Labels That Don't Stick
by F.T. Rea
The terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as used by many of today's chattering pundits and campaigning politicians, are as outdated as your Uncle Dudley's lime green leisure suit or that open can of beer you left on the porch railing yesterday afternoon.
In the turbulent 1960s, such convenient left–right labels may have been misnomers at times, too, but at least they made some sense. In the context of the Cold War Era – with explosive issues such as the Vietnam War and civil rights in the air – it was useful to see a left-to-right political spectrum.
In those days, segregationists and hawks derisively called their most vocal opponents “liberals” and “pinkos.” Civil rights demonstrators and doves didn’t mind calling their opposites “right-wingers” and “fascists.” And in spite of how the circumstances and issues have changed since then, the same threadbare labels have remained in use.
Well, it’s mainly because it has suited the people attempting to cash in on conditioned reactions to words such as “left” and “right,” “liberal” and “conservative.”
Howard Dean is best described as a political maverick. His record as governor of Vermont was hardly that of a left-winger. Yet because he was for a spell the most effective critic of the Bush policy in Iraq, the feisty doctor was branded by pundits and Bush apologists as an extreme leftist from a silly state that might as well be part of Canada.
In 1991 a radio news story described a political brouhaha in Russia between the ascending free-market style reformers and the old guard, the stubborn communists — who were going out of style faster than a Leningrad minute.
No, make that a St. Petersburg minute.
The report labeled those clinging to the Soviet system as “conservatives” and those in the process of sweeping them out of power as “liberals.” When considered in light of the familiar Western view of matters political — capitalists on the right vs. socialists on the left — the role reversal of this situation’s fresh context was striking and amusing.
George W. Bush likes the tag “compassionate conservative.” It’s a label that served him well in the 2000 election. But Bush’s steering of the nation’s economy, his unprecedented accumulation of debt, have hardly been conservative in the traditional sense. Nor has Bush’s swaggering, go-it-alone foreign policy been in the least bit prudent or conservative.
Being aggressive and being conservative are altogether different things. Leading up to World War II, the conservative Republicans wanted to keep America out of the fray much longer than the FDR Democrats.
When Bush eschewed the idea of nation building in his first presidential campaign he was talking like a traditional, somewhat isolationist conservative. Now he walks like anything but a conservative with what is going on in Iraq — whatever that is.
In the contemporary American political game, when players call themselves or their opponents “liberals” or “conservatives” they are probably just trying to jerk you around by what they see as your shallow understanding of the situation.
Today’s political issues divide along many lines. There are urban vs. suburban arguments. There are differences that split generations, classes, lifestyles and you-name-it. Trying always to frame such issues in a left-right context tortures the truth.
In this election year, the wise voter will brush aside the labels and remember that neither conservatives nor liberals have ever had an exclusive on two considerations that matter a lot more than labels — honesty and competence.
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Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Note: This piece was published by STYLE Weekly on April 7, 2004. Thinking about today's ideology-defying brand of politics this piece came to mind. In this 13-year-old essay I was seeing the coming of a different way of framing politics in the USA. To me, then, the old definitions of left and right were being blurred beyond recognition.