist heart, like a jolt of adrenaline. i wonder what the grinning gnome, Friedman would have made of that, i wonder if that would have wiped the smug grin off his avuncular mug?

ETpro's avatar

@wilma Ha! Thanks, and I promise not to tell if you don’t tell. :-)

@mammal This certainly isn’t the place for a debate about right vs. left, but I have to respond to the flight of fantasy. The economic disparity in the US has hit a zenith twice now, with the wealthiest 1% grabbing ⅓rd of all the wealth of the nation in their own hands. Once was in 1928 after 40 years of Republican deregulation and slashing taxes for the rich, and the other was in 2007 after 30 years of Republican deregulation and slashing taxes for the rich.

The truth is America’s billionaires have NEVER been an endangered species needing welfare from the poor to survive and provide jobs. The truth is the only thing that has trickled down from Reagan’s voodoo economics is piss on our heads from the billionaires who have profited from it.

Agreed it stinks to have to pump public money into banks and capitalist enterprises. But it beats a second all-out depression. It wasn’t any form of liberalism that wrecked the economy twice now, it was the exact opposite of it.

ETpro's avatar

@mammal Sorry, I missed the “neo” of neoliberalism. Ronald Reagan actually was a proponent of that failed policy. I should have read more carefully.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It’s just the fad at the moment. It’s not a nasty word…nor is conservative…but so many issues are polarized lately. We all feel strongly that others are wrong, somehow. It’s got a lot to do with religion and not being able to live and let live. People have very differing ways of navigating this world and we’re forced to deal with those who navigate it in a completely seemingly wrong fashion. I don’t know what the solution is but I know where and whom I stand against.

dalepetrie's avatar

I’ve always blamed it on Dukakis. Liberal Democrats used to embrace the word, but then in the ‘88 election, Bush I cast a bad light on the word, and for some reason, Dukakis didn’t want that label, so when anyone called him a Liberal (even though he was and should have been damn proud of it), he tried to point out why he wasn’t a liberal. That just made it look like even the liberals don’t want to be associated with the name, and since then it has been a dirty word the right can throw at the left.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Ever since so many vocal Conservatives have been self-righteous and nasty.

ETpro's avatar

@dalepetrie Dukakis might have helped the demonizers along, but they started their work back when FDR introduced the New Deal and the WPA. They had been at it for well over 50 years by the presidential race of 1988.

Neutral's avatar

Ah, now I see the connection with this thread and this one Tolerance

I think the word liberal has been considered a nasty word since the 1980’s due to ineffectual liberal hypocrisy at its best. “The other” should be universally tolerated, except when the other is intolerant of another’s views. In other words, the liberal feels we should be free to practice life the way we want to, so long as we don’t force our way of life onto others. We should be free to privately believe what we want to, so long as publicly we all appease each other and “get along”. If a person asserts a different worldview onto us(liberals), as an unconditional “better” worldview than ours(liberals), and then demands that we(liberals) engage it, then that demand equates “harassment”. This logic is both counter-productive and socially stagnating. Political discourse is supposed to engage the other. Discourse is supposed to be both intellectual and aggressive. Politics implies points of contention, clashing ideas, inevitable antagonisms, heated disputes, intense disagreements. Politics, in the real sense, are about human lives, since humans are effected by the policies of their society. Thus, by abandoning the antagonistic, linguistically aggressive dynamics of political discourse, liberals have abandoned politics, itself, and as a result, they have inadvertently abandoned the suffering individuals, whose lives they claim to champion. By abandoning political antagonism, liberals have allowed the status quo of capitalism to thrive. Liberal tolerance fits seamlessly, then, into the ideology of corporate capitalism. It does not cause “friction”; it allows liberals to “feel free and independent” of the status quo, while never affecting the “social machine”, itself. The status quo remains intact. Thus, liberals are rather useful to corporate leaders and politicians, themselves. Liberal-capitalist ideology crumbles with this, “The right to be different” and “multicultural societies” as the focus of “human rights”. “Culture” and “differences” have nothing to do with “human” rights. Culture and the differences between cultures, are not the focus of “rights” and “ethics” at all. This is because culture is already “outside” of the human. Human rights focuses on the human, in its essence. Culture is external to the mind and body of the human being, not an intrinsic part. Thus, culture is a non-issue. Human rights, real human rights, focus on the human, intrinsically. It focuses on what can and cannot be done to the mind and body of any human being, regardless of a person’s ethnic, cultural, or gender identity, and regardless of the historical conditions involved. Real human rights are totally “a-cultural”. Cultures, differences or not, do not factor. Furthermore, since so-called “tolerance” does not focus on real human rights, we can say that it is an ideology void of human-oriented ethics. As such, liberal tolerance is both “a-ethical” and “unethical”.

