Reclaiming Liberalism: How the Left ceded the high ground and how Republicans can reclaim it

Many prominent conservatives have often complained that Liberals are not liberal, and have not been for some time. In fact, the word “liberalism” has been co-opted to mean something nearly antithetical to its 18th Century definition.

In the last decade, however, Liberals in both the leadership and the rank-and-file have abandoned this moniker in favor of the even more misleading nom de guerre, “Progressives.”

Classical liberalism has always been a powerful and attractive concept to the American mind. Established at the pinnacle of the Enlightenment, liberalism is America’s founding philosophy. Progressives enjoyed early success by latching onto liberalism’s principle of freedom from oppression, but in recent decades that principle has been perverted to mean freedom from any manner of inconvenience or hardship. Today, liberalism essentially has no champions – Republicans can fill that void.

Why does liberalism have no followers?

The Left’s ultimate rejection of liberalism has been a long time in the making.. “Progressivism” implies a forward-thinking movement of individuals dedicated to the momentum of all the optimizing forces of history. But Progressives seek to abandon most of those forces in favor of an illusory collective compact where the individual is subject to an endless variety of social experimentations. Sadly, these optimization efforts often require the individual surrender their personal aspirations and freedoms.

As Progressives have abandoned the contrivance of calling themselves liberal, Republicans can retake this hard-fought ground. Conservatism, as a restorative movement that seeks to secure for the future all that was most effective about the past, can enjoy great successes in claiming that the true heir to the legacy of liberalism is in the Republican Party.

Republican Party members and conservatives have spent so much of their time combating Liberals on the Left that adopting the mantle of liberalism may prove a bridge too far. It will take a concerted and conscious effort to reclaim this noble, deep-rooted movement. Today there is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the GOP to reclaim the word and a broad swath of the center of the country with it. First, however, liberalism must be clearly defined.

What is Liberalism?

As Independence Day looms, the following concepts are always fresh in the patriotic mind. It never hurts to repeat them, however, as the limited and specific meaning of liberalism has been so diluted over the centuries.

The freedom of commerce: The freedom to engage in trade of whatever kind the individual sees fit. A liberal government does not seek to impose restrictions on trade or commerce in order to benefit one or several segments of society, but rather it embraces the freedom of the individual to make choices and manage their own affairs. A liberal government abhors trade restrictions, tariffs or taxation to restrict or create incentives to trade. Period.

Freedom of thought and expression: Liberalism seeks to ensure all peoples have the maximum freedom of expression, and that opposing ideas come into contact with one another as often as possible. Laughable ideas, such as prejudice or bigotry or economic repression for political gain, will be mocked out of the public square, but only if the freedom to hear those ideas fully and unapologetically voiced is preserved. The instinct to keep sensitive groups, which have been historically plagued by oppression and bigotry, free from contact with derogatory comments or sentiments is noble, but it is not liberal.

Freedom in private affairs: This includes the preservation of the individual’s freedom to practice whatever religion or politics that they see fit to in their private homes. This is perhaps America’s the most cherished but least practiced freedom. Ideas or religions that may not be to the taste of the public square must nevertheless be tolerated within the confines of an individual’s private home and should not be infringed upon. If you have ever heard a friend or neighbor utter the phrase, “I’m all for freedom of (insert freedom here), but…,” then you have encountered the ignoble instinct to limit the freedom of private affairs.

What are the obstacles?

When times are tough and the issues surrounding elections represent national survival, the opposition’s perennial inflated gripe that conservatives want to kill grandma and put homosexuals into camps are easily dismissed by thinking voters as a blusterous attempt to derail the conversation away from the serious issues of the time. In better times (see the 1990s) these attacks create doubt in the Republican Party. Perhaps, the persuadable voter thinks, Republicans are not as liberal as they claim. Freedom for all, without exception, must be repeated and repeated often by the party’s leaders. The case for liberalism must be made in this year’s Republican presidential primaries emphatically and by every candidate.

Republicans in Washington in the last quarter century have been too eager to leverage the tools of government against individual property and trade rights in order to benefit their various constituencies. The reclamation of liberalism must be engaged by the Right in deed as well as in semantic posture.

Finally, this is not a combative tactic to be employed against the opposition. Reclaiming liberalism is essentially a unifying and conciliatory posture. Former liberals should be engaged as the former Confederacy was engaged following Reconstruction – as a noble people with some laudable instincts toward freedom, which had simply lost their way. Your sins are forgiven. Now come home.

18th Century liberalism is attractive because of its successes – it has a powerful hold on the American imagination as the principle that motivated our founding fathers to engage in the American experiment. It was a crime that its constructs were abandoned in favor of their direct antecedents as the Left reinterpreted liberalism. However, this hard-fought ground has been ceded by the opposition, and it is our time to seize it. It would be folly to ignore this opportunity to win a major battle for the public imagination.