In the United States, the word "liberal" has become a political slur word, an insult. It's a little bit hard to understand how a word like that can become an insult. Websters defines the word in glowing terms:
giving freely, generous... large or plentiful, ample, abundant... tolerant of views differing from one's own... of democratic or republican forms of government, as distinguished from monarchies, aristocracies, etc.
I was reading last spring in a book I bought on sale, the Eighth Edition of A History of the Modern World, and came across a discussion of the terms "liberalism," "conservatism," and "socialism" as well as several other "ism" words, all of which came about in the english language in the first half of the 19th Century. That was a time of political upheaval in Europe driven by the industrialization of production and the demand for free trade.
Liberals at that time were the leaders of modern production. They favored free trade and opposed government controls of production and resources. They were afraid of democracy and organized labor and generally favored low wages for production workers. They believed that progress could be made by peaceful means and were opposed to war as a means of social change.
Conservatism was the political system which favored the preservation of the existing monarchies, aristocracies, and churches.
Socialism was the movement to represent the interests of the common people, the working class, against the interests of the wealthy owners of land and the means of production. Higher wages, shorter work days, ending child labor, and the welfare of the working class as well as government ownership of resources were all favored by the socialists.
An interesting aside in that discussion is republicanism, its opposition of the Catholic Church, its development of secret societies, its favor of democracy and universal suffrage, and its willingness to use force for "overthrowing existing regimes."
On the basis of that background, it is nearly impossible for me to understand the use of these words in today's America. It is almost as though the words have been entirely redefined, but I don't understand the need for doing that.
We all know that the "welfare state" was conceived and is maintained by socialists. I mean, there are "social workers" working in "social services", frequently educated in "sociology." Labor unions advocate high wages, short work days, generous benefits, and government controls of industry all at the expense of business owners and management. Universal suffrage has been achieved and has led to the success of the socialist agenda protecting the welfare of not just the working class but the nonworkers as well. Yet none of this is referred to today as socialism.
Meanwhile, free trade is back in the limelight. This one is a real mystery because it is being promoted by both of the major political parties in America. Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party favor free trade. Free trade and hands-off industrialization are hallmarks of classic liberalism, yet that word is not used in this context now. There is no longer any word other than Globalization to describe the politics of free trade.
Conservatism presumably no longer exists as a political movement outside of the Middle East, but conservatives do. Yet the political meaning of the word "conservative" has nothing to do with conservation unless it is the conservation of the wealth and power of the wealthy. Then again, wasn't that what classic conservatism was? But in today's America, conservative politics also embraces both 19th Century republicanism and classic liberalism, free trade and laissez faire economics.
Why do we call republican liberals "conservatives" while we call socialist liberals "liberals" and what gives the republican liberals the right to use the term "liberal" as a slur? I mean, if you want to slur someone who promotes the welfare state, at least have the decency to call them something that you yourself aren't, right? Call the welfare state people socialists. Call the free trade people liberal. Forget the word "conservative" because that has completely lost its meaning other than the preservation of non-Catholic Christianity as the state religion. There IS no state religion! Just forget that word completely. So a liberal republican would be a free trade advocate who believes in using force to spread democratic forms of free trade advocating governments. Bush and Kerry would both be liberal republicans.
Wouldn't that be an easier way to understand American politics?