March 03, 2005

Content-free political labels

Here’s a quiz. Who said the following:

“In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush calls 9/11 the day “when freedom came under attack.� This is sophomoric. Osama did not send fanatics to ram planes into the World Trade Center because he hates the Bill of Rights. He sent the terrorists here because he hates our presence and policies in the Middle East.
The 9/11 killers were over here because we are over there. We were not attacked because of who we are but because of what we do. It is not our principles they hate. It is our policies. U.S. intervention in the Middle East was the cause of the 9/11 terror. Bush believes it is the cure. Has he learned nothing from Iraq?
In 2003, we invaded a nation that had not attacked us, did not threaten us, and did not want war with us to disarm it of weapons it did not have. Now, after plunging $200 billion and the lives of 1,400 of our best and bravest into this war and killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, we have reaped a harvest of hatred in the Arab world and, according to officials in our own government, have created a new nesting place and training ground for terrorists to replace the one we lately eradicated in Afghanistan."

Was this said by some radical leftist? Some long-haired peacenik? Ward Churchill? Actually, it was Pat Buchanan, a staffer for Richard Nixon and long-time Republican stalwart writing in a recent issue of the magazine The American Conservative.

Ok, here’s another writer:

“The US economy is headed toward crisis, and the political leadership of the country--if it can be called leadership--is preoccupied with nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Oblivious to reality, the Bush administration has proposed a Social Security privatization that will cost $4.5 trillion in borrowing over the next 10 years alone! America has no domestic savings to absorb this debt, and foreigners will not lend such enormous sums to a country with a collapsing currency--especially a country mired in a Middle East war running up hundreds of billions of dollars in war debt.
A venal and self-important Washington establishment combined with a globalized corporate mentality have brought an end to America's rising living standards. America's days as a superpower are rapidly coming to an end. Isolated by the nationalistic unilateralism of the neoconservatives who control the Bush administration, the US can expect no sympathy or help from former allies and rising new powers.�

Who is this Bush-hater? Michael Moore? No, it was none other than Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration and former Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review.

The point of my using these quotes is to illustrate my view that the labels ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ ‘Democratic’ or ‘Republican’ have ceased to be meaningful in identifying people’s political positions on many issues. They may have at one time identified particular unifying political philosophies, but now have ceased to have content in that there are no longer any clear markers that one can point to that identify those positions.

Not all political labels have ceased to have content but those four broad-brush categories in particular are used more as terms of political abuse than for any clarifying purpose. Their only purpose is to set up fake debates on television’s political yell shows. If you advertise that you have a liberal and conservative on your panel (or a Democrat and Republican), you can claim that your program is ‘fair and balanced’ even though both people pretty much say the same thing on major policy issues, differing only on minor tactical points or on style.

It makes more sense, rather than identifying and aligning with people on the basis of these meaningless labels, to form alliances on specific issues based on where they stand with respect to those issues. And when one does that, one finds that many of the old divisions melt away.

The greater danger of labels (whether they be of religion, nationality, or politics) is that they are used to divide us and herd us into boxes and make us think in terms of what we should believe and who are allies should be than what we really want them to be. They are being used as weapons to divide people into ineffective warring factions and thus prevent them from finding commonalities that might lead to concerted action.

I do not agree with Buchanan or Roberts on everything they say. On some things I strongly disagree. But unlike the members of the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ brigade who should be ignored, they are serious people who often have useful information or perspectives to share and I read them regularly.

Dismissing the ideas of some people simply because of the label attached to them makes as little sense as supporting other people for the same reason.


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Mark, who is a registered Republican, and I, who am independent like my parents, but came from a semi-conservative background, frequently discuss the fact that the so-called conservatives who are in power now are not, according to the "definition" of conservatism, conservatives at all. They are, as Paul Craig Roberts identifies in that quote, neoconservatives. It truly astounds me that these politicians are capable of tricking people into believing that they are conservatives just by waving "morals" in the faces of the public.

When Clinton wanted to send more troops to foreign countries to help in peacekeeping operations, the conservatives of the country screamed over it. Now, when Bush wants to do the same thing--this time without UN approval--the conservative public hails it as brilliant, or, at least, necessary. I don't think that it's a matter so much of political labels ceasing to apply as it is that those in power--as they do with other things--have managed to twist and confuse the labels, applying them to places they don't belong.

It would be nice if people started creating alliances based on common goals rather than labels, but I think that most of us are so engrained in our ideas about Label X and Label Y that many would fail to move past those misconceptions. It's the same reason that racism and sexism and other forms of discrimination live on.

Posted by Nicole on March 3, 2005 02:42 PM

It is true that the meaning of labels get distorted. I am torn between trying to reclaim labels or ignoring them.

Labels can serve useful functions as a shorthand for belief structures, but I am wondering whether the range of issues that exist allow for it. For example, can one be a "liberal' and oppose gun control? Can one be a conservative and a feminist?


Posted by Mano Singham on March 3, 2005 02:59 PM