Those who have wrestled with the frustrating but seemingly trivial topic of political labels know that to embark on an analysis is to trace the contours of the snake devouring its own tail. It wastes time and energy to create further confusing distinctions which no one else is likely to use, and profits the analyst and their audience nothing. There is no end to the cycle of seeking to affiliate with like-minded people, growing frustrated with how opponents characterize this affiliation and uncomfortable with some elements of that affiliation, and fruitlessly carving out a more fine-grained distinction that few will actually use. What is the point?

We at Liberal Currents have a special interest in the subject, committed as we are to stewardship of the liberal tradition as a whole. In our sketch of that tradition, we use labels such as “neoliberal” or “libertarian” or “progressive.” Are these distinctions meaningless? Many of our readers pushed back and insisted that one or more of these groups are not True Liberals. And naturally, within each distinction, someone who uses the label to describe herself may herself be considered no True Liberal from some other perspective. Without attempting the futile effort of breaking the vicious cycle of political labeling, I would like to take the time to elucidate it, and to give context to the distinctions we rely on here and what we hope to achieve.

Labels in play

A great deal can be illuminated if you stop trying to look for the essence of term or phrase’s meaning, and simply ask “what game is the speaker playing here?”

Consider “liberal” hurled as an invective. When Breitbart writers use the word “liberal,” it is rarely meant as an illuminating distinction. Often it is pinned on people who are conventionally considered to be quite conservative. But that’s precisely the point: by calling a presumably conservative person “liberal,” Breitbart is insulting them, casting them out of a shared association, rallying that person’s own allies against him. This isn’t an attempt to suss out intellectual history. It is an aggressive move in a political game.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made a similar point:

“Inexact” is really a reproach, and “exact” is praise. And that is to say that what is inexact attains its goal less perfectly than what is more exact. Thus the point here is what we call “the goal”. Am I inexact when I do not give our distance from the sun to the nearest foot, or tell a joiner the width of a table to the nearest thousandth of an inch?

If we think exactness has a universal and specific meaning, we will miss how the term is actually used. In practice, it is more closely related to “good enough” or “not good enough” than to some specific quantifiable metric. As Wittgenstein says, it is goal-dependent, and the particular goal depends on the particular game.

Political labels can be used to draw genuine distinctions among groups or ideas, but they are often used merely as reproach or praise. If we believe that the label must share some essential features in every use case, we only spread confusion and frustration. It would be no less futile than trying to figure out how video games fit our definition of board games.

Adding to the confusion is the fluid nature of these labels and words in general. In America, famously, the way the word “liberal” was used deviated from other English-speaking countries after the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it:

No one fixes the meaning of a word, nor does the ability to speak merely mean learning the fixed meanings of words and using them correctly. Rather, the life of language consists in the constant playing further of the game that we began when we first learned to speak. A new word usage comes into play and, equally unnoticed and unintended, the old words die.

Changes over time add to the frustration of political labeling. When I was sketching the liberal intellectual terrain, my fellow editors vetoed the use of the label “high liberal,” opting instead for “progressive.” I resisted this, because for political scientists and historians, “progressive” usually refers to a specific body of thought from the progressive period in American politics, and it was often quite illiberal in character. Some of those ideas are still in play today and I would want to distinguish them from liberalism. “High liberal” is a term used in political philosophy and political history, and refers more precisely to the specific current of thought I had in mind.

But this is simply stubbornness, a typical symptom of one who has spent too much time thinking about labels. Etymology is uninformative for anything but interpreting historical documents; the key question is always how a term can be understood in its specific context. Today, “progressive” means someone who only ten or fifteen years ago was more likely to refer to themselves as “liberal”. Attempting to substitute academic terminology is simply a recipe for misunderstanding.

A current by any other name

Nevertheless, when discussing politics and ideas and their history, it is important to recognize that there are genuine distinctions to be made. Political scientists and philosophers play this game professionally; labels such as “high liberal,” “socialist,” or “neoliberal” have more or less agreed upon meanings. More or less, because which ideas and thinkers get lumped into which label has major ramifications for the character of the tradition it describes, and such lumping is essentially contested. Moreover, most of the traditions we’re interested in are overlapping to a significant degree.

This is no less true for the three currents of liberalism described previously. I have lately seen many complaints that “neoliberal” has lost all meaning. In the tweet below, it’s clear from the context that it was simply a reproach.

That is not the same as losing all meaning. A reproach is meaningful, and the current of liberalism that emerged in the 80s is a meaningful subject matter as well.

Where we stand in relation to these currents, and to the other people in them, is an important part of how we understand ourselves. If libertarians and high liberals see each other’s ideas as categorically incongruent, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they reflexively associate themselves on the opposite sides of many issues. The argument advanced here is that they are closer together than both sides currently believe, and they should see themselves as being closer together, so that they may more effectively advance liberal ideals.

