This is the first post in my “Side Notes” subseries of the broader “Political Series” of posts on this blog. “Side Notes” will be for when I give my flat opinion on an issue that I don’t believe requires a great deal of dissection and debate.
Is it odd that my first post after the “Rights and Role of Government” post is in the “Side Notes” subseries, rather than something like the “Economics” subseries or the “Race” subseries? Yeah, maybe, but I feel this particular topic should be addressed before going forward. Let’s get started, shall we?
There is something pleasing about putting things in a box. By putting something in a box, you know what it is and where it is. It is either safe and treasured, or it can be forgotten and stored away in a closet. It is compartmentalized. Its contents will not mix with other materials. It is clean. Things can’t get messy, and pieces won’t become lost.
This is not too dissimilar from what we feel happens when we define a concept or term. By putting a box around something, we feel we have solidified it in some way. We have control over it. Fortunately or unfortunately, that is not how language works. Instead we find that the box is made of cardboard, and our concepts and ideas are liquid and leaking through.
So when it comes to terms like “Conservative” or “Liberal,” we may feel we have put a really solid definition on these that are immutable. They aren’t messy, surely. There is always air space between them. If a politician or a policy fails to fit the definition, then that just makes them a bad “X.” However, that just doesn’t work. The definitions of these loaded words change from person to person.
When you think of the spectrum of political thought, the two terms that tend to represent the different sides of the middle point are “conservative” and “liberal,” and they are also often referred to as “right” and “left” wing. But what exactly do these two opposites mean?
My initial thoughts went thusly:
When someone is “conservative” it generally means they value the the past, or the way things have been done or have ”always been done.” Conservative thought is generally opposed to change, seeing change as either inherently dangerous or inferior to the way things are or were previously. Conservative thinking usually entails a great degree of control. In other words, there is a “right” way to do things, and it should be enforced for everybody. There are other metrics typically associated with conservative thinking too, but I believe they aren’t inherent to conservative thinking.
Being “liberal” on the other hand, generally means a line of thinking that says the way things are can be, or should be better. Change is good and desirable to bring about a better world. Tradition isn’t reason enough to do things as they have always been done. To a liberal thinker, a method that is “ok” is not good enough if there is a better method available. Liberals also usually entails a certain about of liberty and freedom. There may be many right ways of doing something, and generally one person’s opinion shouldn’t be forced on another. Again, there are other elements that are often associated with liberal thinking that aren’t necessarily universal.
In between the two is the concept of moderation, or being a “moderate.” As much as people misuse the words “conservative” and “liberal” it doesn’t hold a candle to how often being “moderate” is misapplied. When people call themselves moderates they are almost certainly actually meaning one of the following things:
- They are actually conservative or liberal, but they don’t want to be associated with someone more conservative or liberal than they are, especially in the presence of someone they like who is just a tad less conservative or less liberal than themselves.
- They use it as shorthand to say “I am conservative/liberal but I believe I form my opinions with my brain, rather than because I was raised in it.”
- They are actually conservative or liberal, but they agree very strongly with one or two stances from the far end of the spectrum. For instance, a liberal who is very liberal on every other issue, but doesn’t believe abortion should be legal, might call him/herself a moderate.
For a long time, I fell into category 2, so believe me, I know how that thinking works. Few people fall directly between the extremes however.
But see, I have problems already with some of these initial ideas. I’ve thought and thought and thought about these labels, but the definitions just go in circles. Any definition I tried to apply to them that wasn’t pre-loaded simply folded in on itself.
Is conservatism about avoiding change and liberalism about causing change as I proposed? But conservatives want a great deal of change from the way society is run! Both sides want change, they simply want different sorts of change. And a lot of those values of the past that I say Conservatives long to return to? Often times they didn’t exist. There is no golden age, and these wonderful values of the past are often fairy tales told to give their views a sense of authority. Liberals meanwhile are very much against some of those changes!
Wait, but isn’t conservatism about control and liberalism about freedom as I initially thought? Well, there are Conservative policies that would offer businesses certain economic freedoms that are harmful to society, so liberalism seeks to control them through regulations, so does that mean the definitions are actually backwards? No, because another Conservative belief is that people of different genders shouldn’t marry (or even races, sometimes), and so control that freedom, while liberals would have people of any gender or race be able to marry the other.
Every other definition did the same. Are Conservatives religious and Democrats atheist? Mixed. Are Conservatives about limiting taxation and reducing government spending while liberals just want to tax tax tax and spend spend spend? Mixed. Do they fall into general patterns? Yes, but there were always significant exceptions, or they could be interpreted one way or the other.
What I noticed was that referring to something as “Conservative” or “Liberal” only served the purposed of a hammer. Either beat down people from considering other positions because it comes from a “conservative” or a “liberal,” or knock someone off of a position because the idea isn’t “conservative” or “liberal” enough. In short, the labels are used to divide people.
This often applies to other political labels too. Party definitions like “Republican” and “Democrat,” while referring to an actual organization, are also used as shorthand for a set of beliefs on issues and are most often used to dismiss other opinions, or to force members to toe the party line. However, people within these parties do hold varying beliefs! Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are in the same party as Hillary Clinton and Debbie Wasserman Shultz. Ted Cruz is in the same party as John McCain. The more singular becomes the vision of the party, the more they exclude people who leave to become independents.
My fundamental political belief for this topic is:
“Political labels vary between useful shorthand and meaningless Orwellianism. Ultimately they are harmful to discussions regarding specific issues.”
You may still be asking… “That’s all well and good, but if you think they can be useful as shorthand, then what shorthand labels do you apply to yourself?”
That’s a fine enough question. I believe that my positions on the issues would reveal this well enough, but generally I identify as a progressive liberal who votes Democrat, though I have major issues with the party establishment. Satisfied?
Now, I have a question back… How many of you, dear readers, have already written me off because of that label I just applied to myself? Perhaps you would be more likely to listen to my views if you weren’t hearing them through those labels? Maybe.
The labels only hurt our discussions, and are rarely useful. I don’t believe you will see too many of them in the future in my discussions of policy, but there you have it.
Until next time!