When did “liberal” become a slur?

It wasn’t when the Republicans started sneering at the word. That was a mark of honor. I was happy to call myself a liberal during Reagan’s term.

It really started going rancid when Bill Maher adopted the label. “Liberal” now meant sexist hack and apologist for war and racism.

A week previously, Maher appeared on MSNBC’s flagship breakfast show, Morning Joe (9/12/19), where he claimed that the Democrats’ left-wing (i.e., Bernie Sanders) was a “cancer” destroying the party, warning that the left is “scarier and crazier than Trump,” and nominating a leftist as its presidential candidate would spell disaster in the next election. (Decrying the supposed unelectability of the left is a favorite pastime of elite pundits—FAIR.org, 2/26/19, 7/2/19, 8/21/19.)
Media almost unanimously present Maher as a “liberal” (e.g. Salon, 10/11/14, 9/21/19; USA Today, 7/8/18; New York Post, 6/29/19) or even a “progressive” (The Hill, 2/2/17) comedian. Yet any inspection of his political positions dispels this illusion. To be sure, he generally supported President Barack Obama and opposes Donald Trump (although he has been known to do the opposite of both). But he also has a long history of repeatedly taking reactionary positions on many subjects, especially war.

On his previous Comedy Central show Politically Incorrect, Maher praised the Vietnam War as “necessary,” arguing it helped end the Cold War. (The US officially began its involvement in Vietnam 36 years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.) In 2013, he joked about killing antiwar activist Medea Benjamin after she interrupted Obama, and recanted his anti-Iraq War position, claiming, “Iraq is doing better than I thought it would be.” He praised George W. Bush for “creating a country” there.

Need I point out that he’s also an anti-vaccination atheist, and a libertarian? He uses his criticisms of Trump as a merkin to cover up his fundamental illiberalism. But this part is legitimately true:

Ultimately, Maher has built up an impressive following and continues to espouse snarky elitist hot takes weekly for HBO, earning an estimated $10 million per year doing so. Call him a racist, a bigot or an astute businessman; just don’t call him a liberal.

Although I can’t say that embracing the values of the 1990s through the Trump years to his own profit is exactly the mark of a principled person.


  1. F.O. says

    Liberals are at least perceived to be enthusiastically in favor of capitalism and, more in general, of the status quo, hence why most leftists use the term with disdain.

  2. George says

    Liberal: Favoring reform, open to new ideas, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; not bound by traditional thinking; broad-minded.

    Liberals, in my experience, have generally been skeptical of Capitalism, big business, etc.

  3. PaulBC says

    Liberal was a term of derision on the left as far back as Phil Ochs singing “Love me, I’m a liberal.” (~1965) and suggested hypocrisy and insufficient commitment. It was certainly bizarre in the 1980s when Democrats were afraid to call themselves “liberal” because Reagan was so popular and it was practically equated with communism. I’m personally comfortable being called a liberal, mainly because it’s clear I’m not trying to impress anybody with it. I am not “progressive.” I’m liberal.

  4. says

    Liberalism will never overcome the inherent contradiction between liberal society’s reliance on capitalism, and capitalism’s need to break the constraints liberalism tries to impose on it so it may continue to grow (and grow it must, or it will collapse). This contradiction gets sharper and sharper with every passing year as the global economic, political, ecological, and climate systems continue to deteriorate. Liberalism is a dead end from which the only ways forward are socialism–or fascism.

  5. PaulBC says


    I think you’re starting with a false assumption that systems of government fail due to philosophical inconsistency. They fail (and name one that hasn’t) because human beings inevitably find a way to subvert them to their own needs against the claimed goals of the system. Addressing the problem of climate change, for instance, requires recognizing it as a crisis and doing something about it despite short-term costs. This may or may not happen, but I do not think it has much to do with the system of government. (And yes, capitalism includes the obviously false assumption of unlimited exponential growth, but that does describe the instantaneous state of the economy for a long time before collapse.)

    So assuming any system is an imperfect, patch as you go game of whack-a-mole, I’m a lot more interested in the sincerity of so-called leaders in solving problems for the common good than whether there are “inherent contradictions.” Of course there are inherent contradictions. So what?

