Why are American leftists called liberals

Brief history of a swear word

It is well known that “liberal” and “liberal” can be two different things. American and European language usage differs markedly. In the USA, “liberal” means something like “social democratic” or “left”. As a swear word, however, it can function on both sides of the Atlantic, as a look at France shows.

“Liberal” has become a stigma in American politics, if not a politically lethal label for anyone to whom it is stuck. The hapless John Kerry was reviled again and again last fall as a “typical liberal” from the Northeast, as a “blue” (or even blue-blooded) intellectual, completely different from the true, deep red republican America. The Kerry campaigners, on the other hand, always indignantly rejected the allegation of liberalism: their husband is by no means a liberal.

All of this sounded incredible to European ears. It is true that reports on American politics in reputable European newspapers are always provided with the reference that liberal means something like “left” or “social democratic” on the other side of the Atlantic - but why this is so remains mostly unexplained. Have not the American neoconservatives taken up the cause of the worldwide "advance" of liberal democracy? And don't they even claim - as for example the theologian and political advisor Michael Novak in an «open letter to the French» in «Le Monde» (last November) - that they are «liberals» in an old European sense?


Like many ostensible traditions from the eighteenth century, American liberalism was invented in the twentieth. In his hugely influential book on "Liberal Tradition in America", the historian Louis Hartz put forward the thesis that the United States was almost naturally a liberal country. After all, there was no feudalism in America and, above all, no class struggles that would have repeatedly led to authoritarian excesses in the Old World. Liberalism, so many intellectuals in the 1950s, was not just the natural American way of life - liberalism and Americanism were almost synonymous.

Apparently eternally liberal America was also America that was constantly improving itself and the world. The so-called “liberal consensus” in the middle of the twentieth century was supposed to support the welfare state measures of the New Deal and the world politics of a country committed to global democracy. According to this reading, the most typical liberals were the advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson: feasibility-imbued intellectuals who wanted to use the state for the benefit of Americans at home and non-Americans around the world. This liberalism resembled what was called "New Liberalism" in England at the beginning of the twentieth century - a policy that combined freedom and community and, last but not least, wanted to take the revolutionary wind out of the sails of socialism.

The liberal "Great Society" propagated by Lyndon B. Johnson, the follow-up project to the New Deal, which at first was even to be called the "Better Deal", failed in the Vietnam War. For the war, leftists like Noam Chomsky made “the liberals” and the ideology of “corporate liberalism” responsible, that is, of a technocratic, business-like liberalism. But the great social dreams also reached the limits of socio-political planning. At least that is what Johnson's most vocal critics claimed, who one day were reviled as neoconservatives before they proudly attached themselves to this label. The "neocons" saw themselves as the true liberals who preserved the legacy of European liberalism from the nineteenth century - of "old liberalism", if you will.


Since the late 1960s, "liberalism" has become a synonym for an inflated welfare state controlled by arrogant and ultimately irresponsible East Coast elites. Insults that had once sounded absurd - such as the defamation of Franklin Roosevelt as a "totalitarian liberal" by Herbert Hoover in 1940 - suddenly became socially acceptable. The right-wing, often resentment-laden cultural revolution that America has been experiencing since the 1970s has now taken this usage to the extreme: Sean Hannity, a popular conservative talk show host, published a bestseller in early 2004 with the title “Deliver us from evil: How to Defeated terrorism, despotism and liberalism ». The liberals, according to his simple thesis, were guilty not least because, as moral relativists, they did not take a firm stand against evil - for example in the form of Saddam Hussein. It is not surprising then that today “Liberals and Europeans” are often mentioned in the same breath: both are supposedly not believers - or at best they believe in the state.

The historian Fritz Stern, who fled Breslau from the Nazis in 1938 and gained a high reputation as an expert on the disasters of German anti-liberalism, complained about this neglect of political language in several letters to the New York Times. Now that the “L-word” seems to have been lost for democracy, the next step is to pervert the meaning of the term “freedom” by the republican, apparently Orwell-trained language politicians: The occupation of Iraq, according to Stern, is by no means a sign of that "Freedom Advance" celebrated by George W. Bush.


Americans, however, do not have a monopoly on manipulating political language. On the other side of the Atlantic, too, terms are deliberately instrumentalized - and incriminated. It is not without irony that the «neocon» Novak wanted to win the French over with a reference to the supposedly pan-European concept of liberalism. In France, the leader of the Socialist Party can quite bluntly describe liberalism as a contradiction to the "European spirit". In other words: Economic liberalism (because that means “libéralisme” in France) stands in opposition to an EU oriented towards social democracy, which the French left wants. But even a right wing believer in modernization like Nicolas Sarkozy, who is not ashamed of being called an "American", does not want to be considered a liberal under any circumstances.

Liberalism is also a dirty word in France - but in many respects it describes exactly the opposite of "American liberalism". It still evokes memories of the “Enrichissez-vous” from the early nineteenth century. And liberalism is still associated with the «liberal doctrinaires» of this time, such as François Guizot - elitist bourgeois politicians of the juste milieu who wanted to curb democracy and use all their might - and a good measure of opportunism - to secure the privileges of their class .

This pronounced intellectual - and at the same time populist - anti-liberalism is in complete contrast to what Marcel Gauchet called the “liberal fact”: the simple fact that France has long been a liberal society, but does not perceive itself as such. Anyone who means well by liberalism tries at least to make a distinction between liberalism and ultra-liberalism - that is, to demarcate liberalism from what would be called "libertarianism" in the USA and what, after Benedetto Croce, was once called "liberism" in Europe . Basically, however, the following applies: Liberal European societies - above all, but not only France - lack a liberal language for self-description.


One may object that in liberal societies, liberalism, as it were, falls silent - where everyone is liberal in a broad, non-party-political sense, liberalism no longer needs to be discussed and - as is typical in Europe - can wither into the program of a minority party. From the point of view of the philosophy of history - Reinhart Koselleck pointed this out - liberalism is the great self-consumption. But the "liberal way of life" is no longer as safe today as it might seem to some at the time, which in retrospect could be described as the thirty glorious years of European liberalism: from around 1970 to the beginning of the twenty-first century until the moment when communism was no longer a serious temptation and a radical Islamist threat was not yet recognized. At that time it would hardly have occurred to anyone to use the word "liberalism" to refer to the times. But from today's perspective, it seems as if a liberal world spirit succeeded in those years in turning all challengers of liberalism into liberals après la lettre, from radical sixty-eighters to conservative Christians.

What can be done with this inarticulate, and often unconscious European heritage? It is a typical intellectual illusion to think that political language hygiene automatically leads to better politics. But the Europeans should be clear about themselves - and not allow themselves to be fooled by American ideologues: When Novak claims, for example, that “more liberal in the European sense” also means “more religious” and “more tradition-conscious”, then we should remember that liberals - whether in the broader or narrower party-political sense - have always spoken out against a mixture of religion and politics and against any form of intolerance. Such conscious or unconscious distortions make it more and more difficult for those genuinely striving for mutual understanding to find a way out of the mirror cabinet of transatlantic misperceptions.

Jan-Werner Müller teaches political theory and the history of ideas at Princeton University. Last book publication: "A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought" (London 2003).