If you spend enough time living in a foreign country, you learn to choose your words carefully, even when speaking English. Over time, Westerners have colloquialized a number of words that have fallen so far from their original meaning that it’s hampered their use in a flat world. Chief among those are the words “liberal” and “conservative” when applied to politics.
Applied to any other subject, the words remain the same. Regardless of where I am in the world, I still want a liberal dose of cream in my coffee, and my conservative estimate for how many times I’ve seen each episode of “Seinfeld” is ten (scary!).
In Malaysia, where I’ve spent a majority of the past three years, and in Asia more broadly, those who are called “liberals” generally favor Western-style democracy. They want government transparency, the right to vote in fair elections, freedom of speech, and mostly favor free trade. The ones called “conservatives” in Malaysia represent more or less the opposite. From my experience, the same could be said for almost any developing country outside of the West.
Malaysia is a majority-Muslim country. Not by a lot—about 61 percent, to be precise, while the remainder are a combination of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and others. Their dual legal system applies Islamic Sharia law to the Muslim population, and English common law to non-Muslims.
Like many Muslim countries, Malaysia is becoming more fundamentalist in its practice of Islam, not less. That increasing fundamentalism means the state becoming more involved in regulating certain industries such as banking, oil, and even news media to ensure they comply with if not the rule, at least the spirit of Islamic law.
As a result, Malaysia is in the midst of a great struggle between those in government who favor a more authoritarian brand of Islamic rule and those who favor Western democracy. There have been discussions recently of implementing new regulations to force supermarkets to provide separate shopping carts for halal and non-halal products. Media outlets have been shut down for criticizing the ruling party and therefore undermining Islam in Malaysia. The tension there is palpable, and has continued to escalate with protests and counter-protests from either side of the liberal-conservative divide.
The Semantic Fight of the Century
So why is it important how we describe our politics in the West? It wasn’t, until the last decade or so when mass media became accessible to just about anyone in the world. Try explaining American or British political labels to a foreign friend. It’s harder than you might think. For the most part, those of us in the West boil the two prevailing philosophies down to a handful of words. Liberal and conservative. Right-wing and left-wing.
As much as these words get bandied around in modern political discourse, they couldn’t be more meaningless in 2016. The deck is stacked almost entirely in favor of one side: those who call themselves “liberals,” or “left-wing.” Pull out a dictionary and you’ll see why:
Liberal: favorable to progress or reform, as in political or religious affairs.
Conservative: disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
Love it or hate it, this is the way the majority of the world defines these words today. You’re liberal? Well, that means you favor positive change and innovation. Conservative? Change scares you, even when it’s obviously good. You promote the status quo, no matter what it may be. And if there’s one thing you don’t want to find yourself in favor of in 2016, it’s the status quo.
With a growing part of the world now plugged in 24/7 to our deranged political conversations in newspapers like The New York Times and TV programs like “The Daily Show,” I don’t think I have to tell you which side is going to win hearts and minds when the battle lines are drawn using these two words. The root word of “liberal” is, not surprisingly, “liberty.” Further, just about everyone would at least claim to believe that “liberty” is generally a good thing.
The Republican Party has wrestled with these words at various points in its history, most notably during the divisive primary elections of 1912 and 1964. Twice, the GOP’s so-called conservatives defeated self-described “liberals” or “progressives” within the party. The Taft-Roosevelt civil war and the Goldwater-Rockefeller civil wars were won by the “conservatives” who favored smaller government, which cemented that label for the party until the present day.
Within the GOP, “conservative” has become a rallying cry for the ideologically purest Republicans, and “liberal” has morphed into a pejorative. Democrats happily scooped up the discarded labels “progressive” and “liberal.”
This Sends Mixed Messages
If you care about “the cause” of liberty, you should care about the way it’s perceived at home and abroad. That’s why it’s so alarming that economic liberalism (laissez-faire capitalism) is actually referred to as “fiscal conservatism” in the United States. “Conservatives,” in the American context, are generally regarded as being in favor of traditionally Western democratic values such as free trade, low taxes, and minimal regulation. In other words, “economic liberty.” “Fiscal liberalism” is considered to be decidedly the opposite: more taxes, tariffs, spending, and regulation.
Considering the traditional, non-colloquial meaning of these words, what kind of mess have we gotten ourselves into by using them in this way? Conservatives routinely cite famous thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, John Locke, Adam Smith, and the authors of our Constitution, who are all known as “classical liberals” to anyone who studies them. Yet Republican conservatives in America use the word “liberal” like a cudgel to beat opponents of “classical liberalism” into submission.
You can see why this might be problematic for anyone trying to figure out his own political philosophy in America, let alone in other countries.
How Foreigners Hear Us
Classical liberals in America have to realize that this battle has already gone global. In a world that’s shrinking rapidly, it’s not helpful to the cause of liberty when foreigners are being taught that “conservatives” are the bad guys who favor authoritarian government and “liberals” are the good guys who by and large want liberty.
Our intellectual allies in most countries are somewhere in the “liberal” camp, so we can’t keep using it like it’s a curse word. Right this moment, millions around the world are getting their news from sources like CNN, various American and British newspapers, and the Yahoo News aggregate, among others. The overwhelming majority of those sources have the political bent you’d expect as an American. The verdict being reached in their minds with every passing minute? In America, just as in the rest of the world, the liberals and progressives are doing battle for the common good against those dastardly conservatives holding up progress.
This is the semantic fight of the century, and so far the right-wingers/fiscal conservatives/classical liberals are getting clobbered by the left-wingers/fiscal liberals/progressives. That’s because to most of the civilized world, calling your opponents “liberals” is kind of like agreeing to address them as “your majesty.”
The usefulness of the word “liberal” as an insult divorced from its original meaning ends at the water’s edge of America. That’s not going to cut it for classical liberals in a globalized world. If it’s going to be a fair fight about ideas and not nebulous labels chosen by late-nineteenth-century politicians, we’ve got to start being more precise with our words. I, for one, will no longer use a word borrowed from “liberty” to describe an ideology I believe is most illiberal.