In the other thread about tolerance, link above, I answered to at as follows. It fits in to what I said, here, thus far.

Tolerance is a self-contradictory principle. It is self-contradictory because it is reflexive. That is, as a principle it acts upon itself, or it includes itself in its scope. As a principle, tolerance dictates that we must be tolerant of everything. We cannot pick and choose what we will tolerate and what we will not. If this is so, then tolerance requires us to tolerate even intolerance. Thus, if somebody is preaching or practicing intolerance, the tolerant person cannot, in principle, speak out against what the intolerant person is doing, since speaking out against intolerance would itself be an act of intolerance. In other words, the principle of tolerance requires us to grant intolerant people the right to be intolerant. This is clearly self-contradictory, since tolerance cannot condone what it specifically sets out to be against (intolerance), but it nevertheless requires itself, logically, to do just that. Tolerance as a principle, then, is clearly illogical, and therefore, irrational.

This site gives a nice outlook both on what I’ve written and they give a scientific outlook.

“Outlook on liberal”:

ETpro's avatar

@Neutral Very interesting thoughts. I do agree that there have been few liberals since FDR and Give ‘em Hell Harry Truman who had the cojones to really stand up and advocate for their beliefs. Bill Clinton did say that “Politics is a contact sport. If you can’t take a hit, don’t suit up.” But he also spent a great deal of time triangulating. .

I think when it comes to the current malaise in America, you may be laying blame at the wrong feet, though. What has really happened in the last 60 years is that the US has slowly and steadily been drifting toward becoming a full-blown corporatocracy. We never went through a Fascist revolution like Germany and Italy did. It came slowly, with money paving the way. But both parties are now largely in the pocket of the 6 largest industries in the USA. That said, if there is a hope of changing this it lies either with some third party or with the Democrats. The GOP has evolved into the Greedy Oligarchy Party. Today, they exist only to work for the benefit of their big corporate donors and to transfer America’s wealth to the richest 1% as quickly as possible.

Regarding your assertion that, “Culture is external to the mind and body of the human being, not an intrinsic part. Thus, culture is a non-issue.” I strongly disagree. Bullets are external too. So are IEDs. But that doesn’t mean they can’t force their way into the internal and do great harm. Culture can do the same, and this is a very important issue. The culture of the Taliban, for instance, has an impact on human existence. In its presence, massive illiteracy persists, and yet it is culturally appropriate to throw battery acid in little girl’s faces if they seek to learn to read. Under their rule, the maternal and infant mortality rates were among the highest in the world. The average life expectancy was 44 years. The GDP was what the average Global GDP was in the 1820s, and that is NOT factoring in inflation. Culture has a great deal of internal impact.

Your claim that tolerance means accepting everything is just plain false. You are giving the word your own definition so that you can push an agenda of intolerance, I fear. If that’s your intention, don’t expect tolerance of it from this liberal. I am more than willing to fight for what I believe to be right.

Neutral's avatar

Corporations are fighting for their own individual-self interests. Corporations have legally been ruled through almost all court systems to be considered a single ‘person’ and given the inalienable human rights thereto required by most constitutions for human beings. In addition, they’re also represented and protected as an individual within the courts when facing public scrutiny and regulation. Check this out, The Corporation Won best documentary. In regards to your culture refutation, you’re discussing apples and oranges. This doesn’t relate to what I was saying. I’m describing tolerance as it is officially defined. It’s a principle. If you wish to think this way, I shall think you’re defining the word as you see fit, as well. You can fight all you want, just not with me. Discussing politics on a Q&A site, is as irrelevant as watching paint dry. Let the politicians do the arguing, after-all, we did appoint them? Feel free to reply back, but I’m not interested in a debate.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Neutral I don’t know why you seem to be under the impression that it was liberals alone who began a policy of antagonism.

