A rose by any other name

There was a time when people on the political left called themselves “liberals.”

At some point in the late 20th century — particularly after the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s — it became clear to people that the word “liberal” had become a dirty word. Describing someone as such would immediately impact their favorability ratings (in a bad way), and it actually became a campaign strategy to tag that word with somebody.

But the left learned early on that they could redress and rebrand themselves in a new, wonderful-sounding name without actually changing any of their policy positions, and it would help them avoid the liberal poison pill. Thus, the entirety of the American left began referring to itself as “progressive” rather than “liberal.”

It wasn’t a new term, by any means, as progressive politics goes back to the time surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Teddy Roosevelt — a Republican — was a progressive, for instance.

But the name sounds great, doesn’t it? Progress is something I think we all want, so being a “progressive” candidate or activist means you can easily sell yourself as interested in things that are good for the country. So it became something of a no-brainer for Democrats to change what they called themselves. The trouble, of course, is that by everyone on the left adopting it, the term itself became almost meaningless, as it didn’t describe anything other than being a member of the left-wing.

But they aren’t the only ones who have done this. People on the right, too, have decided to call themselves something new.

At some point in the mid-2000s, it became frightening to call yourself a conservative. With President George Bush’s popularity dropping into the 30-percent bracket, Iraq and Afghanistan becoming exceedingly unpopular, and the growth of spending and debt making both conservatives and liberals apprehensive, right-leaning voters everywhere began to want to disassociate themselves with what Republicans in government were doing anywhere.

Enter the term “libertarian.”

Like “progressive,” “libertarian” is a word that sounds pretty neutral and positive. Liberty is a great thing, and we all believe in liberty, so being a believer in liberty — a libertarian — happens to be a good thing.

Nevermind that the term previously had a very specific and narrow definition. It sounds great, and describing yourself in such terms does two things. It signals to people that you are different from those establishment conservatives that everyone thinks ruined so many things in the mid-2000s, and it gives you a new, noble flag to carry that makes your politics sound more principled and righteous.

I began calling myself libertarian (as many of us say, with a small “l,” rather than a capital “L” member of the Libertarian Party) as far back as 1999, well before most of the right-wing in America even knew what the word was. I latched on to Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and yes, even Ayn Rand, and began to form political opinions that were very much different from much of the Republican Party.

I believed, and still do, in radically different solutions to public policy problems. Where “conservatives” nibble around the edges and try to manage the growth of the state, and make it smaller in comparison to Democrats and more efficient, I wanted dramatic changes to tax policy, spending and entitlements. I favored privatization of a huge part of what the government does. I believed that the state attempting to manage society and engineer people’s attitudes about social issues, notably marriage, families and things like affirmative action, were not only unwise but counterproductive. I believed in market viewpoints about things like immigration, rather than nativist protectionism. I believed in individualism, not collectivism.

I flirted with the Libertarian Party but eventually came to believe that the best vehicle for the promotion of what I believed in was within the Republican Party. So I joined the Republican Liberty Caucus — an organization devoted to libertarian principles within the GOP.

For years nothing really happened. Nobody in the party cared about libertarianism. But then, suddenly, people started to look for something else to identify themselves as, and through a superficial understanding of the word, started to label themselves libertarian.

In the past five years, the growth of people on the right calling themselves libertarian has resulted in the word no longer meaning anything. It sounded cool; it was an obscure word; and, hey, libertarians hate taxes and spending! So many people who have no idea what an actual Libertarian is and share almost nothing in common with them have taken up the label. There are even Democrats calling themselves libertarians.

So what does an actual libertarian call himself these days? I wonder.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.