The Liberal Identity Crisis

How the "Overton Paradox" explains the intra-liberal culture war.

One of the culture war’s contemporary tributaries is the conflict between establishment, older, New York Times type liberals concerned that the cultural left liberal youth have, in fact, become illiberal, and the cultural left liberal youth who lash out at those New York Times types as, in fact, right-wingers unwilling to admit it. Both sides claim the liberal label, and both sides claim that label doesn’t apply to the other side.

The Overton Paradox

Data scientist Allen Downey has an idea that offers a pretty compelling way to understand this disagreement. He calls it the “Overton Paradox.” Conventional wisdom is that people become more conservative as they age. And this is true in terms of self-identification. Older people are more likely to say they are conservative than younger people. But if you give them a series of questions intended to tease out their actual beliefs, instead of what they choose to call themselves, it turns out become slightly less conservative as they get older.

The way to solve this paradox becomes clear when we graph those survey responses to questions getting at conservative beliefs.

Social “liberalism” isn’t a fixed standard, but a relative one. Roughly speaking, to be a liberal is to be more socially tolerant, inclusive, and dynamic than the current social baseline, and to be socially conservative is to be less so. This means that an accurate application of the label can change, even if a person’s underlying beliefs have not. Someone who was justifiably called a radical social liberal in 1924 might well be seen as an extreme social conservative in 2024.

This makes intuitive sense. The world has clearly become more socially tolerant and open over time. And the way that happens is by each new generation pushing things forward, which means it is both socially liberal during its day, but from the perspective of future generations, it’s rather behind.

So the way to solve the paradox (that, on the one hand, it seems like people become more conservative as they get older, but on the other other hand, they don’t actually become more conservative), is to understand that the very same spread of social beliefs that makes you a liberal when you’re in your 20s might well mark you out as now a conservative when you’re in your 50s.

“I’m a liberal.” “No, I’m a liberal.”

Where this gets interesting in the context of the contemporary culture war is when the “liberal” label matters a lot to people. If you’re generally indifferent to politics—when you’re a normal person, in other words—you’re not terribly attached to political terms. Saying, “Sure, I was a liberal back then, but now I feel more like a conservative” doesn’t bother you.

But if you’re politically engaged, and particularly if your politics is your personal brand, then those labels matter a lot. Not just in terms of how others define you, but also in how you define yourself. Being a “liberal” (or a “conservative”) isn’t a mere descriptor, but your self-image. This is compounded if that label is also your professional identity—if it is effectively how you earn your living.

In practice, then, if you’re an older, established liberal, who has been writing from a self-consciously liberal perspective for your whole career, you’re going to get upset when the young people start telling you that, no, some of your views aren’t liberal at all, but instead quite reactionary. And this is most likely to happen around those issues where the culture has moved the fastest, such as acceptance and normalizing of LGBTQ+ people, identities, and expression.

This gets us to those accusations of illiberalism. You think of yourself as a pretty liberal person—and think of being a liberal has central to your identity. But now the young people are mad at you because your preferences are, by their estimation, behind the times in terms of your views on transgender people, or the appropriateness of racially charged humor. You know you’re a liberal, but those kids are telling you that you’re not a liberal, because they’re the actual liberals, and you’re not like them. But you are a liberal, you’re quite confident of that, and so it must be the kids who aren’t liberals. They’re illiberal, and their views thus don’t represent society moving in a more liberal direction, but in instead towards illiberalism.

The conflict appears to intractable because, in a meaningful sense, both sides are right. Each is liberal by the standards of the time they came to understand that term. And so, for both, the other side is not liberal by those same standards. What it means to be liberal isn’t fixed, but is constantly evolving, and what is the youth vanguard will eventually become the accepted mainstream, and then, decades further down the road, that accepted mainstream will become reasonably labeled “conservatism.” That’s just how social progress happens.

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