Opinion: Let’s End the Conflation of “Liberal” and “Leftist”

By Jack Herr, Sports Editor

A common misnomer floating around in political discourse is the word “leftist,” or, more generally, “the left.” Typically employed by members of the right-wing, these terms are used to describe both liberals and Democrats—or, really, anyone with policies even slightly left of mainstream conservative values. This conflation of “leftist” and “liberal” is a huge disservice to what each group is trying to accomplish, and it ignores the fundamental differences between the two groups.  

“Liberal” can have two meanings. “Liberal” is the adjective form of the noun “liberalism,” which, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is “a political doctrine that takes protecting and enhancing the freedom of the individual to be the central problem of politics.” Liberalism is concerned with free enterprise, civil rights and liberties, and minimal government intrusion.   

However, in American political vernacular, a liberal is someone who identifies as a Democrat and leans left on most policy issues, such as the right to abortion, gun control, climate change, and more. Liberals in this sense are more progressive than conservatives, but as a group, they do not demand systemic change with their votes.  

In some ways, American liberals and classical liberals are similar; for example, both groups may, in theory, advocate for freedom of choice when it comes to abortion. American liberals because such a position recognizes a woman’s autonomy over her body, and classical liberals because such a position empowers the individual over the government. However, classical liberals are just as similar to American conservatives on other issues, such as economic regulation.  

I will focus on the term “liberal” as it is used in contemporary American politics—which implies left-leaning policies and is associated with the Democratic party.  

The term “leftist” describes someone who is far more left-leaning than a liberal. Using the Encyclopedia Britannica again, the “left” is concerned with “egalitarianism and popular or state control of the major institutions of political and economic life.” While not all leftists may consider themselves socialists, socialism is the dominant ideology of this slice of the political spectrum. Leftists advocate for policies such as universal healthcare, workers’ rights, and institutional social justice. They are also anti-capitalist, so the policies they champion would require a serious societal change to achieve.  

In short, leftists are not as satisfied with the current political, economic, and social institutions as liberals are. The two groups are distinguishable in several ways, yet many right-wing politicians, influencers, and media figures conflate the two under the umbrella term the “left.” 

Former President Donald Trump employed this fallacious conflation when he tweeted the following on January 5, 2021: “Washington is being inundated with people who don’t want to see an election victory stolen by emboldened Radical Left Democrats.” Besides the bogus claims of election fraud, his tweet misses the mark by putting “radical left” and “Democrats” in the same sentence, much less right next to each other. To put American politics into a global perspective, liberal policy positions supported by American Democrats would actually be conservative in Western Europe. President Joe Biden has resisted calls from figures like Senator Bernie Sanders for a universal healthcare system. Across the pond, in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, the majority of each country’s citizenry believes that the state should ensure no member of society is in need, explaining the more expansive social safety nets present in those countries. In short, liberal Democrats are neither very “left” nor very “radical.” 

I argue that Trump and other right-wing influencers intentionally weaponize the word “left,” but for many normal civilians, perhaps their misguided use of the term is out of ignorance. American politics are more divided than ever, and that polarization results in the loss of any nuance. The left vs. right dichotomy has come to dominate elections, party platforms, and social media discourse. Therefore, for a conservative individual, it may be easy to associate someone with even just one different policy position as having succumbed to the “left.” Nonetheless, the use of this term is damaging to both liberals and leftists.  

The conflation of the two terms hinders the political success of liberals. As mentioned, they may share a general ideological foundation with conservatives, one that prefers limited government interference, but differ on only a few policy positions. Cooperation with liberals could occur if people on the right could see past these differences. Liberals and conservatives, while still different, could become stronger together and politically overwhelm the “left,” but it would be hard to convince either side that such an alliance would be beneficial or even moral.  

The broadening of the term “left” also harms leftists. They do not want to be associated with liberals just as much as liberals do not want to be associated with them. At the same time, they do not want to be seen as the “radicals” that they are by much of the electorate. They acknowledge that their positions are “radical” in the way they would transform modern society, but, from their perspective, anything that would improve society the way their policies would, should not be considered “radical.” Their policy reform only seems so bold because it juxtaposes the meager changes liberals propose.  

Furthermore, leftists also see poor industrial workers, who make up a sizable portion of the right-wing, as potential converts to their cause because they are being exploited by the capitalist system. These people would benefit from the implementation of leftist policies like union rights, higher wages, and universal healthcare. When their name is used in conjunction with words like “radical” and “Democrat,” this political strategy becomes almost impossible.  

The grouping of these two different ideologies together is no doubt an effective tool for right-wing influencers. It paints the entire other side of the political spectrum as the enemy no matter how far left a person is. Likewise, it coalesces the entire right side of the political spectrum under the cause of fighting this ideological enemy. Moreover, it maintains the political status quo by reinforcing the two-party system, one of the major institutional tools keeping Republicans in power across the country. 

No matter how evident the difference between liberals and leftists is, ending the conflation of the two groups is a matter of self-identification. It is too effective of a tool for members of the right-wing to stop using it at the behest of a more nuanced political discourse. Leftists must clearly notify voters that their policies would not simply tweak the current system of doing things. Major institutional reform may be a hard sell, but for leftism to find a home in American politics, they have to embrace their positions in a way that appeals to conservative voters and breaks their “radical” image.

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Author: Jack Herr

Jack Herr ’23 serves as the Sports Editor for The Gettysburgian. He served as the Sports Editor last year and was a staff writer before that. Jack is a political science and German double major. Outside of the Gettysburgian, Jack is a Fielding Fellow for the Eisenhower Institute, serves as captain of the ultimate frisbee team, and works for the Athletic Communications department.

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4 Comments

  1. Well said , this deliberate conflation has become all to common place often also throwing in the derogatory term of ‘looney left’ as the product of liberalism and leftism.

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    • So it’s OK to use the term Right-wing to describe those right of center but you can’t call those left of center Leftists – I suppose Left wing should be adopted, but it hasn’t been even mentioned as far as I’ve read. But instead we are forced, not a word I use lightly, to call them Liberals. It is more of the same. Leftists mostly dictate our excepted lexicon. Liberal connotes free thinking and you can not avoid this term as the shortening of Classical Liberal, which it certainly is not. The Right much more closely hold those values that define that political title.

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      • The left begins at anti-capitalism.

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  2. The left begins at anti capitalism.

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