Part of a new series, “In a Nutshell,” in which I try to explain an idea in 500 words or less.
What is a liberal?
I think of liberalism as beginning with the belief that the citizen is sovereign and has certain inalienable rights, inalienable meaning they are indestructible and unconditional, not contingent on kings, feudal lords, etc., and not coming from the divine right of kings or your social rank or wealth but INBORN. You have human rights that are immovable, including individual liberty, life, the right to pursue your happiness, and that we all have the same rights (radical equality of rights) is the core of liberalism. A law that, for example, strictly bans religious hair-coverings is the opposite of liberal. It’s illiberal, especially if it is singling out Muslim women/the hijab and ignoring similar Jewish and Christian Orthodox hair-covering so only Muslima have fewer rights.
Quintessentially liberal laws include the Bill of Rights and Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. In the late 1800s and throughout the 20th century, liberalism increasingly added positive liberty-ish things more about your freedom to pursue happiness and thrive to the list, like the freedom from fear included in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, broader interventions for equal opportunity like the Civil Rights Act and so forth. It’s these interventions that separate 20th century American liberalism from classical liberalism.
No true liberals forget the primacy of negative liberties, what the state CAN’T DO to you, though (the Bill of Rights, your constitutional protections). 20th century Conservatism mostly opposed the interventions to affect outcomes while putting “law and order” ahead of your right to be left alone (Nixon, George Wallace, for example).
To the extent that the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have disregarded negative liberties and stomped freedom from violence, force, coercion, intrusions, etc., they’re ILLIBERAL!
Insofar as Ted Cruz fights unchecked drone surveillance, NSA web spying and warrantless wiretapping, Ted Cruz is a liberal, at least on civil liberties and “classical liberalism,” and the opposite of neo-cons like Dick Cheney!
Of course the Tea Party types are like a 21st century mutation of the Barry Goldwater libertarian-ish far-right, so we disagree on how expansive freedom from corporate feudalism and economic violence should be, and on fundamental principles like positive rights and the role of gov’t. But, since “libertarians” are a weird mutation of classical liberalism, there’s more of the Right agreeing with (the few remnants of) the ACLU Left on civil liberties than during the ’80s, for example.
We’d do well to turn off the hate radio and open a dictionary, and untangle what’s liberal and what ain’t.
Recommended resource: this episode of PBS’ documentary mini-series Constitution USA about the Bill of Rights. At the beginning of the episode Peter Sagal talks to the Arizona Leathernecks Motorcycle Club, a group of retired Marines, and they talk about the gov’t getting out of your hair. While you may peg them as Tea Partiers, gun rights nutbars, etc., and you’re not necessarily wrong, what they’re saying about motorcycle helmets and your own business to risk it really epitomizes my idea of liberalism, as there’s no liberalism without civil liberties.