  6. stroppy says

    Rancid liberal. Well, I don’t know, it’s been a slur in one circle or another for a long time. From my perspective, it really started to snowball after the turmoil of the 60s/70s and reactionary, authoritarian conservatives got their long-term-serious on about putting America permanently in the wing-nut column. I could swear I was starting to smell the rancid from the late 70s; ripe for Reagan, talk radio (I caught a lot of Ray Briem while working the night-shift), and f’ing garbage like Morton Downey Jr.

    Come to think of it, Paul Harvey was no peach either.

    Snot rags like Mahr got pulled into the trending wake, IMO.

  7. dma8751482 says

    A significant part of the issue is that the word “liberal” has completely different meanings depending on its context. While it’s typically meant “center-left to left” over in the US, its definition can and has been expanded to encompass everything from free-market libertarianism to social democracy.

    The end result is that “liberal” can now be used as an insult by both sides of the political spectrum and still be considered correct in both of those cases.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    When did “liberal” become a slur?

    In 1988, when Michael Dukakis allowed it to be.

  9. Steve Cameron says

    Ha! This reminds me of how Jerry Coyne is always insisting he’s a liberal because he’d vote for a Democrat over a Republican and objects to the GOP’s most inhumane policies. Like Pinker, his idea of a liberal seems to not have made it past the 19th century, and in fact he (and Pinker and Maher and all those guys) fetishize those 19th century ideals (free speech, personal rights, capitalist corporate democracy, etc) over any of the ones that the real Left has developed and embraced since then (human dignity, minority and communal rights, socialist democracy, etc). It’s not like some of what they think is important isn’t, it’s just not always the most important.

  10. unclefrogy says

    one the big problems with political understanding and political labels here in the U.S. is there is none it has relied on emotional connection for so long the population can hardly think.
    liberalism means socialism and that means communism the government will take all your stuff leading to statements like keep the government out of my social security and medicare. At the same time when a real choice is given large and enthusiastic portions of the population embrace the policies and many of the Reagan right see little problem either.
    Bill Maher is an unfunny jerk who has parleyed his unimaginative wit to TV success.
    hope he has enough money to retire soon.
    uncle frogy

  11. PaulBC says

    Reginald Selkirk@9

    In 1988, when Michael Dukakis allowed it to be.

    This is a significant milestone. However, liberal was a slur on the left before it was a slur on the right (Again, Phil Ochs Love me, I’m a liberal.”)

    How about Supertramp The Logical Song in 1979?

    I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
    Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal

    They may not have intended a slur, but they certainly suggested that some people do. And in context, they were not referring to criticism from the left.

    In fact, it’s curiously muddled, combining “radical” with “liberal.” (that was my thought when I first heard this song when it was only a few years old). But in ensuing years, the terms really did get muddled by American conservatives.

  12. drst says

    I love it when the rightwingers attack Maher thinking it’s going to upset anyone on the progressive left and we’re all “yeah, take him out, we’re good.”

  13. PaulBC says


    Didn’t Maher get his start with “Politically Incorrect”, a phrase obviously intended to leverage (and this was 1993) the nonsensical idea that big meanie liberals were using “speech codes” to stop people from speaking freely?

    In whose deluded mind has Maher ever been “liberal”? He is a shameless contrarian in it for the attention and money (and he’s done well on those counts). I have some mild sympathy for the way he was shunned during the great terrorism panic, but I don’t turn to him for ideas.

  14. says

    “Liberal” began being treated as a slur when used by Nixon’s campaign as an attack on anyone who opposed Vietnam or advocated for civil rights in a way inconsistent with the Southern Strategy. It was then (and is now) code for “race traitor” and/or “non-evangelical.” (Needless to say, I’m proudly both.) It slightly later expanded to “anyone who espouses Enlightenment knowledge, since that is the period when ‘liberal’ was first used describing politics and political economy.”

    The irony that Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Smith were all self-decribed advocates of liberalism — when the post-Brown conservative movement in America (and, to a slightly lesser extent, all English-speaking nations) depends on intentional misreading of their works — seems to have escaped most of them. It didn’t, however, escape CREEP in 1972; among the many Watergate documents there’s a long, gleeful memo on how to misuse Locke and Smith to support the Southern Strategy.

    I’m just waiting for this year’s equivalent of the Canuck Letter. Because it’s not about ideology, it’s about power politics and preemptive class warfare.

