Monday, September 16, 2002

Consider this, just a day after the NYT magazine's already-widely-and-justly ridiculed headlines calling Pete Domenici a "hard-line conservative." The "Inside" box on today's front page, blurbing this story, begins
Sweden Stays Liberal. One of the parties that the Social Democrats beat was the Liberal Party.

Tom Palmer long ago pointed out to me that, for the NYT, "liberal" is simply a term of editorial approbation. Whoever the newspaper likes, in whatever country, is a liberal. (In democracies, this generally means the center-left, though it can even include avowed Communists who seem sufficiently warm and fuzzy.) But the incoherence of this approach can be almost comical. Social Democrats aren't liberals. In the great traditional divides of European politics, the liberals oppose both social democrats and conservatives or Christian Democrats. In the postwar era especially, Liberal parties have joined with both, in various combinations and coalitions at various times. But a Liberal coalition with conservative parties does not suddenly turn social democracy into liberalism. Moreover, the Social Democrats are in loose coalition with Greens and with the successor to the Communist Party; it's that entire grouping that is somehow more "liberal" than the liberal party. The semantic drift involved in calling a Social Democratic win over Liberals "staying liberal" is really quite bizarre.

At some point I intend to start posting on the fate of Europe's liberal parties. The theme: turning the traditional political scientists' question of why there is no socialism in the United States (i.e. why no explicitly socialist or social democratic party ever thrived) into the one of why there is no liberalism in western Europe. Outside the Benelux countries and occasionally Norway or Denmark, liberal parties are perpetual junior partners at best, and often seem to be on the verge of extinction. The very first liberal party, Britain's, has ceased to exist as a distinct entity, folding into the Social Democrats. Alain Madelin, the admirable liberal candidate for the French presidency last spring, came in behind not only Le Pen but also a splinter candidate from Le Pen's group and no fewer than three Communists. Germany's Free Democrats have even lost their traditional coalition-kingmaker role to the now-larger Greens. The combination of secularism, support for international trade, support for a free domestic labor market, and protection of civil liberties seems to have lost its constituency in most of western Europe (even before throwing in, say, support for immigration or for gay rights). This is, I think, a serious long-term problem for European politics. Without a revitalized liberal center, for example, Germany seems incapable of the labor market reform it so desperately needs. And France, which was once home to the most distinguished liberal parliamentary delegation ever known (including, at various times, Tocqueville, Constant, Tracy, Bastiat, Lafayette, Guizot, and more) now flirts with Weimar politics: a plurality of votes delivered to the combined fascists and communists, with a desperate struggle by the Gaullists and the social democrats to stave off disaster and no room for liberalism at all.

Todd Seavey has long tried to convince me to give up on the word "liberal," to just accept that in 21st-century America it means whatever the New York Times thinks it means. I think that-- among other reasons for not doing so-- this usage makes both history and current events in the rest of the world even more opaque to Americans than they ordinarily are. Those who cannot understand why Adam Smith was a liberal not a conservative, and why liberals run against social democratic parties, are condemned to an understanding of politics as shallow as... well, as that of the front and op-ed pages of the NYT.

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