Neutral's avatar


I will let you digg into the history on that.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Neutral No thanks, history ain’t truth to me.

Neutral's avatar


If history is not truth to you, then why are you asking me rhetorical questions? Are you a holocaust denier?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Neutral LOL. Yeah, that’s me.

Neutral's avatar


If you are laughing out loud and accepting the denial of the holocaust, then fine, freedom of speech is welcomed. However, if you are being sarcastic, then you accept the truth of the holocaust, and if you accept the truth of the holocaust, then you accept the truth of history, but you said history “ain’t” truth to you, so that makes you a flip flopping troll who’s disregarding the writing standards of fluther. In any case, it’s another tragic tale of wasted youth.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Neutral I laugh in sarcasm and I accept that the Holocaust happened. What I intended with my comment was the following: we are now in an age of information and bs overload (not that it wasn’t like that in the past, but still) where me going to ‘dig for something’ won’t do much good because I’m mistrustful – not because something didn’t happen but because how it’s written about and by whom is an issue – the writing of history is always flawed. As to whether I’m a troll or not…well, let’s see I’ve been here for over half a year without ever missing a day and I have over 24000 points (not that that matters but if you’re going to go there) and you’ve been here for what a millisecond and have 16 points off of one question. If you’re not a noob or a troll, then you’re (as I always say) another coward hiding behind a new account unable to show who you really are. Either way, I’m not charmed to meet you.

Neutral's avatar

Instead of me arguing right now about the falsehood drivel in your commentary, I’ll simply ask you then, why write this comment (“I don’t know why you seem to be under the impression that it was liberals alone who began a policy of antagonism.”) If you don’t care for an answer, since as you clearly stated, you’re “mistrustful” of information(“bs overload”)? If that’s not troll material then I don’t know what is. The myriad of points is precisely why you’re trolling. It’s your security to display innocence at the time of guilt. Now, you’re calling me a coward, why? What does that even mean “unable to show who I really am”?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Neutral It was a simple commentary (as I’ve never trolled in my life, didn’t even know what that meant until a couple of months ago) on your answer which I found insightful but I see now you’ve got some issues to work through. I advise you to stop being confrontational with strangers. Drivel can be found within your words, as well but that’s neither here nor there, my friend. What I meant by ‘unable to show who you really are’ is that it’s possible (given the chip on your shoulder) that you’ve been a user on Fluther previously and have just created this account to be argumentative and vindictive. If you’ve never been a Fluther user, I apologize and see point number 1 of this comment of mine.

Neutral's avatar

You challenged my reply, and I challenged you back. If it was simply a commentary then we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Obviously I wanted clarity, but instead you took me for a spin with your sarcasm. Furthermore, I would advice you to know the difference between a political discussion and something personal. The question is not much of a political question without confrontation and vindication. No, I have never been on fluther. This is my first Q&A site, but I am coming from argumentative forums, such as Arguewitheveryone and Freeratio

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@Neutral You see there is a difference in perspective here – I say it’s commentary, you say it’s a challenge. And we also disagree as to what a discussion is. So it goes.

ETpro's avatar

@Neutral For one who throws history up as your backstop, you don’t seem to know much about it at all. The idea that liberals began the history of antagonism simply isn’t there when we look back in US political history. Father Charles Edward Coughlin and Joe Pyne date back to the 1930s. For a time after that, the FCC Fairness Doctrine kept the airwaves balanced between liberal and conservative talk, so the toxic set took up residence in Congress with the likes of Senator Joe McCarthy. But in 1987 when the FCC abandoned the Fairness Doctrine, the legion of toxic right-wing talkers got rolling. Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, G. Gordon Liddy…If the political atmosphere is poisonous, it isn’t because MSNBC suddenly came along.

