“Liberal” has become a dirty word in American politics, for two primary reasons. Liberalism has allowed its leftmost wing to set its public agenda, while allowing conservatives to frame the discussion. In this quote from a 2002 interview with Reese Fuller, author James Lee Burke lays out the most accurate, and eloquent, definition of what a liberal is. If only more liberals would read it. (Read the entire interview; it’s well worth the time.)
Do you consider yourself a liberal?
I consider myself pretty traditional, really. People of my generation, who were born in the Depression, tend to be traditionalists. If I had to call myself a name I'd say I was a Jeffersonian liberal. But, see, something has become askew in American thinking. Liberals now are tarred in every way by people who want to associate in the popular mind liberalism with some kind of fanatical movement.
Traditional liberalism has involved certain kinds of movements that gave us Social Security, minimum wage, public healthcare, environmental and consumer protection, the civil rights acts of the 1960s, the fair hiring act, the equal employment act, public education. What is it that is so objectionable about Medicare for God's sake?
I remember on many occasions when liberals, or people who were supposed to be liberals, were called liberals and they shrink. It's beyond me, absolutely beyond me. I mean, do people think that the right wing gave us Social Security, collective bargaining, clean water? I don't know. I think it's one of those deals where you say it enough times, people began to believe it.
Now, there are people, to my mind, who are libertine, who have taken on the guise of being liberals and they are not liberals. They are involved in something else. I'm not knocking them, but this stuff about correctness in language, this hyper-sensitivity about ethnicity and the notion that people are not accountable for what they do, this is not liberalism.
Liberalism is founded on the Jeffersonian notion that ultimately the individual deserves the protection of his government, that the government has to give power to and protect those who have no voice, who are disenfranchised. The government is there to make the society work in an equitable and just way. That's the spirit of and the tradition of the liberal movement in this country. This other stuff has nothing to do with it.
Empowering an adult bookstore to open up shop in a neighborhood filled with elderly people who lack political power, whose finances are immediately compromised and their property values plummet, that is not, in my mind, enforcement of the First Amendment. It has nothing to do with the First Amendment. This is a misinterpretation of the constitutional views of people like Adams, Jefferson, Franklin and all these other early guys. They weren't there to protect pornographers who create victims out of defenseless people.
The libertine view of life has much more to do with fashion than it does politics. There's nothing liberal about Hollywood. That's just nonsense. The Disney Company violated minimum wage laws in Haiti. I mean, you've got to really work to violate sweatshop laws.
Thanks to Reese Fuller for graciously allowing this partial reprint.