What We Talk About When We Talk About Liberalism

Helena Rosenblatt in the Boston Review:

Recent primaries have given Democrats reasons for hope, but they have also exposed fault lines within the party. Divisions are visible in the very labels used to describe them. Many use the word “liberal” as a catchall to describe left-of-center politics in general, but self-described leftists and members of the Democratic Socialists of America often characterize liberals and Democrats as their opponents—viewing them as the compromising centrists standing in the way of a more progressive or socialist agenda.

The language is telling. Some are “liberal Democrats,” others “establishment liberals.” Then there are “leftist” liberals and “progressive” ones. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s fourteenth congressional district, calls herself a “democratic socialist,” but she favors “progressive” policies. Andrew Gillum, by contrast, winner of the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Florida, favors a “progressive” platform, but categorically denies being a “socialist.” And Ayanna Pressley’s win in the seventh congressional district in Massachusetts has been described as the victory of an “unapologetic liberal” against the more “quiet” Michael Capuano—who is, nevertheless, “more liberal than Nancy Pelosi.”

Is this semantic murkiness a problem? Historian Sean Wilentz thinks it is, arguing recently in Democracy Journal that the confusion of terms reflects the “momentous muddle” in which Democrats find themselves.

More here.