A full 25 percent of voters in this month's election identified themselves as liberals, according to exit polls, a marked increase from 22 percent in 2008. (Conservative is still a more popular identifier, with 35 percent of voters claiming that label.) Still, the "L" word is more popular than it has been since 1976. Conservatives managed to turn "liberal" into an insult in the 1980s, and when Republican icon Ronald Reagan won re-election in 1984, only 17 percent of voters confessed to being liberal. Today that number has ballooned to 25 percent. Why are a growing percentage of Americans calling themselves liberal? Here, three theories:
1. Obama made being liberal cool again
President Obama has "talked about government in a way that many Democrats haven't in recent years," forcefully making the case for a more active role for public agencies in American life, says Aaron Blake at The Washington Post. Obama "may not call himself a liberal," but that's how people see his policies. "Thus, Obama supporters are less reticent to embrace that label."
2. Conservatives have been unfairly tarred
It's not that Americans are suddenly gung-ho about liberal politics, says Gary Bauer at Human Events. Voters are still filled with "strong skepticism about whether Obama will be able to accomplish Americans' goals." The Obama campaign simply managed to drive people away from Mitt Romney with a relentless barrage of negative ads smearing him — and, by extension, conservative politics — as "uncaring and disconnected."
3. America really is changing
"Some of the fastest-growing demographics in the country happen to be the ones that are trending toward the 'liberal' label," says Blake at The Washington Post. That includes "non-religious people (rising from 18 percent liberal in 2004 to 24 percent today), college graduates (from 48 percent to 53 percent) and Hispanics (from 10 percent to 13 percent). Young people, of course, have always been pretty liberal; the label's increasing appeal to these groups means it is gaining steam."
I think that both reason one and reason three can be given credit for the surge in liberal pride. As for reason two? I call bullshit on that, as all that was done was to bring the things the conservatives were doing behind the scenes out of the shadows. So if ANYBODY can be blamed for damaging the conservative label, it was conservatives.
You know I am actually old enough to remember when the term "liberal" became a slur directed at people on the left. I also remember that many of our most visible representatives barely put up a fight. They quickly caved under the onslaught from the Right and stopped using the term to describe themselves, essentially surrendering their very identity to a group who, for all intents and purposes, were using the elementary playground tactics of name calling to shame their opponents into submission.
Personally I never succumbed to that, and have always referred to myself as a liberal. I will use the term progressive to describe my personal philosophy, but as a term of description Liberal always seemed to fit me the best.
And I am VERY pleased to see it return to a place of honor within our political conversations.