Conservative, Liberal, Potato, Potahto


Republicrats & DemocansThat our political lexicon shifts shape at will isn’t a new thing. Who can forget the meaningless months of debate over whether Iraq was a civil war? How about torture that’s only torture if applied to the Attorney General himself? There’s the No Child Left Behind Act which leaves every child behind and the decidedly unpatriotic Patriot Act too.

These changes are easy enough to see. They reflect a cynicism straight from the pages of Orwell, spoken with unquestioning fervor without a scintilla of irony by all the talking heads. But these linguistic flourishes are plainly just ham-fisted wordsmithing to make those in favor of the ideas more comfortable about embracing them. However, there are other word games afoot that speak to fundamental changes in the electorate and the primaries make them plain.

Republicans have been in a pitched battle to prove who’s the most conserviest. McCain devotes significant time and money to convince voters he’s a “foot soldier in the Reagan revolution” when he’s nothing of the kind. Romney dropped out of the race after donning the wig and clown makeup of conservatism before voters woke up and recognized him as the poseur of conservatism he is. And Huckabee? He’s out on Conservative Island trying to prove Attila the Hun was some sort of tree hugging liberal.

The Wine and Cheese Crowd
Liberals aren’t immune either. Hilary and Barak both have their anti-liberal skeletons. What self respecting liberal of the 60s would view the current wine and cheese crowd brunching with Exxon’s CEO as an ideal to aspire to. Today’s liberal sees health care reform as something that must be administered by CIGNA or sound labor and monetary policy as a fire sale of American jobs and treasure.

Neocons and neoliberals would be unrecognizable by paleoconservatives like Barry Goldwater or paleoliberals like FDR. St. Ronny of Reagan and the Contract on America crowd started the country’s most recent shift to the right, but along the way conservatism ceased being about strong civil liberties and responsible budgets. As their power grew, conservatives began to throw around the dirtiest epithet of all - liberal. In response, liberals did what wishy-washiness always calls for - they pitched their flag on the turf left behind by the marauding conservatives and screamed back, “TAKE THAT YOU WINGNUT TROGLODYTE! I’M BILL GATES’ NEW BFF NOW!”.

Sure, neoliberals still have a commitment to personal freedom, but they aren’t averse to allowing something other than the Constitution define it. Exxon, GE, and Walmart are still the Axis of Corporate Evil, but many neoliberals found the plush leather seats in those boardrooms to be mighty comfortable.

Who said liberalism had to give you piles?

Never Trust Anybody Older Than Birth
Who knows what to call ideological groups these days? Many social conservatives are beginning to question the wisdom of shyster faith healers setting a values agenda that compels every home in America to keep bundling boards close at hand. Liberals are getting pissed as their leaders steadfastly refuse to grab George’s peacock tail and sprinkle some salt on it. Voters are as confused as a mutt who’s had his name changed at the age of five. Like Vietnam - or more contemporarily - Iraq, we can no longer tell who is friend and who is foe. The result is we don’t trust anybody.

One could argue this constant shift in descriptions is the disease that has helped divide the country. I’d argue it’s merely the symptom of a society that doesn’t know what the hell it wants and is willing to follow any charlatan that comes along spouting pretty words without a scintilla of irony. There’s a word for that type of behavior…



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3 Responses to “Conservative, Liberal, Potato, Potahto”

  1. Craig R. Harmon Says:

    Yes, it’s hard to know the the meaning of political words like ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’. Partially, I think, this is (a) due to the nature of the beast, partially (b) to the imprecision of use of these terms by most people, partially (c) because the meaning of these words have changed over time, even within the same place.

    As to (a), politics is not a bi-polar thing, as if there was left and right and everyone on the left was at exactly the same position and the same with the right. When I was first in blogging I ran across a guy who seriously contended that The New Republic was a publication of the right. Why? Because it was in favor of the Iraq war, as if only righties could be pro-war or, at least, pro-that-war. But lefties have often been pro-war. What he really meant was that TNR was politically to his right (or, alternatively speaking, he was further to the left than TNR). I’m sorry but The New Republic has never been a publication of the right, and has never ever been conservative. During the early decades of the 20th Century, communists called fascists ‘right wing’ but fascists were socialists who let businesses remain un-nationalized as long as they agreed to operate in lock-step with the government’s policies. They may have been somewhat to the right of communists, but right-wingers they were not and they were polar opposites of conservative. So my first point is, political scales are not polar-positioned things; they are sliding scales and people can fall at any point on the scale and even the same person can fall at different points on the scale regarding different sorts of issues. This alone makes talking in labels like ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘conservative’, ‘liberal’, and ‘libertarian’ confusing enough.

    Then there’s (b), the imprecision with which people use language. Not everyone agrees about what constitutes conservatism or liberalism. I’m reading Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. If one can get past the cover art and title, Jonah makes a pretty good case that while conservatives have been repeatedly called fascists by liberals, that fascism has always been a liberal/progressive movement, both in Europe and in America.

    As to (c), ‘liberal’ originally meant:

    “a doctrine stressing the importance of human rationality, individual property rights, natural rights, the protection of civil liberties, constitutional limitations of government, free markets, and individual freedom from restraint as exemplified in the writings of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill,, Montesquieu, Voltaire and others. As such, it is seen as the fusion of economic liberalism with political liberalism. The “normative core” of classical liberalism is the idea that laissez-faire economics will bring about a spontaneous order or invisible hand that benefits the society, though it does not necessarily oppose the state’s provision of a few basic public goods that the market is seen as being incapable of providing. The qualification classical was applied in retrospect to distinguish early nineteenth-century liberalism from the “new liberalism” associated with Thomas Hill Green, Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, which grants a more interventionist role for the state. Classical liberalism is not to be confused with the ideology that is commonly called “liberalism” today in the United States, as classical liberalism is actually closer to being a tendency of “conservativism” in the U.S.”

    Today, ‘liberalism’ is more concerned with equality of both opportunity and (at least minimally) of outcome and wanting the government to intervene in as many ways and to whatever degree is necessary to bring this about. Today it tends to denigrate individual freedoms where those freedoms conflict with the good of society as a whole, particularly with the good of select groups within the whole.

    Where ‘liberalism’ originally meant that government stayed out of individual and corporate life as much as possible, today it means regulating endlessly to bring about the favored outcome. Whereas it originally meant limited government, today it means big government.

    Today, libertarians and economic conservatives are closer to what used to be called ‘liberal’ than liberals are.

    Of course, the word ‘conservative’ is confusing because its practical meaning changes depending upon what it is that those called ‘conservatives’ are trying to conserve and so, not only is conservatism different in different places but also at different times. Today, it means a whole host of largely incompatible things. Talk about confusion! One can’t really speak of ‘conservatism’ today as though it meant one, unified political philosophy. There are economic conservatives, social conservatives, economic conservatives who are socially liberal, realists, idealists, global interventionists, non-interventionists, and even, as exemplified by Mike Huckabee and lots of new Evangelicals, conservatives who are most similar to European style ‘Social Democrats’. No wonder conservatives went nuts over the ‘08 crop of Republican hopefuls. Modern conservatism is like ten people who mostly don’t like one another for various reasons trying to balance on top of a ball balanced on a tightwire. Okay, that’s perhaps an exaggeration, but not too much of one.

  2. Craig R. Harmon Says:

    Oops, forgot to link to Wikipedia’s article on Classical Liberalism that I quoted from, above.

  3. Craig R. Harmon Says:

    I think that, in my last paragraph, two comments above, I meant to say that Mike Huckabee is most like European-style Christian Democrats, not Social Democrats.

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