  15. hemidactylus says

    Back in the day liberal used to mean people having freedom to do as they please and responsibility for their own life without recourse to government, which hadn’t yet become a behemoth. Conservative meant sticking to tradition and staying off my lawn. Then these nerdy progressive upstarts decided to go all technocratic and interventionist, busting trusts, building parks and telling certain people they can’t breed. FDR came along later and gave us a bunch of agencies for fixing things the roaring 20s created and liberal morphed into progressive meaning the government of the people should try to make things better for the less fortunate in the Rawlsian sense. Then in the past decade liberal became a pun for people to play by saying they were liberal (progressive New Deal…Great Society sense) while actually meaning what liberal was in its more ’the fittest survive best’ libertarian era. You sound like you care for the less fortunate and marginalized when you really don’t.

  16. =8)-DX says

    It seems to me that despite various uses of “liberal” from both left and right, on the material, economic level the right’s denigration of liberals for their attempts to regulate capitalisms’ excesses via representative democracy are talking about the same flawed idea that the left is: to really change the system it is the organisation of production and the ties of power to wealth which must change.

    Looking at political systems, the top-doen hierarchical and bureaucratic political class is a problem in and of itself, whether or not it is tied to “freemarket” capitalism or oversees a state capitalism masquerading as socialism.

    If the endgoal is communism (communal management of resources), and removal of unjust hierarchies (class, race, gender, ability), eventually one would have to achieve some form of anarchism. But how to get there? So far it seems leftist political activism, revolution, strikes and public disobedience are the only effective measures, with “liberal” political efforts serving as an after-the-fact validation of hard-fought-for advances.

    I think here on the left we sadly need liberals, because even revolution only seems to have a limited incremental effect on the whole system. Democratization of the workplace could be the next step to give the working class actual power over the economy with another wave of government services as a patch till the power dynamics change.

    Again, sadly it seems climate change is currently and in the near future going to fuck us up and provide more fuel for fascism with the tacit approval of liberals in the west.

    bla bla =8)-DX

  17. drew says

    Ooh. Is it when we’d finally recovered from the cold war and its flag waving enough that people who were on the real left could climb out from under the term and point out the horrible role liberals have played throughout history as the stoic guard of the right wing?

  18. PaulBC says


    The “real left” was already doing this during the Cold War (again, Phil Ochs). I feel as if many people are entering into this discussion without even trying to grasp the long and problematic history of the term “liberal.”

    I use the term for myself just because it is predictive of who I’ll vote for and what policies I’ll support (or not complain about too much). It fits fine as a label. I am not going for philosophical integrity here.

  19. says

    i wonder if pzmyers watched the msnbc Morning Joe program for himself or does he just relies on an article from truthdig.com

    I sometimes watch the RealTime (mostly for the comedy) and the fragments quoted didn’t sound like Bill Maher at all.
    So I decided to see the linked program.

    Bill Maher didn’t call Bernie Sanders and those similar to them cancer (he is really fond of Bernie) – he called the frantic race to be the more Obama-condemning leftist than anyone (and not standing up to twitter mobs) a cancer.
    BM didn’t said left is “scarier and crazier than Trump” but “the only way to lose the election is to convince the voters they are scarier and crazier than Trump. Which… I think they can”
    He didn’t say that choosing leftist would be a disaster – he said that going full on liberal on everything at once would not be a wining strategy.

    Nothing BM said is really bad, it is all well within the range of normal discussion inside the one political camp – even if you disagree with him on everything there is nothing to be seriously outraged about.
    Nothing even close to the truthdig summary of what Bill Maher said in Morning Joe Program, this summary is a complete bollocks.
    I understand that conservatives on twitter comment on made up quotes all the time but I expect more from PZ Myers.
    If you want to criticize Bill Maher, do it on what he really is saying not on some twisted piece you have found on the truthdig.com.

  20. F.O. says

    @PaulBC #6
    The reason I consider myself more left-wing than liberal is that I personally see capitalism fundamentally incompatible with democracy.
    If your economic system relies on few people having a lot more power than some other people, those few people will have both the interest and the means to subvert the democratic process: this is what we are seeing and this is why I think the model is failing.


    Back in the day liberal used to mean people having freedom to do as they please and responsibility for their own life without recourse to government, which hadn’t yet become a behemoth.

    That would be libertarianism, a term originally used to describe anarchists, not liberalism.

  21. says

    Ultimately, it all depends on who defines the term “liberal”. I personally would like it if American police killed a bit fewer unarmed black people; is this liberal? I personally would like my sisters and niece and female friends to be treated as more than just breeders; is this liberal? I think that maybe a country with less than 10% of the world’s population should be a bit more humble; is this liberal? Finally, if a Great Being actually created the universe that they would be much less Earth and human centric than is typically assumed in religions on Earth; is this liberal?

