Taking liberties

Rapidly forming conventional wisdom says the new Democratic caucuses are split on social issues but hew to a protectionist line on economic issues. Michael Tomasky says that the new Dems (as opposed to the New Dems) make up "a freshman class more economically liberal than perhaps any since 1958." Ramesh Ponnuru says they "can be a lasting majority if they are an economically liberal party with socially conservative and socially liberal wings."

Both writers are using the word liberal to mean "taking positions traditionally associated with the Democratic Party." In that sense, liberal is a floating signifier, one that denotes a historically contingent set of things but that connotes nothing at all. This is problematic because liberal has a specific meaning, one that is often used with reference to economic policy: it means, roughly, favoring individual freedom. Applied to economic issues, liberalism prefers open borders and free markets and disdains tariffs and regulations. In other words, it means the exact opposite of what Tomasky and Ponnuru are using it to mean.

(Merriam Webster defines liberalism as "a theory in economics emphasizing individual freedom from restraint and usually based on free competition, the self-regulating market, and the gold standard." I think the gold standard part is probably out of date, but the point stands.)

Jacob Weisberg, good man, calls the consensus Democratic position economic nationalism, which makes much more sense.