Also, the idea that the Supreme Court’s finding corporations to have a First Amendment right to free speech stands on a long history of legal precedent is bogus. Interstate corporations were not even allowed to exist when the Founders wrote the document. Charters were issued by a state and limited what a corporate entity could do and where it could operate. With their recent experience of the evils of the exploitative British East India Company, the Founders ered on the side of protecting the people, not investors.

State chartering did not yield to interstate corporations till the mid 1850s. Corporations were then treated as individual entities, but in court decision after court decision up through the US Supreme Court, they certainly weren’t given equal rights with individuals. Corporations, for instance, do not have the unlimited right to bear arms. I strongly disagree with the SCOTUS’ decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Legal scholars point to a long line of SCOTUS decisions it ignored as precedent. It is just one more glaring sign to me that a growing Gerontocracy is slowly strangling individula liberty in America.

Neutral's avatar

Thank you for the discourse, but as I said, I won’t be debating with you.

“You can fight all you want, just not with me. Discussing politics on a Q&A site, is as irrelevant as watching paint dry. Let the politicians do the arguing, after-all, we did appoint them.”

Dr_Dredd's avatar

“Interstate corporations were not even allowed to exist when the Founders wrote the document.”

And yet, originalists like Justices Scalia and Thomas voted with the majority. Hmm…

ETpro's avatar

@Dr_Dredd And there we have the truth of who activist judges really are.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

I first noticed the term Liberal being used in a purely mindless derogatory sense during the Nixon administration and their much-lauded Moral Majority in response to the rapidly growing groundswell of anti-war sentiment among the middle class around 1970.

But it really got nasty and one-sided directly after the 1987 revocation of the FCC’s long-standing Fairness in Broadcasting Doctrine which did away with the Equal Time Rule . The Equal Time Rule stated that U.S. radio and television broadcast stations had to provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates who request it. This meant, for example, that if a station gave one free minute to a candidate on the prime time, it must do the same for another candidate. This rule, in practice, was also extended to any politically-oriented radio and television broadcast guest. Things were actually Fair and Balanced back then. The World News actually was a 15-minute nightly broadcast segment solely concerning world news without a running editorial commentary as we have today.

People like David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Harry Reasoners delivered the news stoicly to American audiences. They were notorious for standing up to producers and corporate heads when their turf, which they proudly referred to as the “Fourth Estate”: with religious furvor. Editorializing was always in a separate segment delivered by a senior journalist. “Entertainment News” and “Infotainment” was unheard of. If a movie star committed suicide, it would be mentioned respectfully and that was all. Sports was given little time in the news There were separate broadcasts for that. Journalism was a respected profession in a respected institution.

But in 1987, the monster was were unleashed. Within a very short time, supposed “news” shows, dominated by heavily corporate-backed sociopathic personalities such as Rush Limbaugh began to fill the airwaves and anything construed as anti-Republican was villified coast to coast, eventually 24–7 by a host of similar announcers. And nothing has been the same since.

A generation of Americans have now been exposed to the constant, myopic, xenophobic, vitriol hissed through microphones and it shows in people’s lack of understanding as to the spectrum of vialble political choices available and solutions to many of our problems that have been discovered in other democracies. There are many voices and ideas that have been left unheard in America in the ensuing years.

We need to bring this doctrine back for the psychological health of our nation.

ETpro's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Amen to that. That is one control on absolutely free speech that needs to return.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

Thx. Damn I hate this short editing time we have here.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

The Equal Time Rule stated that U.S. radio and television broadcast stations had to provide an equivalent opportunity to any opposing political candidates who request it. This meant, for example, that if a station gave one free minute to a candidate on the prime time, it must do the same for another candidate. So why would NPR have their funding yanked because they are seen as the dreaded ‘L’ word? If conservatives feel they are not getting a good deal as they do on Fox News then she should try harder to invoke. Just seem like some powers that be just want to tank NPR because they are “gasp” liberals, so I guess it is nasty to be a liberal…..<shrug>

SecondHandStoke's avatar

This should be self evident.

^ The Equal Time Rule: What are liberals so afraid of? Well, Al Franken could put anyone to sleep.

Though I would follow him over a cliff regarding his fight for a free Internet.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

^ I am starting to think there are no true bonafide liberals, or conservatives.

SecondHandStoke's avatar

^You would be correct.

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