If any of these answers comes as a surprise, it is because Americans have increasingly substituted labels for analysis. Turn on talk radio, or one of the numerous television shows where political pundits scream at each other and you will hear terms like liberal or right-wing used to dismiss a point of view with which the commentator disagrees. What you won’t often hear is a reasoned discussion of the merits or flaws of that point of view.
I propose a quiz. What highly placed political figure took each of the following actions?
- Established the Environmental Protection Agency
- Pardoned a powerful person who had committed a felony
- Changed the rules governing welfare to restrict benefits and add work requirements
- Defended the right of gays to serve in the military
- Imposed wage and price controls during an inflationary spiral
The answers are: Richard Nixon established the EPA and imposed wage and price controls during his presidency; Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after his resignation; Bill Clinton proposed and signed legislation “reforming welfare as we know it;” and Barry Goldwater vigorously defended the right of gays to serve openly in the military.
If any of these answers comes as a surprise, it is because Americans have increasingly substituted labels for analysis. Turn on talk radio, or one of the numerous television shows where political pundits scream at each other and you will hear terms like “liberal” or “right-wing” used to dismiss a point of view with which the “commentator” disagrees. What you won’t often hear is a reasoned discussion of the merits or flaws of that point of view.
In the real world, people rarely take positions that are all liberal or all conservative. Indeed, in the real world, people use those terms without much precision. Is a defense of free speech liberal or conservative? People who believe that government ought not censor speech even when a majority finds that speech offensive are conserving the ideals of the Bill of Rights—are they then conservative? What about people who want to make an exception for “hate speech”? They are advocates of racial equality, so that makes them “liberal,” but they are advocating government enforcement of an approved point of view, so does that make them conservative? Do the definitions change if what we are censoring is sexually explicit speech?
Recently, the head of the Alabama Christian Coalition, one Roberta Combs, was quoted as saying that “Dark and sinister forces have set out to destroy the Christian fabric of our great nation. We will not let liberal judges get away with what they are doing.” And what were those “liberal judges” doing that so enraged Ms. Combs? They were following (conserving) long-settled precedent to the effect that the First and Fourteenth Amendments do not allow government to endorse or sponsor religious beliefs—to choose sides in matters religious.
Does your head hurt yet?
The term “political liberal” historically referred to those who believed in limiting the power of the government over the individual; political conservatives were those who preferred order and tradition to more expansive personal liberties. A “liberal education” meant familiarizing oneself with the wide range of human knowledge, history and literature in hopes of developing a capacity for thoughtful and reasoned decision-making. People who are thoughtful and deliberative are rarely ideologues; does that make them liberal? People who recognize the value of liberal democratic institutions want to protect those institutions. Are they conservative?
What’s in a name?