The Definition of Liberal

Posted by Mike Merritt in Politics on

This article was cross-posted from Poligazette.

Andrew Sullivan has been included on Forbes’ list of “25 Most Influential Liberals,” and he’s making a case as to why this just isn’t true:

For the record, I support a flat tax and, as my liberal readers know, find progressive taxation unjust and counter-productive; I’m skeptical of universal healthcare on European lines and have long defended a free market in healthcare and pharmaceuticals; I have no queasiness in fighting a war against Jihadist terror – in fact I have long been one of the most passionate supporters of  it. I just oppose the illegal use of torture, the creation of a de facto protectorate in violation of the Constitution, and war-making without prudence, strategy, foresight or any conception of winning the long war of ideas.

I’ve looked at Forbes’ list, and read their defintion of what makes a liberal, and I have to say, I found it somewhat lacking.

The column was written by Tunku Varadarajan, the opinions editor for Forbes. Varadarajan gives the following definition for liberal:

Broadly, a “liberal’ subscribes to some or all of the following: progressive income taxation; universal health care of some kind; opposition to the war in Iraq, and a certain queasiness about the war on terror; an instinctive preference for international diplomacy; the right to gay marriage; a woman’s right to an abortion; environmentalism in some Kyoto Protocol-friendly form; and a rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket.

You can see where some of the problems are.  According to this definition, some people typically seen as conservative now become liberals.  Lets start with two of the more well known politicians from the last few months that are not Barack Obama: George W. Bush and John McCain.  Neither have either pushed for an end to progressive income taxation, so by this definition, they are liberals, right?

Then we get to some of the other elements.  Lets take abortion.  According to this definition, one of the front-runners for McCain’s running mate, Tom Ridge, a supporter of abortion, is a liberal.

Rejection of the McCain-Palin ticket?  Colin Powell and Christopher Buckley now become liberals.  And that’s only a couple names.

Then you take the whole defintion, and the list of so-called liberals included with it, and you find a lot of people who are apparently liberal and didn’t know it.  The entire libertarian movement, including its socially liberal and conservative elements, the gang of The Secular Right (the definition doesn’t include religion, but given Christopher Hitchens’ inclusion of the list, this must be the case), all moderates (per Fred Hiatt’s inclusion, along with his column, describes by Forbes as “moderate”), likely a majority of the Republican caucus of the House and Senate, and last but not least, most of the contributors to Poligazette.

That’s a lot of people to describe as liberal, which only underscores the weaknesses of the list and definition, and forgets that “liberal” is not necessarily the same as the platform of the Democratic Party.  The trouble is that it’s hard to give such a definition when there is undoubtedly someone out who would be included on it but other elements of their ideology clash with this.  Take libertarians.  Most are against the War on Terror, through usually more because of economic and non-interventionist concerns rather than because they’re peaceniks.  Yet, they’re also against progressive taxation, have a range of views on abortion, and definitely would be against Kyoto-style environmentalism.

Worse than the definition is the list of so-called liberals.  While many undoubtedly are liberals, some of the criteria for inclusion of Forbes’ list doesn’t appear to match their definition of what is liberal.  I posted Andrew Sullivan’s rebuttal above.  They also include Christopher Hitchens, who was once a Trotskyist, but now identifies with many so-called “conservative” causes, such as the War on Terror and in particular the Iraq War.  But Hitchens is also an atheist, which makes one wonder the real reason for his inclusion on the list.  Click the link to the Secular Right from above and be amazed that, yes, you can be conservative and an atheist.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

So, the definition is weak in many areas, and their accompanying list even weaker.  At first, I thought that this had to be the creation of the far-right (because to them, everything to the left of them is liberal), but then I saw this article, which, while it has some reverence for George Bush, but also a skewering of his political methods.  Varadarajan seems to identify as an intellectual conservative with a seeming disdain of the Palin pick (which, again, doesn’t match his definition of what defines a liberal).  Then again, just because you’re an intellectual conservative doesn’t mean you don’t come from the far-right.

Yet, the contradictions between the Forbes article and the one I linked to above makes one wonder if Varadarajan actually believes what he wrote.  That certainly doesn’t do much for the credibility of his definition and the list.

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