Mixed Messages: Misunderstanding Liberalism

Ever notice that while many people claim to support women’s rights, very few actually describe themselves as “feminists”even though the definition of feminism is supporting women’s rights? This was drastically apparent in the 2016 election, in which roughly 85 percent of American women supported “equality for women,” but 52 percent denied identifying as feminists. Specifically, many white Republican women claimed to support women’s rights, but did not categorize themselves as feminists, despite knowing that the two are, by definition, identical. Trump voters simply chose to steer away from the latter category, as it places them in a larger ideological community that diminishes their own individual opinions.

This problem of nomenclature has occurred with other categories as well. The label “liberal,” though multifaceted, is rooted in individual rights and freedoms, both classical concepts that we assume most individuals would agree with. In fact, in the United States, there are now as many social liberals as there are social conservatives. Recently, however, especially for Trump voters, liberalism has become associated with a collective political organization rather than an ideology about individual rights. Liberalism is not equivalent to the Democratic Party because it contains ideas about the world that people can agree with without subscribing to any side of the political spectrum.

Alongside Trump voters, many have come to understand liberalism today not as characteristics of an ideology, but instead as a collective political view controlled by “the Left.” Therefore, even people who support some individual rights and liberties proposed by liberalism, like gay marriage and workers’ rights, may disagree with the concept of “liberalism” because they feel that it has been centralized and corporatized by Democratic politicians. These new conservatives are worried about centralization because they fundamentally misunderstand the purpose for which the Democratic Party seeks to expand the role of government. They don’t realize that liberals only seek greater government power in order for government to then ensure that each individual has access to freedom. Liberal politicians, by emphasizing only the process of centralizing power, rather than the latter process of promoting individual freedom, have given liberalism a bad reputation on the right.

The Democratic Party actually does its best to support true liberal values, but it is very bad at communicating this support. In order to promote freedom in its entirety, Democrats enact policies that help minorities have the same opportunities and access to freedom that other privileged groups enjoy. President Obama acted to prevent police brutality against black Americans, defended the right of transgender individuals to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender identities, and promoted awareness of environmental issues like the Keystone XL Pipeline. White, working-class voters saw this not as promoting individual rights, but rather as promoting only other people’s interests. The Democrats failed to explain to these voters why minorities need to be protected in order to ensure freedom for everyone. It is important for the Democrats to emphasize that a restriction on anyone’s rights threatens a restriction on everyone’s rights. They must emphasize that protecting minorities is liberal because this protection, ultimately, secures the rights of all citizens.

The election of Donald Trump revealed that the Democratic Party faces a problem with white, working-class Americans. They must focus on promoting traditional liberal views during the next election, but they must also work on their messaging. They should present their policies in a new way that illustrates how each piece of legislation guarantees individual rights for all Americans. Rather than using technocratic language, the Democrats should use language focused on individuals. In this way, they will convince more people that everyone’s rights are at stake in the Democratic Party’s success. Thus, Democratic policies must be adaptable rather than centralized, and accessible rather than elitist, allowing voters to feel they have some control over the party they support and assuring them that their rights and concerns will be addressed.

As the Democratic Party begins to communicate to America that this idea of liberalism is misunderstood, the Democrats will regain the older, white, working class voters they lost during the last election and unite them with young progressives again. Once all individuals can feel represented in the liberal agenda, populist-nationalist movements that prey on people’s sense of being left outthe same sense that secured Trump’s victorywill eventually deteriorate.  

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