From the Latin liberalis meaning "freedom," liber meaning "free." Showing or characterized by broad-mindedness; not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox or authoritarian attitudes, views or dogmas; tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others; open to new ideas for progress, favoring proposals for reform; free from prejudice or bigotry, tolerant; generous, tending to give freely; willing to give unstintingly; favoring equal rights and civil liberties.
In a political context, there are at least four pillars of liberalism. Three are even enshrined in the motto of the French Republic: liberty, equality and brotherhood. The fourth is a predisposition to favor change and desire progress (explaining presumably why so many prefer being called "progressive" now that the word liberal has been cursed).
Any honest evaluation of the embrace of those four principles by today's politicians in this country shows how liberalism here has been whittled down to microscopic size or abandoned altogether.
Let's start with liberty. It is what most would still call a liberal administration that's running the TSA and blessing that agency's virtual strip searches at airports. And who can forget one of the most striking assaults on basic freedoms when every member of the United States Senate, save one, voted for security over civil liberties and authorized everything from warrantless wiretapping and other forms of eavesdropping to indefinite detentions of immigrants. And despite President Obama's campaign promises to the contrary, his administration made it clear soon after his election that it had every intention of staying the course.
As for equality, for 30 years now policies have been put in place making the rich in America richer, the poor poorer and the middle class an endangered species. It started under Reagan, but continued and even expanded under Clinton and hasn't been meaningfully curtailed by Obama. Large numbers of Democrats have joined Republicans in Congress over the years to support these policies. And it's not just in the area of economic equality where "liberals" are lacking. They've largely stood idly by for the past 40 years as the First Amendment has been radically reinterpreted, transforming the right to speak into a privilege that must be purchased at great expense.
The notion of brotherhood has fared no better. When is the last time a national political figure spoke regularly and passionately and sincerely about the poor? It's hard to remember. Bobby Kennedy? Hubert Humphrey? Maybe Teddy Kennedy in his early years? In any case, it's been ages. Today's liberals talk a lot about the middle class. They rarely if ever talk about poverty. But in spite of all the liberal rhetoric about working families, people who shower at the end of the day have been sold out. Their jobs have been outsourced and offshored as fair trade went out the window with NAFTA and CAFTA, and it took both Democrats and Republicans to do it. The right to organize in the workplace and collectively bargain with employers has been steadily eroded. "We're all in this together" has been replaced by "You are on your own."
So that brings us to the reformist impulse. Here too liberalism has become small. In many ways liberals have become conservative, seeking merely to preserve the status quo, trying to safeguard past reforms like the New Deal and the Great Society from attacks by reactionary forces. In other ways liberals have gone to the dark side. Politics is more corrupt today than at any time in our lifetimes. Government is less trusted. And a great many liberal officials and liberal groups have stubbornly resisted reforms to combat corruption and have actively sought to subvert or undermine what modest changes have been made to campaign finance regulations, ethics rules or lobbying laws.
Liberals in Washington and in state capitals long ago stopped fiercely defending core freedoms, ceased establishing and protecting the commons, gave up on economic equality, and surrendered the mantle of progressivism. All that is left is what could be called "lifestyle liberalism." Smokefree restaurants. Gay marriage. Hybrid cars.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying these sorts of things, not to mention reproductive freedom and public broadcasting and a hundred other things, should not be liberal causes. It's that when liberalism is confined to such concerns it is too narrow, too limited, not enough. When liberals and liberalism grow this anorexic, our democracy and our society suffer. Thought and discourse are starved. Voters are deprived of meaningful choices at the ballot box.
When liberals grow afraid of their own shadows, afraid even to call themselves liberal, that fear has a stultifying and stupefying effect on our politics. And it weakens our country.