You keep using the word “liberal:” it doesn’t mean what you think it means

Sarah A. Downey
4 min readNov 17, 2020
Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

If you think “liberal” and all the variations of “left” mean the same thing, let this be your wakeup call.

Many things described as “liberal” today mean the opposite of what was historically true and what many people expect, and this disconnect is likely contributing to some of heightened frustration we’re seeing in political arguments in 2020.

Be careful when using the word “liberal” if you care about clear language. Starting in roughly 2013, “liberal” veered sharply from its roots. It’s confusing, so much so that you’ll hear the word “illiberal” used to describe these contradictions (or “far/alt left,” or simply “not liberal”), while people sometimes use “classic liberal” to differentiate that they’re talking about basic enlightenment values.

What are classic liberal values? They emerged from the age of enlightenment and include civil rights, free speech, free markets, separation of church and state, a balance of government powers, capitalism, freedom of religion, limited government, freedom of the press, and human rights. The US constitution was founded explicitly on liberal principles.

Thus it’s possible, even approaching common, for moderates and Republicans to be more liberal than Democrats.

Today, people with very different values who both identify as liberal are talking past each other. Example: the phrase “trans women are women.” Classic 🏛 is on the top; new/radical/alt ☭ is on the bottom:

🏛 Classic liberal: trans women deserve equal rights, protections, and treatment; people should use trans womens’ pronouns because it’s humane and decent but government shouldn’t compel it.

☭ Far/alt left: trans women are literally biological women and saying otherwise is violence and must be silenced; government should mandate pronoun usage; not using trans womens’ pronouns is hate speech.

Here’s a mega-thread of classic liberal ideas compared to radical new ones. Note that many of the new ones directly contradict what “liberal” has meant for hundreds of years. I realize that this type of simple comparison isn’t perfect — many of these ideas are complex — but it gets to the heart of the shift quickly.

🏛 Build new things to improve

☭ Dismantle existing things to improve

🏛 No one has the right not to be offended and to always feel comfortable

☭ Everyone has the right not to be offended and to always feel comfortable

🏛 Ideas exist independently from their creators’ identities, behavior, and values

☭ Ideas are inseparable from their creators’ identities, behavior, and values

🏛 No one is immune from criticism

☭ More oppressed people are immune from criticism, especially coming from less oppressed people

🏛 Debate opposing ideas so the strongest ones emerge

☭ Silence opposing ideas because they can threaten people

🏛 The pinnacle of truth is a heavily-researched and well-supported scientific theory

☭ The pinnacle of truth is one’s lived experience

🏛 You are what you do

☭ You are what you say you are

🏛 There is mostly growth in discomfort

☭ There is mostly loss in discomfort

🏛 Aspire to a colorblind, merit-based society where the best person for a job wins

☭ Aspire to a color-obsessed, merit-blind society where jobs are distributed equally

🏛 Figure out the individual to understand society

☭ Figure out society to understand the individual

🏛 Argument and challenge can be healthy

☭ Argument and challenge are usually toxic

🏛 Focus on the individual, because they make up society

☭ Focus on the collective, because no one exists outside of their identity groups

🏛 Your positions are private; no one can compel you to share them or interpret meaning from your silence

☭ Your positions are of public concern; others need to know where you stand and your silence can be interpreted as evidence of your beliefs

🏛 Assume that most successful people worked hard for their outcomes and wealth can be deserved

☭ Assume that most successful people rose up due to privilege and almost always abuse their power

🏛 Actions and intent matter most

☭ Positioning and impact matter most

🏛 Default to trying to solve problems yourself

☭ Default to enlisting authorities or groups to solve your problems

🏛 Suffering can provide meaning and strength

☭ Suffering usually weakens and should be avoided

🏛 Prioritize equal opportunities (equality)

☭ Prioritize equal outcomes (equity)

🏛 Feelings are just one data input

☭ Feelings are the most important kind of data input

🏛 It’s morally superior and more productive to focus on what you can control in your own sphere

☭ It’s morally superior and more productive to focus on larger societal issues

🏛 The scientific method helps get us closer to objective truths

☭ The scientific method is just one tool and there are no objective truths

🏛 In a perfect world, race is irrelevant

☭ In a perfect world, race is center stage and we will have a “reckoning” with it

🏛 Capitalism is the best system yet discovered for creating wealth and innovation

☭ Capitalism is inherently unfair, reinforces systemic inequalities, and must be dismantled

🏛 Large groups of people saying the same thing is suspicious and possibly dangerous

☭ Large groups of people saying the same thing is good and possibly ideal

🏛 Anyone can live how they wish regardless of their background

☭ No one can shed the influence of their background in how they live

In a 1972 article for Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson wrote that “Liberalism itself has failed, and for a pretty good reason. It has been too often compromised by the people who represented it.” He misstated liberalism’s demise, but he was right that some people who claim to be liberal have compromised it.

To gain clarity — and have more comprehensible political conversations — assess what someone is saying, versus how they categorize it. That itself is a liberal approach.

(This idea started as a series of tweets, which start here.)



Sarah A. Downey

Pro 1A. Operating Partner at Accomplice; founder/GP Yubari (angel fund); co-founder Blueprint Enneagram app; capitalist; esquire. I 🖤 weights, gaming, scifi.