Why Has Liberal Become a Curse Word?

“If fascism ever comes to America, it will come in the name of liberalism.” This is what Ronald Reagan told Mike Wallace in a 60 Minutes TV interview in 1975. Reagan said it was a “profound” statement made by someone long ago. He went on to define fascism “as private ownership and private enterprise but total government regulation.”  He described the conservative philosophy as “less government, get off my back, get out of my pocket, and let me have more control of my own destiny.”  Apparently, this was when and why liberal became a curse word, at least among advocates of the Reagan philosophy of government.


A couple of things about the Reagan quote are misleading, whether intentional or not. First, Merriam-Webster defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” This sounds a lot like today’s version of conservatism, Republicanism, or Trumpism, rather than liberalism.


Second, Merriam-Webster defines liberalism as “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. Specifically: such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class).”  Nothing about liberalism suggests government control of the economy through central planning or suppression of individual liberties.


Apparently, no one has been able to verify the source of the “profound” condemnation of liberalism quoted by Reagan. There is speculation he was thinking of a maxim attributed to Sinclair Lewis, “If fascism ever comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Again, a lot more like today’s Trumpism or Christian Nationalism than liberalism.


In all fairness, Reagan was opposed to liberalism. He didn’t believe government was necessary to protect political or civil liberties or ameliorate social inequities associated with race, class, or race. He didn’t think the government should be very big because he didn’t think there was very much the government should do. I agree with Reagan that the U.S. government doesn’t need to be as big as it is today. But I don’t agree with him on what government should and shouldn’t do.


I am not an advocate of big government. I agree with Thomas Paine that government is necessary, even if a necessary evil. “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”  “For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest.” Even if only 10%, 5%, or even 1% of people in a given society are inclined to deprive others of life, liberty, or property, government will be necessary “for the protection of the rest.”


I also believe in the statement made popular by the past Republican President, Gerald Ford: "A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have." I believe governments only need to be big enough to ensure the autonomy of individuals, protect political and civil liberties, and ameliorate social inequities such as those involving race, gender, or class. As a liberal, I believe the U.S. government only needs to be big enough to fulfill its purpose, as expressed in the American Declaration of Independence, to secure the unalienable, God-given, equal rights of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


The most important political battles today are not about the size of the government or even what the government shouldn’t and shouldn’t do. The political choices we make in the voting booth in 2024 will determine the future form of government in the U.S.—democratic republican or autocratic nationalist?  The decisions made in Washington DC and statehouses around the nation will determine who gets to participate in that decision.


I still believe in the ideals of the Democratic Republic of America, including the equal right of all to determine the laws and rules by which they will be governed. I agree with the Founders that the “just power” to govern is derived from the “consent of the governed”—and cannot be gained by denying the outcomes of elections, manipulating voting districts, disenfranchising legal voters, or proclaiming only those with specific religious beliefs should govern.


I would rather be called a progressive than a liberal. I am committed to doing whatever I can to continue the progress of this great nation toward the ideals expressed by the Founders in the American Declaration of Independence and The Constitution of the United States of America. This progress is being threatened by a “political movement that exalts nation and race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government that is headed by a dictatorial leader, who promises severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of his opposition.” If opposition to this movement makes me a “lib-tard” or “damned liberal,” then so be it.


John Ikerd