As the competition among Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination heats up, pundits are warning against taking the party “too far to the left,” or alternatively reminding readers that “centrists” are failing to connect with the party’s rank and file.
We are once again entering bullshit land, where labeling takes the place of analysis. Plop a label on a policy proposal and suddenly it is a call to arms: if the label says “left,” self-identified conservatives and centrists bristle and oppose it; if the label says “centrist” or “moderate,” it is reflexively opposed by self-identified leftists.
Needless to say, no one is considering the proposal on its merits.
This rush to categorize candidates and policies as right, left or center is not just misleading, it is lazy and often irrelevant (not every policy position can be crammed into a nice neat ideological box). This habit has irritated me for years– in fact, in 2003, I wrote about it.
Periodically, someone will respond to a column I have written with a statement beginning “well, you liberals always…” Being dismissed as a liberal always amuses me, because I hold precisely the same political values I held in 1980, when I was the Republican nominee running for Congress against Andy Jacobs, and a fair number of voters found me “too conservative.” The only thing that has changed is the label….
Well, to be fair, the GOP has also changed, galloping off to the radical far right, and pulling the “conservative” label with it. But I stand by the following paragraph:
This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)
Labelling an opponent’s proposal as “extreme” (left or right) is a tactic to undercut that proposal without actually engaging with it.
Allowing citizens to opt into Medicare (i.e. making Medicare a “public option”) or advocating expansion of the program (“Medicare for All”) are hardly proposals to dismantle capitalism. They are proposed solutions to a real and growing problem. Imposing higher marginal tax rates on the rich would return us to tax policies that used to be widely endorsed by both parties. Doing so would hardly turn America into a communist gulag.
These and other proposals may or may not be sound policy. We won’t know if we refuse to address the particulars of suggested policies and instead simply label and dismiss them.
Pundits notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is that America doesn’t really have the sort of leftists that have long been active in Europe. What passes for left-wing in the United States is moderately progressive. To the extent there is extremism in the U.S., it is on the radical right, and the most important task facing Democrats and Independents is to rid the nation of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.
Flinging labels at each other won’t get that done.