The Danger of Political Labels

Political Labels

By Jay Ruckleshaus.

I recently had a conversation with an Australian student in which neither of us knew what the other was saying. We were both speaking English, but it was probably the most unproductive conversation you can imagine.

We were ostensibly discussing the merits of the liberal commitment to supporting the welfare state. It was one of those moments I was looking forward to while signing up for the Duke in Oxford program; here was my chance, I thought, to attain enlightenment in an oak paneled room while discussing a subject whose pretension matched that of my environment. And with a foreigner!

But it was not to be. I became increasingly confused because he said there was no commitment at all – liberals are only concerned with supporting the free market. I tried explaining that liberals generally favor expanding the welfare state and otherwise checking the unregulated market. After several minutes of fruitless efforts we decided to change the subject.

When I returned to my dorm that evening I was still puzzled. I did a bit of research and discovered that, in fact, we were both correct. It turns out that the Liberal party in Australia leans to the right and favors laissez-faire economics. This certainly differs from the American conception of what it means to be liberal – that is, to generally endorse market regulation. It is no wonder we were confused; in our conversation the term  “liberal” conferred two essentially opposite meanings.

This is problematic. Politics is a complicated enough show as it is. It’s hard to stage debates about substantive issues when we can’t even agree on how to classify them. Political labels, in trying to collect and unify the various components of a single political ideology, very often confuse them.

“Liberal” is an excellent example. The modern political label of liberalism (or is it Liberalism…) is a messy amalgam of countless distinct strains of political thought. The classical liberal movement, defined by its respect for individual liberty and equality, took root during the age of Enlightenment. Great thinkers of the liberal tradition like Locke, Mill, and Rawls have each interpreted the demands of liberty and equality differently, and so have each provided slightly different accounts of liberalism. Over time these accounts diverged so extensively that the contemporary threads of “liberal” thought bear little resemblance to each other. Many might be surprised to learn, for example, that American libertarianism and American liberalism share a common philosophical heritage. Given this astounding conceptual diversity – and the spatial and temporal inconsistencies – the appropriate reaction when someone claims to be a liberal may be one of bewilderment rather than comprehension.

Politicians, of course, get a lot of mileage from this conceptual confusion. It’s easy to adopt a label when it’s convenient and quickly abandon it when it’s not. And the vast majority of us don’t even know when it happens.

One of the central projects of political philosophy is to cut through rhetoric and expose the true meaning of political concepts and terms. Precise language and deliberate thinking are the tools of the trade. One way political theorists help is by drawing crucial distinctions to prevent labels from claiming conflicting ideas. For example, we can distinguish between classical economic liberalism (free market and private property) and social liberalism (friendly to the welfare state).

There is another, more serious danger inherent in the use of political labels – apart from the potential for ambiguity. It relates more to adopting the label of a specific party rather than a philosophy. When citizens adopt a party label – inevitably, in this country, Republican or Democrat – they often commit to following all of the party’s positions. In fact, many people do not consciously adopt a party label at all; the single greatest predictor of party affiliation remains the party affiliation of one’s parents. The problem is that the party label can become proactive and create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The culture of political labeling thus encourages quick and mindless decision-making. It attempts to substitute for critical thinking by giving people a slate of opinions they can dutifully adopt. But there is no substitute for critical thinking. Instead of forming our opinions around the agenda of our party label, it is crucial that we come to independent conclusions. This is clearly the less convenient way to conduct one’s public life, but given the burden that democracy places on every citizen – to gather evidence in order to rationally frame and revise an opinion on public issues – it is necessary.

In some cases this may be an overreaction. It’s entirely possible that a voter does in fact subscribe to all of the opinions that a particular party endorses, in which case I see nothing wrong with adopting a label and wearing it proudly. But I’m willing to bet that the majority of citizens believe in a political canon whose shape does not always fit into a party’s outline.

When used properly, labels are marvelous things – probably even essential. Labels help us to organize the infinite amount of collectible data about the world around us into neat stacks, giving us a conceptual framework that we can use to think more efficiently – what psychologists refer to as schemas. The problem does not lie with labels themselves, just our imperfect applications of them. I realize it would be silly to disregard labels altogether; I’m certainly not proposing people begin calling themselves Republicrats or some other unsavory concoction.

But still, the essential truth is this: Our political beliefs come in shades of such astounding subtlety that any definitive labeling system is destined to obscure meaning, at best, and prescribe opinions, at worst. We must be careful. The only label we may adopt without worry is that of a Skeptic.




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