Walter Russell Mead: Can The L-word Be Saved?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Walter Russell Mead is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. He blogs at]

Politically speaking, America may be the most confused country in the world. Millions of people in this country are conservatives and even reactionaries who think they are liberals; we have millions more liberals and radicals who call themselves conservative.

It is an unholy mess and it needs to be cleared up. It’s time for a language intervention.

Despite the mess so many “liberals” have made of this great political tradition, liberal and progressive are two of the noblest and most important words in the dictionary. They describe essential qualities of the American mind and essential values in American politics.

But today the words have been hijacked. They’ve been turned into their opposites: a liberal today is somebody who wants to defend and restore the Blue Social Model from the last century; a progressive is now somebody who thinks history has gone horribly wrong and that we must turn the clock back to make things better.

Does this really make sense?

In America today, while “liberals” and “progressives” still are sometimes out there on the barricades for some truly liberal and important values, most of what passes for liberal and progressive politics is a conservative reaction against economic and social changes that the left doesn’t like. The people who call themselves liberal in the United States today are fighting desperate rearguard actions to save policies and institutions that are old and established, that once served a noble purpose, but that now need fundamental reform (and perhaps in some cases abolition) lest they thwart the very purposes for which they were once made.

Too bad for the reactionaries, you might say, but why worry about the words? If labels that once described important and forward looking ideas have now been turned into labels for the politics of nostalgia, why fight over it?

America’s Word

But the l-word in particular isn’t just any old word. The l-word is America’s word, the word that sums up in a nutshell what this country is all about...

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