Leftist vs. Liberal: Know Your Terminology


Heaven Golladay, Educating Y'all

In modern America’s political climate, many labels are thrown around, often with little thought. Terms like “left” and “right” are almost always slung as insults by those who consider themselves the opposite, sometimes (especially with teenagers) without understanding the history behind them. While single word labels are not the best way to encompass someone’s entire ideology, it is important to create distinctions between ones most commonly used to describe those who typically identify as democratic; leftist and liberal. 

As argumentation student Seth White stated, “In a society that is politically driven, the United States should not use such vague umbrella terms to categorise political ideals, values, and morals.” 

Please note that the following analysis of the political philosophies is largely in the context of American politics, as these labels can differ in the circumstances of a different demographic.


Liberalism, at its core, has been an important part of American governance since the founding of this nation. The Founding Fathers wanted to create a nation that supported individual liberties, limited government interference, and republican representation.

It is important to note, however, that Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Regan, and Barack Obama are all considered prominent American politicians who fall under the category of liberal, in different ways. Political labels evolve over time and labels themselves include a spectrum of beliefs. 

In the lens of American politics for the past fifty years, seeing Reagan and Obama sharing the label of liberal could perhaps be a bit confusing, however as mentioned before, just as any other ideology, liberalism is a spectrum of beliefs.

Ronald Reagn was considered a neoliberal, who had principles that many modern day conservatives align with, while Barack Obama would simply be labeled as a more progressive New Deal liberal in comparison (however many could argue he is overall a moderate politician). 

Neoliberalism is a philosophy that greatly prioritizes freer markets, lower income taxes, and overall modifications to an economy to create a fiscal environment favorable to industries and intended to promote employment. 

New Deal liberalism is a term coined after the New Deal, a collection of programs and efforts that were established to rebuild America’s economy following the Great Depression. These efforts included the establishment of Social Security, higher worker wages, and various other investments in social welfare programs for the public. 

Essentially, liberalism is an ideology that supports capitalism that serves the individual, with a range of practicing philosophies.


As there has never been an American leader who practiced true leftist policies, most prominent leaders that prove examples for the term are Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. 

The rise of leftism in the industrialized world was a direct result of the Industrial Revolution, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles created The Communist Manifesto as a response to the class issues industrialization brought about.

Marxism is a leftist belief in which the public owns the means of production. Collectivism, where the benefits of the state are above the individual, is a large pillar of the ideology. 

Marx’s economic theories were surrounded by the principles of classless societies that abolish exploitation of labor (when society creates circumstances in which individuals are forced to provide labor power, only to receive inadequate compensation).

Leftist beliefs are ones that basically believe that there is no way capitalism can be enforced without exploiting the working class. Many leftists also believe that radical revolutions are required to bring upon this economic change. 

Theory that falls under the category of leftist is quite extensive, with ones that greatly vary from one another. However, all leftist beliefs share the sentiment of collectivist, classless societies being ideal. 

The terms leftist and liberal begin to blur when Social Democrats such as Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who greatly value economic policies that mirror those of capitalist Nordic nations contrast from the typical Democrat the American public is exposed to. They often campaign sharing beliefs that our capitalist society is greatly flawed, which causes people to believe that they are leftists, while also still advocating for social programs to assist American citizens similar to those proposed with the New Deal.

Despite these differences and subjective categories, labels and policies progress as more discussions are made. It is important of course, to consider learning the history behind various philosophies to understand the current political world.