There’s liberal, and liberal….

Most of the time I think that American liberal shift from that term to “progressive” is kind of strange, since everyone knows that progressive means liberal. But sometimes I wonder if one of its positive benefits is to dampen the confusion which always occurs when one conflates the American (and somewhat Anglo) usage of the term liberal with the international usage. I thought of this when seeing this article in The New York Times, State Election Adds to Gains by Liberals in Germany:

Parties on the German left prevailed in a regional election in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday, with the center-left Social Democrats swept back to power and the Greens elected to the regional parliament for the first time, according to preliminary results.

The biggest losers in the state election in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were the Free Democrats, a pro-business party that is a coalition partner with Mrs. Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the federal government. The party won only 3 percent of the state vote, after winning more than 9 percent in 2006. The Free Democrats will be excluded from the regional parliament because they failed to win at least 5 percent of the votes, the minimum required.

First, observe that the term “liberal” is not used once in the article itself. The term “left” is used. But the headline uses liberal. Why? I assume that the headline writer is not familiar with the German political scene, and naturally translated “center-left” as “liberal” because that is what would come to mind in the United States. But the reality is that in Germany the pro-business Free Democrats are the liberals! Liberal in the classical and European sense. This isn’t some reading-between-the-lines understanding, the Free Democrats are explicitly a liberal party. From Wikipedia:

The FDP, which strongly supports human rights, civil liberties, and internationalism, has shifted from the centre to the centre-right over time. Since the 1980s, the party has firmly pushed economic liberalism, and has aligned itself closely to the promotion of free markets and privatisation. It is a member of the Liberal International and European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, and is the joint-largest member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group in the European Parliament.

To make it more clear, its youth wing is called the “Young Liberals”, Junge Liberale in German. So naturally when I read the title I was shocked, as I knew that the FDP was going through some hard times.

This is all rather amusing and without much substance. But, it does show that The New York Times is not quite so cosmopolitan as to deftly negotiate different terminologies in a way which doesn’t manage to garble.

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