Tag Archives: labels

Left, Right, Center–REALLY?

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.

 

 

 

The Purpose of Language

Perhaps Tallyrand was right when he (purportedly) said that language was given to man to conceal his thoughts; we sure aren’t using it in order to communicate with each other these days.

In order to use language to exchange ideas, rather than to evade the chore of thinking, we’d have to stop the increasing tendency to substitute labeling for communicating. There are two major problems with that substitution: it allows us to avoid responding to the merits of an argument, and the labels themselves are all too often devoid of any meaningful content.

As many of you know, I alternate columns in the IBJ with Peter Rusthoven–I write one week, he the next. Generally, we do not take issue with each other, but a few weeks ago, I wrote a column that criticized the GOPs repeated efforts to derail “Obamacare,” including the House of Representatives’ forty (meaningless/posturing) votes.  Rusthoven disagreed with that column, as he has a perfect right to do. But opened his “response” by pointing out that I am (in his lexicon, at least) a liberal. The implication was clear: we need not spend any time on the merits of her arguments, because we’ve placed her in this particular box and we have all made up our minds about the content of that box.

It may not be fair to pick on Peter for this behavior, because he is far from the only person who engages in it–on either side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, we all classify others to some extent; it’s human and it’s often efficient. The problem is, if we are going to affix a label that actually assists us in understanding where another person is coming from, we need to agree on the meaning of that label. And these days, we don’t.

Labels have lost their descriptive utility–they’ve become insults. Epithets. This is especially true of political labels.

A couple of years back, I proposed 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.
Which of these actions–and political figures– would we label “liberal” and which “conservative”?
Since Obama’s election, the problem has only worsened. The people who insist that the President is a “socialist” clearly don’t have the faintest idea what a socialist is. (And as I have pointed out elsewhere, he can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi at the same time; “National Socialism” is not the same thing as the political philosophy known as socialism.)
Actually, when I read “The Audacity of Hope,” it reminded me of my own platform when I ran for Congress in 1980–and at the time, I was labeled a conservative Republican.
When I encounter one of these accusatory critics, I want to shout “Agree with the President or disagree with him on the merits of his performance or positions. The substitution of (highly inaccurate) labels simply lets people know that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What reasonable people hear when a label is used in lieu of an argument is: I don’t like person X or position Y.  I have no clear reason for my animus, and no persuasive counter to his position, so I’ll just call up a handy label.
That’s not communication, and it doesn’t advance any debate.  Tallyrand to the contrary, it doesn’t even conceal the speaker’s thoughts.