‘Liberal’ may finally shed its political stigma – AOL | NutSocia

More than half of Democrats now identify as liberal, suggesting the long-maligned “L-word” may be losing its potency as a political kryptonite.

A generation of Democratic presidential candidates, from Michael Dukakis to Bill Clinton, ducked the liberal brand. Republicans denounced Liberals as weak-willed softies. Democratic candidates have faced constant accusations of covert liberalism.

In the millennial era, the L word seems to be shedding its stigma. The proportion of self-described Democrats who describe themselves as liberal has more than doubled since 1994 and will reach 54 percent in 2022, according to a Gallup poll.

“If you look at how conservatives brand Democrats, they’ve gone way beyond ‘liberal,'” said Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Now it’s ‘socialist’.”

Presidents Obama and Biden both resisted the socialist label. In 2021, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other conservatives derided Biden’s stimulus plan as a “build back socialist.”

The L-word has made a detour through the annals of American politics. From FDR to JFK, liberalism was “a politically positive term,” said Matt Dallek, a political historian in George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

Liberals and liberalism “helped save the country from the Great Depression,” Dallek said. “Liberal internationalists helped save the world from Nazi-fascism.”

In the 1960s, conservatives William F. Buckley Jr. and Barry Goldwater helped redefine liberalism as a philosophy of big government and wasteful spending. In the Reagan 1980s, Republican strategists had portrayed the Liberal as “a lover of bureaucracy and criminals whose hobbies are tax hikes, flag burning and gay marriage,” wrote Michael Kinsley in a 1992 column.

During the 1988 campaign, Republican candidate George HW Bush branded his Democratic opponent Dukakis an “excellent liberal,” clearly implying that that was a bad thing. Dukakis waved the label off until the final days of the election, which he lost.

In the Republican revolution of the 1990s, Newt Gingrich and GOPAC directed conservative candidates to use “liberal,” “welfare,” and “taxes” as defining terms against their opponents.

“He had this list of words, ‘These are the words you should be using to describe Democrats,'” said Alan Abramowitz, professor emeritus of political science at Emory University.

During the 1992 campaign, Clinton deflected the L-word by portraying himself as a centrist. Many ordinary Democrats followed suit. Gallup polls from this period show that more than 40 percent of Democrats identify themselves as moderate, with smaller groups claiming to be conservative or liberal.

Over the next two decades, the liberals gradually supplanted the moderates as the largest group of Democrats. The conservative camp shrank: 10 percent of all Democrats identified themselves as conservative in 2022.

Both parties, it seems, have drifted towards ideological poles. The proportion of Republicans who identify as conservative rose from 58 percent in 1994 to 72 percent in 2022. Most of this increase came at the expense of moderates, who fell from 33 percent to 22 percent of Republicans in those years.

For Democratic politicians, some of the L-word stigma remains. Older politicians may never forget the once-ubiquitous slurs “bleeding-heart liberal,” “tax-and-spend liberal,” and “limousine liberal” that conjured up liberal clichés.

“If you’ve checked most of the Democrat advertising in the midterms or Joe Biden’s campaign, I don’t think you’ll find any that are pitching themselves as liberal,” Dallek said.

Left-leaning Biden-era Democrats populate the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group formed in 1991 near the high-water mark of Republican attacks on liberalism.

“It’s the progressive caucus,” Abramowitz said. “It’s not the Liberal caucus.”

The term “progressive” has mostly positive connotations, at least for the left, say political scientists. Vermont’s independent senator, Bernie Sanders, famously denies being a liberal but embraces the progressive label.

“I would say most Democrats, who are more on the left end of the spectrum, probably now identify themselves as progressives,” said Mike Freiberg, a Minnesota Democratic congressman. “There are Democrats who now call themselves socialists.”

Research by Pew has revealed an ideological split within the left. One group, the Establishment Liberals, makes up about 23 percent of the Democratic tribe. Another group, the “Progressive Left,” represents 12 percent.

The groups agree on nearly everything from gun control to climate change and racial justice to abortion. But progressives “support sweeping changes” in the establishment to implement these policies, Pew reports. Establishment liberals don’t.

“The term ‘liberal’ is still somehow associated with ‘the establishment’ in quotation marks,” said Dru Dunn, 19, a sophomore at American University and president of the College Democrats.

“The ‘establishment liberal’: It means you’re kind of okay with the way things are going.”

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