What’s slippery about all of this is not just the shifting nature of the labels we use, but of the traditions themselves. Asserting a particular understanding is indistinguishable from attempting to make it so. This is precisely what makes such understandings so self-fulfilling. Things are a little more established when you look at history rather than how things are playing out today. But even there, the task of corralling specific thinkers and actions under the header of a given intellectual current is about as straightforward as firmly grasping a greased eel. It is quite unlike measuring the mass of a solid object. Jason Briggeman illustrated this point in our podcast during the discussion of 20th as opposed to 21st century libertarians.

So get used to the use and abuse and drift of political labels—it is an ineradicable aspect of their nature. But here at Liberal Currents we will always do our best to be clear about the sense we are using them in, and what language games we are playing.


Featured image is Abraham Lincoln And Stephen A Douglas Debating At Charleston, by Robert Root.

Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Liberal Currents.


  1. Attimus Morlandre May 31, 2017 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    “Asserting a particular understanding is indistinguishable from attempting to make it so.”

    Would you be willing or able to differentiate this concept from magical thinking? Or was this statement stronger than you intended it to be?

    • Adam Gurri May 31, 2017 at 3:29 pm Reply

      I didn’t mean it in terms of like, affecting the cosmos. I meant it in terms of asserting a particular understanding of political traditions/tribes. How people understand themselves and their relationship to other like-minded people influences their politics; so attempting to defend some interpretation of the closeness of libertarians and mainstream liberals, if successful, also *creates* closeness. Does that make sense?

      • Attimus Morlandre May 31, 2017 at 4:08 pm Reply

        It makes perfect sense, but also makes clear why others have already objected.

        First you say that there are no true liberals. Then you claim to be a self-proclaimed steward of liberalism. (I would expect you to make one of these assertions or the other, but not both.) Next, as the steward of liberalism, you announce congruity where others see incongruity and urge us to simply “get used to the use and abuse and drift of political labels,” even though the one doing the “abuse” and/or “drift” is you.

        In short, you announce yourself as the steward of a word people use to describe themselves, then you change the meaning of that word to suit your agenda, then you tell the reader to just get used to it. So far, you haven’t given us any reason. We don’t have any reason to accept your stewardship, your definition of the word “liberal,” or your insistence that we ought to get used to it. Do you have an argument for any of these things? Any reason we might want to accept your assertions at all, other than that you are making them?

        • Adam Gurri May 31, 2017 at 4:32 pm Reply

          Well, that’s a rather hostile interpretation.

          I am no steward of anything. Nor am I “changing the meaning of the word” to suit “my agenda.”

          I believe there is a living tradition which for historic reasons it is appropriate to call liberalism, but certainty don’t think every use of that word applies to what I am talking about. What I ask people to get used to is the multiple and contradictory uses of a word by others when they themselves might have a specific use in mind. That’s all I mean by “use and abuse” (abuse was supposed to refer to people who simply used it as an insult)

          As for reasons for believing in the congruity, that’s an ongoing argument. One can look at common principles

          Or common origins in the history of ideas and politics, for example.

          I agree that the case still needs to be made, that we have hardly begun to make it. But we’re not doing something disingenuous here; we genuinely believe that there are groups currently divided against each other who ought to be understood as having a basic liberalism in common. But of course the onus is on us to show that and make a persuasive argument.

          • Attimus Morlandre May 31, 2017 at 5:48 pm Reply

            I ask you not to assume hostility where there is only disagreement. What I have presented is what I believe to be a straightforward reading of your ideas as expressed. Perhaps two questions might help clarify things.

            This statement here leads me to believe you consider yourself a steward of liberalism: “We at Liberal Currents have a special interest in the subject, committed as we are to stewardship of the liberal tradition as a whole.” So, my first question is, Was I wrong to read it that way?

            Now, when I say you are changing the meaning of the word liberal to suit your agenda, I am applying the principle you clarified for me: asserting an understanding (in this case that libertarians, neoliberals, and progressives are all part of the same liberalism) is indistinguishable from attempting to make so that these three groups feel a closeness to each other. Your agenda having thus been clarified, we need only take a flash poll of liberals to see whether they think libertarians and progressives are incongruous groups. If people generally answer that they are incongruous, then perhaps it is true that these words mean different things, after all, at least among liberals other than yourself. So, on to my second question: If you use a word in a way that diverges sharply from the common, agreed-upon definition in use among those people who accept that very word as a personal descriptor, would it really be “hostile” to suggest that you’ve changed the meaning of the term?

            • Adam Gurri May 31, 2017 at 6:05 pm Reply

              The hostility I was referring to had to do with the nature of the interpretation—you seemed to be interpreting my argument as in favor of something deceitful and nefarious, which I assure you is not the case.

            • Adam Gurri May 31, 2017 at 6:04 pm Reply

              So I just want to emphasize that we’re not making any special claim to authority when we talk about stewardship. The emphasis in that passage should definitely be on the “special interest”; we care about the subject matter and are doing our best to influence it in a good direction. And asking for help to do so!

