The term ‘liberalism’ has evolved substantially since its conception in the 17th century. Originally describing an ideology that prioritises freedom and the protection of natural rights, its meaning has changed alongside attitudes towards politics and ideology. Although the term is still primarily used to refer to someone who espouses the philosophy, it has been associated with negative connotations which has rendered it an insult.
So, what does it mean to be a ‘liberal’ in the 21st century, where cynicism and ideology dominate popular political discourse?
The notion of liberalism was integral to the development of the world’s modern democracies. Central to many revolutions, it completely altered the way society was organised, removing autocratic boundaries and making equality more accessible. Many parties across the globe use the term ‘liberal’ as a key identifier, such as the Liberal Democrats in the UK. Its broad appeal has ensured its longevity into the present day, but with recent political developments, some have argued the concept is losing relevance.
Last year, President Putin provoked many with the claim that liberalism has become “obsolete”. The Russian leader cited immigration, and the liberal approach to it as causing an increasing disconnection between leaders and an “overwhelming majority of the population”. His comments seem to have some credence, with several countries beginning to reject our increasing globalisation and multiculturalism. Examples of this include Brexit in the UK, and the support of populist figures such as Donald Trump in the USA, and suggest that traditionally ‘liberal’ democracies are decreasing in cultural and political tolerance.
Whilst many liberal concepts are deeply entrenched in many western democracies, it is implicit that a resurgence of conservatism, as well as the emergence of populism across Europe and America have seen the support of liberalism fall. More recently, the political identifier has been weaponised against those perceived to be on the left of the political spectrum. Its use is especially prevalent in the USA, where the term seems synonymous with ‘snowflake’ and is regularly employed by alt-right groups to undermine the arguments of political opponents.
This seems ironic, considering that the traditionally ‘right-winged’ party of America, the Republican Party, is historically known for its fierce protection of civil liberties. However, the term has become so far removed from its origins people no longer seem to consider its actual meaning, and with the current divisive political landscape, its use has become thoughtless. Furthermore, the characterisation of the left as weak and sensitive has greatly assisted the right in their patriotic and sometimes nationalistic image, especially in countries such asItaly and Hungry, whose right-wing or authoritarian parties have considerable public support.
Moreover, though this term has reached the public conscience again, its negative usage has its origins in the 1960s, as a reaction to the burgeoning hippie movement. An increase in personal freedoms previously seen as taboo, including drug use and homosexuality outraged many who felt the increasing social tolerance as ‘too-liberal’. The same issue seems to have risen in the last few decades, with the polarisation of ‘Boomers’ and ‘Zoomers’ causing caustic political discourse, and the term ‘liberal’ remaining to be used in a negative way.
On the other hand, support for liberal policies remains strikingly high, and have materialised in many groundbreaking achievements in the realm of social issues. This includes the legalisation of gay marriage in many major countries, which has skewed the perception of liberalism and liberals, at least in Western democracies, as a more positive force, and has reunited its association with equality. Reclaiming the term ‘liberal’ has been a difficult process. Due to its modern connotations, many abandoned it and began using the term ‘progressive’. The meaning is identical, but also signifies the scope of liberalism and its optimistic roots.
Whilst opponents of liberalism point to the discussed reasons as evidence for the ideology’s decline, its presence remains. Liberalism is so deeply rooted in democracy it is inextricable. Ideas such as free markets and enterprise remain the foundation of many of the world’s successful economies. Globalisation has allowed for the synthesis of culture and knowledge and has made international diplomacy and cooperation more effective. Although other core values of liberalism, such as social tolerance and individual rights have an uncertain future, its influence remains arguably unrivalled.
As an ideological identity, liberalism encompasses a range of beliefs and positions on the political spectrum. To be used as an insult is reductive, however, it does raise the question of what it means to be a liberal in our current world. As the ideology espouses, individualism is key, and thus liberalism is a very individual set of values and beliefs. It is not defined by a single country or person, especially in the 21st century where means of political discussion are so diverse.