Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Confusing Business of Political Labels

I have been thinking for a while about political labels and how they often make issues more confusing. Part of this is because labels are always shorthand for something more involved and, by relying on labels, we lose nuance and subtlety. Juliet may have realized that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but we seem to rely on labels as a crutch.

Political labels are more confusing, I think, than other stereotypes because we use the same labels for many different things. The political spectrum is usually described in terms of conservative to liberal (or right to left). But what is conservative in one sense is liberal in another and vice versa. Further, what we consider moderate may be, in some senses, more consistently conservative or more consistent liberal than what we consider staunch conservative/liberal positions! If it seems utterly confusing, it is. And my writing is probably only making it worse, so maybe we can diagram my point to show what I am trying to say. Let’s look at two issues and show a conservative to liberal spectrum for each (keeping mind the fact that we are greatly simplifying these matters for purposes of illustration, despite my opening paragraph complaining about that very sort of thing). If we look at government regulation/spending as one issue and gay marriage as the other, we might get diagrams such as these:

Conservative                               Liberal
Less government/spending             Bigger government/more spending
Restrict/eliminate gay marriage       Allow gay marriage

I don’t think there is much controversy or confusion so far. As a general (simplistic) rule we say people who are for smaller government (less regulation) are conservative and people who are for a larger governmental (more regulation) are liberal. Likewise people opposed to gay marriage are conservative and people who support the rights of gays to marry are liberal. To help understand how the positions relate to each other let’s count each conservative position as 1 and each liberal as 0 (there is no winning or losing, this is just a mechanism to sort the results along a conservative to liberal).

It gets confusing, however, when we try and put these two ideas (size of government and a specific social policy) together and analyze them simultaneously. For simplicity’s sake I will use four very stereo-typed categories of the political population – each of these is really being used as a stand in for a wide variety of ideas. I apologize if anyone thinks these are too simplistic but the purpose is to illustrate how confusing the business of political labeling can become, not to pigeon-hole anyone. The four groups are: religious right republicans, “moderate” republicans, Catholic democrats and liberal democrats. A two dimensional issue grid might look like this:

                         Restrictions on Gay Marriage
           More                                       Less
   Catholic Democrats (0,1)         Liberal Democrats (0, 0)
   Religious Right (1, 1)                Moderate Republicans (1, 0)

The left vertical axis represents the size of government, with more on top and less on the bottom. (I actually had a nice table prepared but my text box won't copy over from Word, sorry for my blogger inexperience! I hope the table still makes some sense).

All we have done is take our two political lines and merged them into one two-dimensional graph. We can also add up the scores and they seem to confirm what we would have guessed going in. The Republican religious right scores as the most conservative, the liberal democrats the most liberal, and moderate (pro-choice) republicans and conservative (pro-life) Catholic democrats are in the middle.

But now the political labels of “conservative” and “liberal” get confusing. The Republican religious right is the most conservative group, yet they favor more government regulation than moderate republicans (restrictions against gay marriage). Likewise, the liberal democrats score most liberal on the scale and the graph, but they favor fewer government restrictions than “conservative’ Catholic democrats and have actively opposed government intervention on the issue of gay marriage. And it gets more confusing if we consider the position of the two “moderates”, especially moderate Republicans. They are consistently for less government regulation – be it regulation of business or of marriage. In this sense they are “conservative” (smaller government) on both issues, but they lose the label “conservative” on the gay marriage issue because it is claimed by the religious right. Similarly, a devout member of the Catholic Church is often considered a “conservative” democrat, even though they consistently argue for a more active role of government, regulating both business and marriage. In this sense they are more “liberal” than the liberal democrats who sometimes want more regulation and, in this case, want less. Finally, the two groups most likely to be called moderate in the political spectrum are the moderate Republicans and the Catholic democrats, but they disagree on both issues! They each are more likely to agree with the more “radical” element of the other party than the moderate one. In other words, the most conservative quadrant (religious right) has more in common with the “moderate liberal” quadrant (Catholics) than the “moderate conservative” does; likewise the extreme liberal position (liberal Democrats) is more closely aligned with the “moderate conservatives” than the “moderate liberals” are – the “middle” positions of the two parties are more like polar opposites!
Of course the answer to this seeming confusion is that “conservative” and “liberal” are more than one context. If we are talking about fiscal or regulatory policy “conservative” means favoring small government/less regulation and “liberal” means favoring more regulation/government. If we are talking about a social issue such as gay marriage, however, “conservative” and “liberal” mean something different. A “conservative” would align with “traditional values” and a “liberal” would be in favor of individual freedoms and “progressive” ideas. In other words, the confusion from our chart comes not because of the positions people take, but because of the labels we give those positions. This is why you will often here terms like “social conservative” or “fiscally liberal” to try and point out what context is appropriate for applying the labels.

One final example of how these labels can add to the confusion of our political dialogue. Again looking at the idea of gay marriage note it is entirely possible to reach either position on the issue from either political viewpoint. For example, a fiscal/policy conservative position on gay marriage would sound very libertarian – small government is important and this is not an appropriate area for government involvement. A liberal position on the issue would focus more on the individual rights of the participants and the need to treat everyone the same regardless of sexual orientation. The same result, support for gay marriage, is reached from opposite ends of the spectrum. Likewise a conservative argument against gay marriage would focus on traditional values and limiting rights to those enumerated in the Constitution, or on religious objections to homosexuality. A liberal argument would be that the government has a role to play in determining familial relations and it is important to regulate who is or is not allowed to be called a family because, if we don’t, we will have to permit all forms of marriage including bigamy, etc. Again, either side of the spectrum can reach the same conclusion through very different logic. As a result it is entirely plausible that a “moderate” republican, favoring a smaller governmental role and being in favor of gay marriage, would see herself as consistently conservative if she focused on the role of government definition. A religious right republican, however, would not see her in that light because they would apply both a governmental definition and a social policy one.

Please note this was a highly, severely subjective example. There are a great many people in each quadrant who likely would dispute my descriptions – in fact I am sure there are many Catholic Democrats who support the rights of gay to wed. I am speaking more of official church position than individual member views and, again, the intent is to highlight the confusing nature of political labels and not to offend anyone. Further, there are many issues where this confusion would not happen – if, for example we substituted gun control for gay marriage, the “conservative” position would have consistently favored less government and the “liberal” position would have favored more regulation. Finally, there are all sorts of nuanced, thoughtful positions to be taken on these issues which I am glossing over here.

My hope is to discuss political issues at a level that will allow for nuance and subtlety and not rely on labels.


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