  22. PaulBC says


    The reason I consider myself more left-wing than liberal is that I personally see capitalism fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

    The reason I call myself “liberal” is because I believe we’re going to have capitalism for the foreseeable future. In fact, I think the mixed economy approach has been successful when not distorted by ideology. I.e., let the market do the things it does well (e.g. set a price for day-old bread), and never hesitate to intervene when the market is obviously not a useful approach (as, I would argue, in healthcare, where the consumer is not equipped to set prices appropriately and the stakes are literally life and death).

    It has worked fine in social democratic nations. It has worked erratically in the US because there are so many market ideologues that just cannot grasp that markets are a method of achieving something, not an end goal (or they don’t care and just want to exploit markets for gain). Mixed economies are ugly, inelegant, and impure. That is why I don’t instinctively distrust them. I have never seen a beautiful solution to a real problem that actually works.

  23. PaulBC says

    Sad OldGuy@22

    I personally would like it if American police killed a bit fewer unarmed black people; is this liberal?

    If you’re white, then yes, that makes you at least liberal or further left. If you have been following the backlash to BLM, it is quite clear that many white Americans consider it the job* of police to protect them from those who scare them (notably but not limited to African Americans) and reject the entire notion that police should be subject to any oversight when doing this important job.

    *I believe it is the job of police to enforce laws uniformly and protect the most vulnerable. Yes, that makes me liberal.

  24. stroppy says

    For the purposes of the article, I’m taking it that we’re talking about when ‘liberal’ became a generally accepted slur (by a seeming majority of people or of mainstream opinion makers) against anyone leaning left.

    Back when I was knee high to a grasshopper and they still taught civics in school, the broad breakdown went like this, “left” to “right”:
    Radical — Liberal — Conservative — Reactionary

    Personally I’d rather not try to account for every interpretation of the word that crops up in this, that or the other clique.

  25. PaulBC says

    For the purposes of the article, I’m taking it that we’re talking about when ‘liberal’ became a generally accepted slur (by a seeming majority of people or of mainstream opinion makers) against anyone leaning left.

    In that case, it was certainly true in the 1980s, maybe a lot earlier. George McGovern was far from radical anything, but he was subject to attacks for being liberal.

  26. F.O. says

    The reason I call myself “liberal” is because I believe we’re going to have capitalism for the foreseeable future.

    Talking about foreseeable future, it doesn’t look very good, and liberal democracies seem to be unable to rise up to the challenge.

    In fact, I think the mixed economy approach has been successful when not distorted by ideology.

    We trashed the planet. We exploited, destroyed and stripped bare the rest of the world, building our wealth on the destruction of other nations and cultures. We lost any connection we nature and community. We are more and more lonely, more and more alienated.
    Again, the problem is that once you accept that a few individual have disproportionate power, they can feed whatever ideology they want.
    “when not distorted by ideology” seems a condition extremely difficult to meet.

  27. hemidactylus says

    I was a libertarian in the 90s when I watched Politically Incorrect with Maher, and kinda recall him labeling himself that way back then and thinking he had no clear idea what it meant and was trying to be hip or trendy. He was, from what I recall, an ok political comedian who wasn’t a fan of Reagan and when he got his show had some wide tanging guests and struggled to keep up and stay topical. If he thought the Vietnam war was justifiable or came around to being ok with our conduct or the outcome of the Iraq war that doesn’t seem very libertarian to me. Say what you will about old-school liberal Herbert Spencer but he wasn’t a war-monger or imperialist at least. Maybe Maher liked the libertarian stance on legalizing pot and said “Count me in” without thinking much else beyond that one issue.

    Maher is a bit of a blowhard jackass from what I surmise, though I don’t watch his show on HBO. Being controversial puts eyeballs on the screen. I would assume he’s a mix of stuff that would tick me off and points I might find agreeable. Religulous had some positive points. I’m not fond of Maher’s stance on vaccination, having gotten a flu shot recently.

  28. Akira MacKenzie says

    I started my life amongst an extended family of conservative Republicans. After college shattered my religious and social beliefs, I drifted through stages of libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. After several years in the American work force, I settled on mainstream liberalism. Several more years in the American workforce with a few periods of unemployment turned me into a Marxist. Now, I wish to be taken by the sweet, sweet embrace of death, the nothingness that lies beyond.

