The USA is a warning to liberals: Tell a new story, or die

Yesterday we learnt about the newly formed Lib Dem North American branch. Today we hear from one of their members.

In the USA, “liberal” is a dirty word. Conservatives have for years used the term to mean “profligate lovers of state-spending, weak on crime and devoid of moral values.” As such, even Democratic politicians shy away from the moniker and have done for decades. With Trump in the White House, and a febrile political polarisation infecting US politics, this dynamic has only sharpened: “owning the libs” has become the favourite pastime of conservative commentators, who seem to hate “liberals” more even than they love their president.

More recently, “liberal” and “liberalism” have come under fire from a newly-energized progressive left. When young progressive activists term Joe Biden a “liberal,” they mean it as a smear. “Liberal,” to this growing portion of the political population, means “centrist, reformist, non-radical, boring, and too willing to compromise.”

Those who champion radical changes to the US political system – healthcare for all, dismantling the mass-incarceration state, defunding the police – would never accept the label “liberal.” They feel let down by decades of leaders who compromised their principles for power, content to prop up massively unequal social and economic systems while accepting piecemeal reform.

UK politics is different: we haven’t slid so far. The UK is a less polarised country, and our right is not as extreme, populist, or racist as it is in the US. The centre of political gravity in the UK is far to the left of the centre of US politics, such that many US Democrats could only fit into the Conservative Party.

I am reminded of the old joke told by a British comedian to a US audience: “In England, we have two main political parties: the Labour Party – or as you would say, the Democrats – and the Conservative Party – or as you would say, the Democrats.” The joke still works: only our most conservative Conservatives could find common cause with today’s Republicans. Yet these winds are blowing across the Atlantic: UK politics is becoming more divided, more partisan, and more populist. In politics, as in culture, we are trending American.

The Liberal Democrats have more to fear from this dynamic than any other major political party in the United Kingdom. Already weakened by poor General Election results, we now risk being squeezed out of the political dialogue altogether. As young people are inspired by a radical politics fired with moral clarity, Liberal Democrats risk being placed in the same miserable bucket as US liberals: centrists whose only conviction is that the fence is the most comfortable place to sit.

To avoid this fate we Liberal Democrats need to reclaim our radical history. We must reimagine what liberalism looks like in a world of illiberal, fragile democracies, fake news, rising authoritarianism, rampant racism, and impending environmental collapse. We must own our failures (our betrayal of our members and our principles during the coalition years among them), turn the page, and tell a new liberal story.

This story will recognise that social injustice is a liberal issue, the climate crisis is a liberal issue, poverty is a liberal issue – and that our current system of corporate capitalism exacerbates all three.

This story will propose bold new measures like a universal basic income, reversing mass incarceration, significant investment in public infrastructure and housing, and an end to the use of fossil fuels.

This story will connect our proud liberal principles and history to a rapidly worsening world, demonstrating that liberals don’t just split the difference between two tired alternatives, but dare to say something new.

If you’d like to learn more about our North American Branch please visit or contact us via Facebook or Twitter @LibDemsOverseas.



* James Croft is a member of the Executive of the North American Branch of Lib Dems Overseas

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • richard underhill 12th Oct '20 - 10:51am

    I recall the Smoking Room in the National Liberal Club being hired by Republicans Abroad for a general election. They put up lots of tv sets and barred members from using our own club. Ronald Reagan was elected, a former Democrat as he says in his memoirs on U-tube.

  • richard underhill 12th Oct '20 - 11:04am

    The Sunday Times of 11 October 2020, column 7, states that Boris Johnson has been advised to get to know Joe Biden in case he wins the US Presidential, Senatorial and popular election. If Biden-Harris win there could be consequences for NATO, Climate change and Black Lives Matter,
    Rupert Murdoch likes to back winners, as when he switched his UK papers to Tony Blair’s New Labour.

  • richard underhill 12th Oct '20 - 11:08am

    The USA used to have a Progressive Party, led by Theodore Roosevelt. He was elected as Vice President, but they exhausted their manifesto.

  • John Marriott 12th Oct '20 - 11:09am

    @richard underhill
    Yes, the term “Liberal” can be used to show disdain, as Tory and Labour politicians have done for many years over here. Just about the only time that Tories referred regularly to the party as “Liberal Democrats” was between 2010 and 2015. I wonder why?

    By the way, it think it was, I believe, none other than Clement Attlee, who, when asked to define the two US parties, used words to the effect that both were ‘conservative’, which makes me laugh, when Republicans refer to Democrats as ‘socialist’. Another interesting phrase to appear recently was Trump’s reference to “Socialise(sic) medicine “ when describing Obamacare. If ever the two extremes of US politics needed a bit of ‘socialising’ now is surely the time!