              I would suggest your last paragraph implies an understanding of how words work that is simply at odds with the facts of linguistics. The very point is that there is no “common, agreed-upon definition”; there are semantic fields, and there are particular uses. As political terms are often specifically used as tribal markers, people simply bake into their assumptions that “libertarian = not liberal” and vice versa. But that doesn’t make someone wrong who comes in and say “but look at what principles you actually believe, and here is how they overlap.” That is what we are doing. And we use the word “liberal” to label those common principles because they owe their origin to what contemporaries of the classical liberals called the liberal tradition, and historians and political scientists continue to do so today.

              • Attimus Morlandre May 31, 2017 at 6:59 pm Reply

                Just so I am clear: You first claimed to be a steward of liberalism, you next claimed that you are no steward of anything, and here you explain what you mean by stewardship. Are you a steward or are you not?

                Your second point is rather surprising. I suggested that the common usage of words presents the meaning of those words, and you have no suggested that this is “at odds with the facts of linguistics.” I’m not sure this claim is defensible.

                But it’s worse than that. You begin your article by suggesting that there is no true definition of the word liberal (itself a contentious claim), and you have ended your most recent comment by proposing a new and highly precise definition of the word liberalism, which is (and forgive me if I fail to paraphrase you exactly) “the set of ideas that are common to libertarians, neoliberals, and progressives.” Here I might invoke Yeselson’s point about “analytical purchase,” only this time the word liberal is decidedly not being used in reproach.

                You have, at any rate, convinced me that the word liberal as it is used on this website is ill-defined. I will accept it at that.

                • Adam Gurri May 31, 2017 at 10:04 pm Reply

                  Here’s a thought experiment:

                  Imagine you have five people, A, B, C, D.

                  A thinks he is a liberal like B and C. B thinks he is a liberal like A and D. C and D do not think of themselves as liberal, but C thinks D and A are liberals, and D thinks C and B are.

                  In this situation, who is the true liberal? Also, what is the common meaning of the word?

                  This may seem extreme but everyone’s application of political labels are only semi-overlapping. Word usage in general is like that; political labels just bring it into sharp focus because people self-identify with certain words and get touchy about the differences in application.

                • Adam Gurri May 31, 2017 at 7:11 pm Reply

                  Where steward is concerned, I forgot I had used the word previously, haha. In the sense I described, yes, I am. I just wanted to be clear that I don’t consider myself some sort of authority that people must answer to on the subject, or something.

                  It appears you’re having difficulty following, which is undoubtedly my fault for not being clear. Let’s see if I can make myself clear.

                  1- “I suggested that the common usage of words presents the meaning of those words” —> what is correct is that it presents the meanings, plural, of those words. I suggest reading up on pragmatics, or just on Wittgenstein’s language-games. This is conventional linguistics; at any given moment we can speak of common usage creating a semantic _field_; that is, a range of meanings. But this is very fluid and the particular meaning depends on the particular context.

                  2- There is no “true liberal” because many people use the word in varying ways, see point 1.

                  3- The liberalism of Liberal Currents refers to a specific tradition of thought. As part of describing and defending that tradition of thought, we also argue that several groups who typically think they are very different are actually branches of the tradition in question, and seeing them this way illuminates what they have in common.

                  4- 3 does not contradict 2 because, while we can speak of someone’s ideas as more or less adhering to the tradition we here refer to as liberalism, we acknowledge that a) other people might draw the lines of the tradition a little differently than we do, and there are legitimate differences in judgment on so fuzzy a subject, and b) the word liberal gets used to mean something very different by other people.

                  I hope that helps.

                  • Attimus Morlandre June 1, 2017 at 4:05 pm Reply

                    With respect, I think you are glossing over the real issue.

                    If I call myself a liberal so as to distinguish myself from illiberal people, then I would be highly offended if a self-proclaimed “steward of liberalism” came along and told me that I was really just essentially the same thing as the ones from whom I wish to distinguish myself!

                    You can argue, if you supply reasons and evidence, that I have more in common with those people than I might imagine. However, skipping that argument and proceeding right to the declaration that my others are really my similars is something that can be reasonably viewed as offensive. I hope you can see that much, at least, but if you cannot, then there is nothing more I can say here.

                    • Adam Gurri June 1, 2017 at 4:32 pm Reply

                      I do not mean disrespect nor to offend, and I understand that people do get offended when you suggest that those they consider themselves distinct from might be closer than they realized, especially when it couched in terms of political labels that they’ve emotionally invested in.

                      We’re not coming up to demand they conform to our perspective; we’re presenting that perspective and defending it as best we can. Thusfar we’ve only done so very incompletely, as you say. But you’ll forgive me if that doesn’t, in fact, seem like a reasonable basis for being offended.

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