One of the more challenging aspects of contemporary American political culture is the phenomenon of certain words being twisted and tortured until they end up virtually unrecognizable. Unfortunately, this is a practice engaged in by partisans on both sides as well as functionaries all along and around each point on the political spectrum. Granted, the application of a certain amount of strategic rhetorical methodology is a natural, time-honored, and even occasionally desirable technique used to clarify, for instance, policy positions or perhaps even to tweak the opposition in sly ways. Politics ain’t patty-cake, after all, and you must be ready to roll with that at times, especially in a city like Philadelphia. That being said, there are specific words the meanings of which we must agree upon, otherwise we will have an extremely difficult time agreeing upon anything. The result is that we end up in a state of perpetual conflict, where we’re all simply waging various forms of never-ending identity-politics warfare against each other. Sound familiar?

Liberalism in its classical form is the foundation of our free societies, and the philosophy rooted in liberty has been at the base of the greatest systems under which human beings have ever been blessed to live and thrive.

One of the words I’m referring to here is “liberal.” This is a word for which the meaning has been heavily abused by both those who adhere (or at least claim to adhere) to its philosophy, as well as those who see themselves as adherents of other political philosophies, for decades now. Yet the most tragic thing about this situation is that the perversion of this word recently has been carried out mostly by those alleged to be its current standard-bearers, while those who currently fit the traditional definition of the word similarly abuse and disrespect it solely due to past partisan feelings.

Freedom of speech is the basic, underlying value without which no one is truly free.

From a historical perspective, there is no word more honorable than “liberal” when it comes to our political traditions in Western democracies and republics. Liberalism in its classical form is the foundation of our free societies, and the philosophy rooted in liberty has been at the base of the greatest systems under which human beings have ever been blessed to live and thrive. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, our Bill of Rights, the Virginia Declaration of Rights, and the works of men such as John Locke and Thomas Paine laid the groundwork for this currently much-smeared set of thoughts and beliefs. It is important to once again clarify precisely what liberalism is, and what sets it apart from the illiberal ideologies on the left today that attempt to lay erroneous claim to the venerable heritage it has represented throughout history as a just and beneficial concept that has enabled us to enjoy freedom and liberty while systematically raising our standard of living over time.

Freedom of speech is the basic, underlying value without which no one is truly free. Classical liberals recognize this fact, and fight for it, even (especially!) when the speech in question is abhorrent to our personal beliefs and values. An example of this was when the ACLU, in 1978, defended the right of a neo-Nazi group to hold a march in Illinois. Needless to say, such groups and their rallies are detestable to classical liberals. However, we recognize that if anyone is not free to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly at any given time, then none of us are ultimately free to do so. Once we begin to pick and choose who enjoys these freedoms, and when and where they may (or may not) exercise them, we head down a dangerous and slippery slope. This leads to the mob having a veto over people’s inalienable rights, and from there onto the contemporary phenomenon known as cancel culture, which goes far beyond simply disallowing speech. Those who are “cancelled” have lost jobs and careers for merely expressing thoughts that run contrary to those held by the mobs who have appointed themselves the arbiters of acceptable opinion.

Cancel culture is the province of the contemporary leftist, or those who the British political commentator and anti-extremism activist Maajid Nawaz refers to as the “regressive left.” In contrast to liberals, leftists often openly identify with various strains of socialism or communism, while others tend more toward anarchism and other radical beliefs. These people are commonly so insecure in their values and beliefs that they simply cannot stand coming across opposition to their shaky and often indefensible stances. The way to fight loathsome ideas is to defeat them with facts, reason, and truly liberal values. Not to have people fired from their jobs or expelled from society. This is how one creates even further extremists, not how one creates better societies. 

Yet this is unfortunately how contemporary left radicals seek to carry out their goals, while hijacking the label of liberal with the tragic help of certain types in the center and on the center-right. In fact, one does not even need to be outside of the mainstream in order to fall victim to attacks from leftists. The British author J.K. Rowling has often come under fire by leftist mobs recently, for nothing more controversial than daring to state things such as the fact that “people who menstruate” are better referred to as women. People who have not sold hundreds of millions of books worldwide also of course find themselves subject to such attacks, the ramifications of which can be far more serious. The literary agent Colleen Oefelein was fired from her job last month simply for being a known user of social media sites considered to be conservative.

Leftists who have nothing in common with the honorable tradition of classical liberalism have hijacked the word “liberal,” with the unfortunate help of those elsewhere in the political sphere who frankly deserve the label more. Yet those more deserving refuse it as a result of their own historical ignorance and civil carelessness, all while leftists support and make excuses for months of endless riots that have devastated our cities and ruined small businesses—the backbone of America. Liberals intuitively understand that without small business, America is in trouble. Leftists take the position that as long as Amazon and Walmart are on their side in their current culture war campaigns, everything is all good in America. Yet just as recently as a quarter past yesterday, they were (frankly, quite rightly) taking those same companies to task on their abuse of workers and their destruction of our towns and cities, and of working-class America in general.

Leftism is rooted in totalitarianism. It is the antithesis of the venerable tradition of liberalism.

Classical liberals stand with Main Street because they understand that our cities, towns, and neighborhoods are only as healthy as our neighbor’s ability to make a living in a free country absent overbearing government interference. Leftists posing as liberals are completely in agreement with government and corporate tyranny as long as said governments and corporations pay lip service to their so-called values, and as long as governments allow them to violently impose their will upon others, such as in the case of ongoing Antifa and BLM riots, while ignoring their domestic terrorist tendencies.

Leftism is rooted in totalitarianism. It is the antithesis of the venerable tradition of liberalism. As we’ve seen with instances such as crowds of protestors harassing diners and intimidating those who are perceived as less than enthusiastic at having their night out transformed into a political demonstration in which they must participate or else, leftism is based in hatred, intolerance, and the omnipresent threat of violence. Leftism demands lockstep conformity and views free-thinkers as intolerable enemies, whereas liberals welcome and encourage disagreement, as the free exchange of ideas is how people come to agree upon the concepts that make it possible for us all to live together in diverse places. 

While there will inevitably be certain conflicts in and amongst our communities, there has never been a better system created than the classically liberal one in which we currently participate. Leftism leads to strife and unrest (in countries such as Venezuela, and in smaller experiments such as Seattle’s CHAZ / CHOP “autonomous zone” during the summer of 2020), and encourages endless grievance, making coexistence impossible. Liberalism seeks to soothe these disagreements to the most agreeable extent possible. Liberalism does not view people’s immutable characteristics such as race or ethnicity as destiny, but rather adheres to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that people “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Liberals adhere to the idea that people have a right to freely live their lives in any way they see fit as long as their choices and actions do not prevent others from doing the same. Leftists believe they have a right to dictate to others how they must live and what they should believe. The difference could not be more clear.

Believe in free speech, and abhor political violenceBelieve speech can be violence, and political violence can be speech
A person’s character is what matters mostA person’s immutable characteristics are what matter most
A government or corporation abusing its power is never acceptable A government or corporation abusing its power is acceptable, and even desirable, as long as it is in service of achieving leftist political goals
Individual and civil liberties are paramountConformity and submission to the (approved) collective is a must
Trust in the good judgment and wisdom of individuals to ultimately do what is right for societyView individualism as a threat to the creation of their model society, and often demonstrate totalitarian tendencies
True diversity includes diversity of thoughtDiversity of thought is dangerous

 Jason D. Paluch is a Contributing Writer for White Rose Magazine.