People use liberal to mean 2 different things. Usually, they mean, “someone who votes for progressive candidates (usually Democrats).” But “liberal” also refers to a philosophy that’s different from — sometimes even opposed to — the Democratic party’s positions.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative.” What they mean is, “I agree with Democrats on social issues, but I agree with Republicans on economic issues.” However, if they meant “liberal” as a philosophy, they could also say, “I’m socially and fiscally liberal” and pretty much mean the same thing. Confused? Let’s try to clear things up.
Liberalism the philosophy
Let’s start with the philosophy, since it’ll help us see where the word “liberal” came from. “Liberalism” is a philosophy dating to the 17th century that formed the foundation of democracy as we know it. Liberals wanted to replace kings and queens with more democratic forms of government.
Liberals wanted separation of church and government, more people to be able to vote, a wider distribution of money, and a constitution acknowledging that all men had “natural rights.” (And yes, they often meant just “men.”) They instigated a mess of revolutions across Europe, South America, the islands in the Caribbean, and in the U.S. that replaced monarchies with more democratic governments. They wanted less centralized government (that is, they didn’t want a king or queen telling them what to do all the time).
“Someone who votes for progressive candidates (usually Democrats)”
Today, “liberal” mostly means somebody who votes for progressive, left-leaning candidates. (This might not clear things up if you’re not sure what progressive or left-leaning mean, but bear with us.) Since most progressive candidates in the U.S. run as Democrats, liberal often means “someone who votes for Democrats.”
When it comes to social issues, Democrats do take positions that extent from the liberal philosophical tradition. They argue that the government should play less of a role in individual identity: gay marriage should be legal, you should be able to worship whatever God/gods you want, and that we should make it as easy as possible for everyone to vote.
When it comes to economics, it’s different
Today’s liberals don’t share the same vision for how money should be distributed as “traditional” liberals did. Today’s liberals call for government to step in and help solve social problems.
Current liberal economic positions include providing healthcare to people who can’t afford it (Medicaid) and making sure citizens can afford to buy food (food stamps/SNAP benefits) . They also argue that government should protect people from big companies that seek profit at all costs.
This runs counter to “traditional” liberal economic views. Arguments for government to regulate companies or raise taxes are exactly what liberal philosophers would’ve argued against in the 17th and 18th centuries. Economic liberalism is better represented in today’s libertarians, who want the government to be less involved in all parts of life.