Observations of an expat: I am a liberal

The Brexiteering Trump supporter narrowed his eyes, curled his upper lip, glared at me and sneeringly stuttered: “You..you..LIBERAL.

I removed the handkerchief from my pocket, wiped away what I believe was unintentional spit from just below my left eye, and gave him an infuriatingly rueful smile.

To many conservative-minded folk a liberal is a threat to their way of life. Liberal tolerance of other religions, genders and cultures forces conservatives into politically correct language which sticks in their throats. The liberal emphasis on equality threatens their supremacy and culture. And liberal generosity is seen as undermining livelihoods and threatening security.

The word liberal is derived from the Latin root liberalis which means noble, gracious and munificient; character traits which I would love to have. Liberalis is also the root for the word liberty which runs golden thread-like through modern western civilisation. “Give me liberty or give me death,” shouted Patrick Henry. The single word “liberty” was emblazoned on an early American revolutionary flag and it plays a key role in the Preamble to the US constitution.

Liberte is the first word in the catchy slogan of the French revolution, and in 19th century European liberalism was equated with parliamentary government and political reform based on equality.

Adam Smith regarded natural liberty as the highest form of human existence and liberal—or free—trade between nations was his ultimate aim. For the ancient Greeks a liberal arts education was the summit of learning and culture.


A free press, free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, a free and independent judiciary, free elections and freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness. These and the parliamentary democracy which protects them are all generally regarded as Western liberal values. They are all enshrined in the American constitution and legal documents in “liberal” societies across the world.

The phrase liberal values and the institututions established to protect them were previously considered sacrosanct. No longer.

All of this was made clear in a recent article by an international team of political scientists writing in the Journal of Democracy. They used data from political polls conducted in Europe, the United States and Canada between 1995 and 2011. The results were shocking and help to explain why the word liberal and the phrase liberal values are now uttered with disgust by a growing number.

In 1995 American voters were asked if they thought it would be best if the military overthrew the elected government and ran the country. Five percent said yes. By 2011 that figure had grown to 16 percent. In Europe the figure went from five to 13 percent.

The researchers had more questions, including: “Would it be better to have a strong leader who does not have to bother with congress/parliament or elections?” In the United States in 1995 the figure was 24 percent yes. In 2011 it was 32 percent. In Europe the figure was seven percent in 1995 and 17 percent in 2011.

Not surprisingly, the authors of the report concluded that “a serious democratic disconnect has emerged.” They add: “If it widens even further, it may begin to challenge the stability of seemingly consolidated democracies.”
The alternatives are keen to offer themselves. President Putin said that it is about time that Western liberal values collapsed. The Chinese preach that the shambles of the American presidential elections are proof that their authoritarian system is superior. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is busily perverting his country’s democracy into a dictatorship.

Democracy, liberalism, and liberal values are under attack as never before from within and without. As for myself, well, Trump supporters, Brexiteers, alt-righters, Putinites, and any other authoritarian-leaners, feel free to call me a liberal. I am proud of the label. But, please keep the spittle to a minimum.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” is published on 15 October.

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14 Comments

  • David Evershed 3rd Feb '17 - 10:08am

    Brexit supporters would argue of course that rule by the unelected European Commission is not their idea of liberty and leaving the EU returns control to UK parliament and so returns democracy to UK citizens.

    On this basis it is thus the Brexit supporters who are being anti authoritarian and liberal.

  • Interesting piece thanks. Very true that liberal values are under attack more than at any point since the fall of the USSR.

    Slightly off topic but if you need a laugh I liked this funny piece on the Lib Dems http://www.thesparkmagazine.co.uk/uk/all-liberal-democrat-leaders-part-of-witness-protection-programme/

  • Since the 1970s, in the US there has been a concerted effort from both the left and right to colour the word “liberal” with negative connotations. Indeed at one stage during contest for the Republican nomination Trump himself was called a liberal by his conservative opponents.

  • To understand how people who are not liberals really think (as opposed to the caricature of them as small-minded, selfish, and concerned only with protecting their own privilege), I recommend The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

  • Dav
    Prescriptive traditionalism?

  • David
    An elected European Parliament and the framework of the rule of law is my idea of liberty. An unelected House of Lords isn’t. As I just said-traditionalism dominates the UK.

