Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > Political Labels Aren't Helping

Mar 20, 2020

Political Labels Aren't Helping

tags: politics,partisanship

I don’t like labels. Our politics and our social interactions are dominated by labels that oversimplify and essentialize, and are intentionally or unintentionally misleading. The obvious label for my thinking is “liberal”, a word and a concept that were so vilified that they became taboo. For one hundred years “liberal” was a positive word for both parties. Suddenly in 1984, in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, liberals became anti-family promoters of drug use and immorality, godless fans of big government, lovers of higher taxes and soft on crime.

The Republican Party’s 1992 platform said, “Liberal Democrats think people are the problem.”

Rather than defend themselves, Democrats ran away from the liberal label. In the Democratic primary debate of 2007, Mike Gravel rejected the word “liberal”, and Hillary Clinton noted “in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head” as a reason for her preference for “progressive”.

By then liberalism was already making a comeback. Gallup foundthat the proportion of Americans identifying as liberal has been increasing since 2002, from 19% to 26% in 2018. The shift happened only among Democrats, who went from 29% to 51% liberal. Republicans moved further away from liberalism, as their conservative proportion moved from 62% to 73%.

But the willingness of more Democrats to embrace the liberal label does not mean that those who learned to hate liberals since 1984 will change their minds. Hatred of liberals can be found in the comments to any liberal columnist, where liberal is often paired with left or socialist or communist, as if they were the same thing.

Even the simplest of labels elicit confused responses. At the end of 2018, 10% of Americans polled called Trump “liberal”, and 11% called him “very liberal”.

But even when a label is well understood, it reduces human diversity to a one-dimensional political spectrum. Before I became a weekly op-ed writer, I wrote a column in 2006 entitled “Why I Am a Conservative”. I began with “I believe in traditional values.” I meant to show that many ideas usually connected with conservatism were the foundation of our family practices: family meals, good manners, limitations on TV, strict behavioral rules. In so many aspects of my daily life, I am what is now called “old school”. I don’t think those ideas are uncommon among liberals, or even more common among conservatives, but label-users try to demonize their enemies by claiming values that they don’t actually practice.

The uselessness of labels has been demonstrated most forcefully by Trump’s presidency and his takeover of the Republican Party. The “traditional” values that self-proclaimed conservatives have claimed to be their special province are no longer important: morality, honesty, modesty, politeness, just as a beginning. Political values, like budget restraint or opposition to Russian aggression, have been jettisoned, too. Who would have thought a few decades ago that freedom of the press would turn out to be a liberal value?

Human personalities are much too complex for simplistic labels to do anything other than mislead, especially when everyone gets thrown into a handful of categories, like “conservative”, “moderate”, and “liberal”. We won’t get rid of labels, because they are too convenient, especially for the talking heads who seek to persuade more than explain. The best we can do is to be skeptical, too avoid assuming more than we know, to recognize that values like generosity or friendliness are disconnected from political leanings.

Words can be so helpful and so misleading.

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