The Other L Word

The L word is back! No, I don’t mean the Showtime program of that name. I don’t even mean the “L word” that the program revolves around (for the uninitiated, it’s Lesbians.) I’m talking about a word that has gone undercover for a long, long time: Liberal.

With the re-election of Barack Obama, the passage of marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, and Washington; the legalization of medical marijuana in Connecticut and Massachusetts; the legalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in Colorado and Washington; a record number of women elected to the House and Senate; the election of the first openly gay Senator, Tammy Baldwin; and the announcement by Nancy Pelosi that she intends to remain House Democratic Leader, the word ‘liberal’ has suddenly reappeared in force.

And the best news? The people using it are liberals themselves. They’re finally reclaiming a label that they’ve run from the past two decades or so because Republicans did such a good job of rebranding liberalism as socialism.

You’ve got to hand it to Republican strategists—until now they’ve kicked Democrats’ butts in the language arena. This mastery of the game of Linguistics started with calling people who are anti-abortion “pro-life”, a truly clever maneuver. It simultaneously presented anti-abortionists as morally superior (they love life!) and people in favor of abortion rights as morally degenerate (they’re against life!). Note how the Democrats’ rejoinder—the term “pro-choice”—never really undid the damage that was already done.

In the months leading up to the 2008 election, the Democrats showed that they’ve got game, coining the phrase “War on Women” to describe some Republicans’ reactionary attitudes about abortion, access to contraception, equal pay for equal work, and other women’s issues. The phrase had staying power. And it stuck to Mitt Romney and some other Republican candidates, helping to end their bid for office.

And now Democrats have returned the term ‘Liberal’ to the political lexicon.

It was uttered by the Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”; it’s in the headline of an article by Michael Tomasky on The Daily Beast, “Liberals: Hold Your Fire”; it’s used repeatedly by Al Sharpton on his show PoliticsNation on MSNBC; and it has appeared in headline after headline on Salon: “Liberals Have Won Nothing,” “Liberals: Don’t Let Us Down,” “Liberals Need Nancy [Pelosi],” and many more.

And then, if that weren’t proof enough, the liberal media started reflecting on the liberal media’s use of the word Liberal.

Chris Matthews, the love-him-or-hate-him host of MSNBC’s Hardball, devoted a segment to this phenomenon on 14 November. The teaser was: “Democrats running as liberals!” And Matthews started off the segment by saying that candidates no longer have to call themselves “moderate”. He continued, “You can say you’re a liberal now, and you can win.”

One of his guests, Susan Mulligan from U.S. News and World Report, agreed, saying, “The Democrats are coming home. The Democrats actually got back to the core principles that defined them as a Democratic party.” And she pointed to the speeches at the Democratic National Convention by Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Clinton (who, ironically, may have been one of the first to shed the liberal mantle in favor of a more electable centrism), and Julian Castro, Mayor of San Antonio, as proof.

I believe those speeches are what made the convention such an energizing, exhilarating event—not just because of the superstars who delivered them or their soaring talent as orators—but because they were about traditional liberal values like fairness and equality and caring for those who need a helping hand (hey — isn’t that pro-life?). Liberalism was no longer in hiding; it was out in the open and the crowd loved it.

So, forget about ‘moderate’. Forget about ‘progressive’. ‘Liberal’ is back. Let’s hope it’s here to stay.