  29. Rob Grigjanis says

    F.O. @28:

    “when not distorted by ideology” seems a condition extremely difficult to meet.


  30. Muz says

    When I first really got involved in online communities, filled with mostly Americans (foreign antipodean devil here), ‘liberal’ was a kind of slur.
    It was code for bleeding heart, “tolerant”, lefty (relative to the American context). People had apparently already osmosed enough Rush Limbaugh by that point for it to be a bad thing. One should be indifferent/libertarian or conservative if anything. Liberals were politically correct commies and ultimately anti-American values.

    Twenty years on, it is (also) a slur from the other, more Lenin-ish direction, as a comfotable beneficiary of the staus quo unwilling to push for the change necessary in the world or actively holding it back.

    Unpleasant to be sure. But I feel this is a kind of progress. If you asked me what I thought of the American Left in ’99 I would have borrowed some Ghandi and said “I think it would be a good idea”. Well now it appears the US is getting some broader spectrum politics in the mainstream. Which is going to be a bumpy ride as most of the country has been used to two slightly different flavors of centre right liberalism since the late 60s, one “nice” the other authoritarian.

  31. KG says

    The reason I call myself “liberal” is because I believe we’re going to have capitalism for the foreseeable future. – PaulBC@23

    You’re probably right. Which is why our civilization*, if not our species**, is probably done for. Capitalism shows no sign of being capable of responding anything like adequately to the environmental crisis, and this inability is a consequence of its fundamental nature, which means production decisions are dominated by the search for private profit, and the continual expansion of consumption is mandatory. If these features were dropped, whatever political economy we had would no longer be capitalism.

    Such as it is.
    ** My view is that human extinction is unlikely, unless there are “unknown unknowns” lurking within the environmental crisis.

  32. Ishikiri says

    The term originates for Enlightenment “liberalism,” which is largely concerned with property rights and is the ideological foundation for capitalism. It was all good when we were coming off of feudalism and divine right of kings, not so much in the Victorian Era/First Gilded Age, and especially not now when there’s a drive to make every single human activity into a market from which to extract value. I describe myself as a socialist, because I believe we’re never going meaningfully abate human suffering and environmental destruction unless we as a species give up on the idea that hording individual wealth is a virtue.

    To my mind, the word “liberal” evokes a kind of US west coast petite bourgeoisie: people who at least talk like they’re “woke” in terms of social justice and try to behave in an environmentally sustainable way with their individual consumption habits, but will come out hard against any policy that they feel threatens their lifestyle or surroundings, especially if they’re homeowners.

  33. Stuart Smith says

    Liberals are people who start from a place of solid, left wing values – freedom, egalitarianism, rationalism, etc – and then begin compromising and carving out exceptions. They believe that everyone should be free, except for the ever-growing list of specific people and conditions that shouldn’t. They believe in justice with an asterisk, impartiality on the part of individuals acting within a rigged system, freedom so rigorously and exactingly defined as to apply only in those situations where your freely made decision is to uphold the status quo and to change nothing that cannot easily be changed back. They believe in reason and discourse, but as an alternative to action rather than an impetus for it. They are people who appropriate the values of the left, not in order to advance them, but in order to restrict their application.

  34. springa73 says

    I think that liberal started out in the 19th century meaning more akin to what a contemporary person in the US would call a libertarian – favoring individual rights, especially property rights, minimalist government in most cases, and laissez-faire capitalism as the best economic system. In much of Europe, I think that the term never lost that association. In the USA, though, politicians like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, JFK, and Lyndon Johnson, with moderately leftist domestic policies of stronger government regulation of business and the economy plus some social programs, adopted the word “liberal” to describe their policies, perhaps because socialism even in its mildest sense had already become a dirty word to mainstream opinion in the USA. The right in the USA gradually started to use the term as a slur, especially from Reagan’s time onward, but so did people who were more strongly left wing in sense of being opposed to capitalism as a whole. So, it has ended up as a slur from both sides of the political spectrum.

  35. says

    Where did the idea that the government should do absolutely nothing to assist its most vulnerable citizens while doing all it could to make sure the monied and powerful remained monied and powerful? I seriously doubt Adam Smith said anything about it. Nor did Thorstein Veblen or John Maynard Keynes.