It’s so odd the way the term “liberal” has decayed. It obviously has its etymological roots in the Latin “liber”, meaning “free”. From this we also get words such as liberty, libertarian, and libertine. Liberalism really emerged as a political ideal in the 17th century, then grew through the “Enlightenment” which further informed it. This was and is a really significant social, political and philosophical development, and it presaged a great change in both social freedom and relations, and individual sovereignty (as opposed to the unquestioned supremacy of tradition, and the ascendancy of collectivism).
Liberalism has clearly gone through different phases, in response to different challenges, and though there have been many different strands focusing on different things, the two forms that people most often quote are Classical Liberalism and Social Liberalism, the former stressing freedom and the latter focusing on equality.
I think in the 20th century we kinda forgot that liberalism was ever a real force, as it became eclipsed by “The Left”. The “Left” as a political category had its origins in the French revolution, but after the 19th century it increasingly became associated with Marxism and Utopian Socialism, with increasingly collectivist and anti-individualist tendencies. Consequently liberalism has been elbowed out by competing, largely authoritarian political languages. It has now reached the point where “liberal” has become a term referring to a weak, well-meaning, but increasingly controlling and authoritarian mentality, that requires an authority to sort the world out for it, while it pleads its virtue and moral superiority. This illiberal liberalism has probably found its fullest form in identity politics, which definitively replaces who you are with what you are, what collective category you belong to, as the signifier of your moral and political meaning. It is ethically quite incoherent, but employs an Orwellian moral logic to redefine the questioning of it as “oppression” or “bigotry”.
This is I think part of how we get student activists trying to prevent free speech in the name of no-platforming “hate speech”. It is how we get serious representations to the UN asserting that offensive tweets are actual violence (if the offended is female). It is how people who voted against the political institution of the EU get branded anti-European, racist and backward. It is how we get mainstream Labour politicians calling for a ban on men standing in by-elections. It is how college bars get characterised as a “rape culture”, while the actual rape culture in prisons is ignored. It is how male street homelessness and high suicide rates and early death are still glossed over. And it is how the concerns of the broad majority of people get demonized, when they don’t match up to the designs of the collectivist project. At which point everyone is so confused as to why they gravitate to a far right that will acknowledge their ignored concerns and experience. Beggars don’t get to be choosers, even when their choices have been taken away “for the greater good”.
But there are signs that the miasma is clearing somewhat, and that instead of being brow beaten and shamed into accepting the moral authority of this kind of Orwellian liberalism of the left, people are just walking past, and talking back. There is a kind of popular libertarian spirit emerging here and there, which actually may remind people of what the word liberal originally meant.
The thought of that is quite bracing and hopeful.