Political Labels: What’s in a Name?
Liberal, conservative, reactionary, leftist — politicians are constantly pinning labels on each other. But what do they really mean?
from Scholastic Update
Nerd. Jock. Preppie. Freak. If you think that labels are thrown around in the typical American high school, just take a look at how they're hurled around at a typical session of the U.S. Congress.
During a debate over health-care reform lin 1993, U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Georgia) blasted the Clinton White House for being "left-wing ideologues" and called Congressional Democrats a bunch of "machine politicians." Representative Mike Synar (D-Oklahoma) countered by calling Republicans "reactionaries" and "obstructionists" for blocking health-care reform legislation.
Left-winger. Conservative. Liberal. Reactionary. As legislators toil at the cumbersome process of making the nation's laws, such labels are tossed around like hand grenades, crucial weapons in the political warfare that has come to dominate life on Capitol Hill. But what do these political labels actually mean? And do they mean the same thing that they used to?
The fact is, the labels slapped on politicians and public figures are far from exact. In the rough political climate of Washington, opponents use labels that distort and deliberately oversimplify each other's beliefs. The media join in the labeling game as well, relying on such terms as a kind of shorthand in the same way that record companies segment music into such inexact categories as "R&B," "fusion," or "alternative."
Not too long ago, however, terms such as "liberal" and "conservative" served as neat, precise pigeonholes. Take "conservative." During most of the 45-year-long Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — which divided the whole world into opposing camps — conservatives were well defined. They were staunch anti-Communists, believing the old Soviet Union was bent on taking over the world. At home, they generally opposed government regulation of the economy or government involvement in social problems such as poverty. They attacked what conservative former President Ronald Reagan called "big government," believing that power should reside with local authorities, not in Washington.
Liberals, on the other hand, championed government programs to improve the lives of poor people, and welcomed government regulation of business if needed. They emphasized civil rights, women's rights, and other so-called progressive issues. Liberals were more concerned with avoiding nuclear war than with containing Communism, and sought compromise rather than confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Since the terms "liberal" and "conservative" didn't have overtly negative meanings in those days, rival politicians threw juicier names into the pot. Conservatives called their enemies "bleeding hearts," meaning they were overly sympathetic to the poor, or "doves," meaning they were antiwar, or "flaming" liberals, implying that anyone with such ideas was prone to excess.
Liberals, meanwhile, branded conservatives "reactionaries" and "Neanderthals," whose old-fashioned ideas prevented social progress, and "hawks," who were too eager to use warfare to solve problems. When conservatives cried too loudly about Communism, liberals called them "McCarthyites," a reference to notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who ruined the careers of many liberals in the 1950s by falsely accusing them of being Communists.
In the old days, you knew a liberal or a conservative when you saw one. But today, these neat categories have broken down. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made it much harder to divide the world into left and right, Communist and anti-Communist. And in the U.S., more and more people came to believe that strictly liberal or strictly conservative policies were not working. As a result, a new breed of politician arose who borrowed ideas freely from both camps. Perhaps the best-known new-breed politician is President Clinton, who helped found a school of thought called "neoliberalism." Neoliberals, or "New Democrats," as many are known, still believe government has a role to play in the economy and social policy, but they have adopted many conservative ideas, such as limits on welfare and a tougher response to crime.
Another such group is the so-called "neoconservatives" — former liberals who have moved to the right, especially in foreign policy and on issues such as civil rights.
So if the old labels don't mean what they used to, why do politicians and pundits keep using them? For one thing, lawmakers know that pinning a simplistic tag on an opponent is the surest way to win a political battle. Most legislation that comes before Congress is so complex that few voters will take the time to truly understand it. By exploiting the public's ignorance, politicians can create a bad image for a bill or a policy with a single, well-chosen negative term. As Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) said during the fight over health-care legislation in 1993, "If you call something 'socialized medicine'enough it won't make it true, but it might make people believe it's true anyway."
Simplistic labeling also meets the needs of the media. With more than 500 lawmakers on Capitol Hill, reporters fall back on easy handles, even if they distort a legislator's record. The growing popularity of slash-and-burn-style talk-radio shows is also a factor. Audiences love to hear conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh tag First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as "a flaming liberal," for example.
Is all this name-calling good for our political system? Many political analysts say no. As much as it might make for colorful verbal combat, the labeling game tends to make compromise between the two political parties difficult. It also tends to feed cynicism about government in general, making it appear as if public officials are more interested in pulling off witty one-liners than in addressing the national interest.