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What Exactly Is a “Leftist”? And What Is a “Liberal”?

Posted on May 19 2011 8:30 pm
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It is impossible to understand the world around us, or to cultivate a coherent set of core principles, if our use of language is fraught with sloppiness and imprecision. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of politics, where emotionally charged terms are routinely bandied about with scarcely any conception of what they actually mean. “Liberal” and “conservative” are perhaps the most significant of these.

Many people who describe themselves as “liberal” typically use the term as a synonym for all things noble and morally pure. The late newsman Walter Cronkite, for instance, equated liberalism with a “broad-minded,” “unprejudiced,” and “beneficent” mindset. Author and radio personality Garrison Keillor – who views “conservatives” as people of “ugly and rancid” political beliefs  – proudly declares: “I am a liberal, and liberalism is the politics of kindness … tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for.” And the revered “Liberal Lion” of the U.S. Senate, the late Ted Kennedydefined a liberal as “someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions” and “someone who cares about the welfare of the people.”

But if one merely equates liberalism with what is “good,” and conservatism with what is “bad” – or vice versa, for that matter – he or she cannot lay claim to any authentic understanding of either term. Thus we need an operational definition for each term, just as we need definitions for any other words we employ in our daily lives. Regardless of how we feel about “liberalism” or “conservatism,” we need to know specifically what qualities give each of them their respective identities.

When the term “liberalism” (from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, it was founded on an unwavering belief in individual rights, the rule of law, limited government, private property, and laissez faire economics. These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch, generally identified as the period from 1815-1914.

But many who call themselves “liberals” today are in fact leftists – i.e., the very antithesis of liberals. The modern Left – which traces its roots back to a faction of early-19th-century French liberals who proclaimed that capitalism and private property were agents of inevitable moral decay – is animated by a desire to topple the existing capitalist order and to replace it with a socialist regime where the utopian ideal of perfect equality will reign. Disingenuously portraying itself as an agent of enlightened commitment to “liberal” causes, today’s Left in fact rejects each of the liberal ideals enumerated in the preceding paragraph. We can readily observe, for instance, that the modern Left is the stalwart champion of:

  • group rights and collective identity, rather than of individual rights and responsibilities (e.g., racial preferences, notions of collective guilt and innocence, and a devotion to identity politics generally);
  • the circumvention of law rather than the rule of law (as exemplified by the flouting of immigration laws and nondiscrimination laws, and by a preference for judicial activism whereby judges co-opt the powers that rightfully belong to legislators);
  • the expansion of government rather than its diminution (favoring ever-escalating taxes to fund a bloated welfare state and a government that oversees — and intervenes in — virtually every aspect of human life); and
  • the redistribution of wealth (through punitive taxes and, again, a mushrooming welfare state), rather than its creation through free markets based on private property.

By calling themselves “liberals,” leftists have entirely redefined the terms of debate. The media and the general public have largely gone along with this fraudulent self-identification, as evidenced by the fact that few people nowadays draw any distinction between liberalism in its original and authentic sense, and leftism — or socialism posing as “liberalism.” Indeed the terms are generally used interchangeably by people at every point along the political spectrum. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for one, calls Barack Obama “the most liberal president ever.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly similarly calls Obama “the most liberal president I’ve seen in my lifetime,” and then, in the next breath, says Obama “may well be the most left-wing chief executive in American history.” As a consequence of such imprecision, we witness the travesty of the “liberal” label being widely attached to leftists like Obama, Michael MooreGeorge SorosNoam ChomskyAl SharptonJane FondaTed Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton. In the process, the noble values and ideals that are genuinely “liberal” in the true sense of the word are wrongly conflated in the public mind with the socialist, revolutionary, and anti-American agendas of the foregoing leftists. As a result, the definition of “liberalism” continues to drift inexorably leftward.

The David Horowitz Freedom Center has created a website,, to help explain exactly what, and who, the Left is – and how it utterly rejects every major principle that can legitimately be classified as “liberal.” This NewsReal blog post will be followed in the coming days and weeks by a series of additional posts taking you on a guided tour of DiscoverTheNetworks and its multitude of special sections and features. We invite you to come along for the ride. If you do, you will understand the Left, its agendas, its tactics, and its key players in a profound and illuminating way. And you will see clearly how the Left has fraudulently draped itself in the vestments of a noble tradition — liberalism — thereby giving the false appearance that its own socialist objectives are somehow consistent with that tradition. They are not.

For today, why not visit DiscoverTheNetworks’ section titled “Defining and Understanding the Left”? It’s a great starting point if you’re not yet familiar with this vast and informative website.

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