  • I voted leave and see myself as essentially of the liberal left. To me Brexit and Trump are different things even if some of the supporters and distractors of both confuse them. One is about a long term change based on ideas about democracy, the nation state and to an extent identity and is leaderless. The other is 4 years of rule by a buffoon. The reason I think they get linked is because too many liberal commentators brought into the end of history rhetoric of the 1990s and came to believe in a sort of ” the market is noble” mythology. It was a way of squaring progressive social ideas with the dominant orthodoxy of late 20th century capitalism. So there was a tendency to see changes in the way people do commerce evidence of a deep psychological interconnectedness rather than just as an extended way of shopping. The point being that buying things online is no more meaningful than going to a supermarket and communication by individuals online is pretty much like chatting to a stranger while you wait for a bus. It does not mean you want them to move into your house or have a say in your finances or much real lasting affinity. The other thing about the internet is it can create self censoring bubble of agreement amongst like minded individuals. It reflects what you put in rather than the wider reality.

  • It is also worth pointing out that the current use by some of Liberal and Democratic to mean the same thing is to be avoided as well. We should avoid allowing people to make that mistake.

    David Evershed

    “Brexit supporters would argue of course that rule by the unelected European Commission is not their idea of liberty and leaving the EU returns control to UK parliament and so returns democracy to UK citizens.”
    Illustrating their lack of understanding. They could claim that it is more democratic not to have an unelected commission involved in the legislative process (not sure what their take on the Civil Service would then be). But it is not about liberty. In reality the question of whether something is “democratic” is not simply a matter of whether every role is elected but that is a different issue.

    George Kendall

    “when you see the attitude of a few, who call themselves Liberal, but do use emotional blackmail to silence opposition, you can see where they get the idea.”
    Including by people on here, sadly.

    “Ultimately, for Liberalism to recover, we need to make allies, not enemies”
    Absolutely, and more. Re assessing and learning what the right has picked up seeing how to use that would be a good start. At the moment too many are refusing to learn the lessons of losing.

    Dav
    Great recommendation, it is written in a bit too much of a US focused way but has some really important points in there.

  • Katharine Pindar 3rd Feb '17 - 5:21pm

    We have had wonderful discussions of Freedom following articles published here in the last few months, as you may recall. However, your article veers over freedom, liberty and democracy, and is centred on the report from the ‘journal’ (sic) ‘of Democracy’ where you give us the interesting facts established there, which I was glad to know about, even if they are alarming. But, please, your article is about Democracy not Freedom, because as Psi says they are not the same, and I would be glad to discuss ‘the democratic deficit’ here without entering again on that other vast subject. Do you comment on other pieces as Expat, Tom, and are you an American citizen or of dual citizenship? That you are a liberal, and a democrat, and a Liberal Democrat, seems assured.

  • I have long felt that it is the conflation of liberalism with Political Correctness (which is not a myth and does indeed exist) which has done much to sully the term `Liberal`.

    There has been a heartfelt `backlash` against cultural Political Correctness in the West over the past decade as it has been perceived, and often rightly, as interfering, harsh and divisive – as well as imposed on people (all things which liberals would traditionally stand against).

    PC emerged from the politics of the late sixties which tended towards identity politics and still bears that mark. Liberalism is older and more inclusive.

    In America in particular the policies of Affirmative Action in employment -where white males eeking work are to pay for the mistakes of their bosses by being discriminated against – has done much to turn otherwise unprejudiced people against `liberals`.

    I think we need to get back to Liberal basics, and dissociate ourselves from Political Correctness and Identity politics in particular.

  • Liberal gets used as insult in America for the same reason Conservative does. It’s a way of political opponent air their ire. It has become an insult from the right in Britain because of the influence of American pop culture. The mistake is cringing and caving into it.

  • Pascale Stacey 5th Feb '17 - 11:30am

    ‘The Commission has the right of initiative to propose laws for adoption by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU (national ministers). In most cases, the Commission makes proposals to meet its obligations under the EU treaties, or because another EU institution, country or stakeholder has asked it to act.26 Oct 2016’
    Commission at Work – Commission’s role in EU lawmaking – European …
    ec.europa.eu/atwork/index_en.htm
    The European Commission does not rule. The initiative to propose laws is the result of organisations whether public or private or individuals or following a ECJ court ruling approaching the Commission with a proposal to make a change in the existing legislation. This procedure is tightly controlled and monitored. It is the democratically elected members of the EU Parliament and the Council of the EU that decide and rule and we, as voters, elected them.

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