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Oct '20 - 11:15am

    @John Marriott
    “If ever the two extremes of US politics needed a bit of ‘socialising’ now is surely the time!”

    Yes!! But I won’t hold my breath.

  • Populists, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, play emotionally on people’s positive feelings of patriotism and negative feelings against radical change. Thus Republicans are now implying that the Democrats tend to destroy American values and are socialists, even communists that will erode people’s freedoms. Brexiteers likewise implied that the EU eroded British values and culture (through immigration in particular) and would like to take us over and destroy our freedom.
    Our difficulty as Liberal Democrats is that we see things in a much more nuanced way, because that is closer to truth and reality. When James lists the radical issues we stand for, I notice he does not mention the more difficult issues of believing in international cooperation as well as localism and changing our democratic system.
    I would agree however, that we need to develop positive messages about what we stand for, and maybe putting these in the language of patriotism and community care. The way we spoke while in Coalition destroyed our true Liberal caring image and the way we conducted the last general election destroyed our democratic image.

  • Many Us folk believe the Australian and Canadians are “Socialist”!!! Yet the same folk if over here, use the NHS A & E facility, without worry.
    PS What’s wrong with being Socialist? What’s wrong with being a Tory? What’s wrong with being a Liberal? As long as we are all Democrats.
    Have to say if Trump and his cohort win, the future could be somewhat dystopian over there.

  • To solve the problems in the US Rust Belt or the UK Red Wall seats you need to talk about economics. Something Liberals have seemed incapable of doing since Keynes died. We just seem to go along with the Adam Smith Institute view of things by default. That’s something even Adam Smith himself would not do.

  • As the American woman said to me on the train to Butterworth in 1983, “Oh yes you have socialised medicine in the UK”. She meant the NHS. That was the first time I heard the words.

  • James Croft said, “Liberal is a dirty word.” I think he has a point. What happens in the USA comes here next. Already we have received a great deal from the USA concerning political correctness, cancel culture, BLM, and wokery in all shades and sizes. I personally despise all of that stuff because I find it divisive and intolerant but many “liberal” people welcome it because they see it as activism for their cause.

    All of this garbage from the USA does not impress the UK public but it might impress the cream of the social media and twitteratti. The dilemma for Liberals is to support or condemn these US fads. There are signs of normal people beginning to rise up to fight these Left excesses. When the party drops below the Greens in the polls then we know that things are not heading in a good direction.

  • Pete
    We must remain close to Europe.
    That being said, Americans are an easy going friendly lot. I spent over 30 years working with them.

  • Odd that the use of the word “Liberal” as a political insult is thought to be travelling 3000 miles across the Atlantic, yet has almost totally failed to travel 40 miles across Lake Ontario.

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '20 - 11:34am

    @Andy Hyde
    From my experience of living in Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada is, like the Liberal Party of Australia, a rather different animal from the ‘Liberal Party’ over here. I would go further and say that Japan’s ‘Liberal Democratic Party’ is very different from our own homegrown version. And then, of course, there’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s ‘Liberal Democratic Party of Russia’. What’s in a name anyway?

  • richard underhill 13th Oct '20 - 12:08pm

    You can fool SOME of the people ALL of the time,
    You can fool ALL of the people SOME of the time,
    BUT you cannot fool ALL of the people ALL of the time
    Donald Trump seems to think that he can, but he may be about to learn otherwise
    Boris Johnson seems to think that he can, but he may be about to learn otherwise.

  • John Marriot,
    My comments related to the term “Liberal” rather than the party.
    My fairly limited experience has been in Ontario/Newfoundland, not out west where I think you lived.
    I’d argue the more east you go in Canada the more like us Canadian Liberals are, but drawing parallels between like named parties In different countries is always risky!

  • @William Francis. I did not mean that we should talk economics to the electorate. Keynes did not do that. He talked about the problems and how to solve them. At that time unemployment, poverty and health being the main issues. Yes we are better off than 70 years ago but not a lot has changed in terms of what matters to people in the areas of UK and the US which have suffered from economic decline. Will going along with the Adam Smith Institute solve these problems? I don’t think so. Neither will only talking about social issue of concern to the well off (not that I am saying they are not important).

  • John Marriott 13th Oct '20 - 7:19pm

    Has anyone seen anything of Trump’s latest rally? What IS the guy on?

  • John Littler 13th Oct '20 - 7:26pm

    Andy Hyde, what do you know of Newfoundland. I’ve spent time there. Is that St John’s? Are Kelly & Tonja Russell active in Liberal politics there?

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