Left, Right, Center

I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t take much to set me off these days, but an op-ed in  yesterday’s New York Times still has my hair on fire. Co-authors were Mark Penn and Andrew Stein; I have no idea who Stein is, but the op-ed’s argument confirms, at least in my mind, Penn’s reputation as the “genius” responsible for the decisions that tanked  Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign against Barack Obama.

The headline tells the story: “Back to the Center, Democrats!” The authors argue that moving the party too far to the left will prevent Democrats from winning races in 2018.

So–what’s wrong with their “analysis”?

For one thing, this argument buys into and reinforces Republican framing. The GOP has been very successful in painting Democrats as “left-wing” (and making “left-wing” a very negative thing to be). In real life, there are a number of positions that don’t fit comfortably within our left/right dichotomy, and a number of others that used to be considered centrist or center-right before the GOP’s radical extremism changed the location of the center.

When I was a Republican candidate for Congress in 1980, my positions were substantially similar to those set out in Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope–and I was routinely accused of being “too conservative.”  By the time Obama ran, the GOP was labeling those positions as “socialist.”

Which brings me to my biggest political pet peeve.

Labels–Left, Right, Center–are a substitute for thought.  They’re a framing device. If I can label you–if I can put you in a pigeonhole–I can dismiss you. You are either “one of us” or “one of them.” Either way, I don’t have to consider your arguments on their merits.

I’ve been bitching about this for a long time. Here’s a paragraph I wrote in 2003:

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.)

Allow me to offer a radical proposal: Democrats–and Republicans–should focus upon the merits of their policy proposals, and worry less about how the opposition (or in this case, inept members of their own party) locate those issues on the political spectrum. Survey research convincingly shows that Democratic positions–shorn of their labels–are overwhelmingly popular with voters.

As Fareed Zakaria recently noted, 

The Democratic economic agenda is broadly popular with the public. More people prefer the party’s views to those of Republicans on taxes, poverty reduction, health care, government benefits, and even climate change and energy policy. In one recent poll, 3 in 4 supported raising the minimum wage to $9. Seventy-two percent wanted to provide pre-K to all 4-year-olds in poor families. Eight in 10 favored expanding food stamps. It is noteworthy that each of these proposals found support from a majority of Republicans.

In a properly functioning political system (which I realize we don’t have), voters consider positions individually and on their merits: is this proposal practical? Will it solve problem A without causing problems B and C? Is it cost-effective? Who will benefit and who will lose?

Labels aren’t just misleading, they are akin to name-calling. And their use discourages informed voting.


  1. It raises the question of whether as individuals, we are capable of making those evaluations based on our own analysis or if we need the backdrop of an “expert” opinion to form our own. I’ll admit that when I listen to an “expert” , I often find that they have identified (right or wrong, real or imagined) connections between issues that I was not able to see. The power of especially talk radio is the confusion they can create around an issue , based solely on opinion or lies. You will never hear on talk radio that increasing minimum wage, increasing taxes on the wealthiest, health care for all are popular with a majority of Americans.

  2. I resent being labeled politically as much as I resent being considered a second-class citizen because I am a woman, doubt I rate that high on the scale now that I am 80, deaf and disabled.

    I was an Independent voter until 2000; I did vote for Sheila in her bid or the Senate seat because I agreed with her stand on most issues and because I knew she was a person of her word. I worked for and donated to Bill Hudnut’s campaigns; all four Mayoral and his one bid for Governor. Also for Richard Lugar a number of times. A now ex-friend said he was surprised I favored of the death penalty being a liberal. Sorry but I don’t believe people like Charles Manson and family, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacey, et al, should benefit by our tax dollars and live out their lives with housing, clothing, food, medical and dental care provided by those of us who must work for it. I also believe, due to the level of identity theft and international computer hacking, that photo ID should be required not only on election days. I must provide it along with my proof of medical coverage and Medicare for medical care each appointment. I was victimized by fraud and forgery due to theft of my two credit cards because no photo ID was required. Had it been required, all eight businesses would recognize that the 27 year old thief and forger was NOT 77 year old me. Where does this place me with political labeling when I now vote straight Democratic ticket every election day?

    The on-going demands for more than a two party system rankles me every election. Granted (and now blatantly obvious), the Democratic and Republican candidates are not always the best options available but the party platforms cover the broad expanse of issues vital to this country and to each of us individually. When issues are ignored or destroyed we have grounds to protest and in many cases, grounds to bring legal action. The Libertarians and Green Party are locked into tunnel vision with few issues they are qualified to uphold and a vast lack of knowledge regarding other issues. Remember Gary Johnson and Jill Stein during the 2016 campaign. I also see many recounts in the future if even one additional party gains stability and favor to rival Democrats and/or Republicans.

    We do not have a perfect system; nor does any other nation, but we have a system worth fighting for which means fighting against the current administration before Trump destroys democracy and brings about nuclear war. We are no longer the leading power in the world; and we will not regain that lofty, once well-earned position, as long as Trump and his White Nationalists are in control. And yes, I admit labeling that group and shoving them into that box. I would be removed from this blog if I called them the names I apply to them in my thoughts.

  3. I completely agree, Sheila. Using labels are the lazy personʻs way of organizing their world. Through these shortcuts and code words, they are more easily manipulated. Iʻm all for informed voting and separating the labels from the actual policies. Educating people on the policies and taking off the labels would be like blind taste testing. Itʻs more honest and informative without the blind of label association and its inherent biases.

  4. I completely agree, Sheila. Using labels are the lazy personʻs way of organizing their world. Through these shortcuts and code words, they are more easily manipulated. Iʻm all for informed voting and separating the labels from the actual policies. Educating people on the policies and taking off the labels would be like blind taste testing. Itʻs more honest and informative without label association and its inherent biases.

  5. oh shucks, wanted to edit my post, but instead the program posted both versions. my apologies!

  6. Very early as a political junkie, I accepted that people considered themselves either a Republican or a Democrat. AND, then they studied the issues and the candidates to help them choose their own views.
    If there was no difference between the candidates on issues, we voted for our own party. If there was a difference, we voted for the candidate based on that. I think it worked that way right through Reagan’s first election. Then? It all came apart, and I don’t remember much until Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and others of their ilk appeared on the scene, and it got bad. Really, really bad like it is today.

  7. It never ceases to amaze me how urgently everyone on both sides of the aisle (and in the middle too, for that matter) will dismiss opposition to their own point of view by labeling. We could all use a little reflection on Matthew 7:5.

  8. Re: daleb’s comment – It depends on what “talk radio” shows you are listening to. I define NPR as “talk” radio because it is mostly commentary on a variety of subjects, with politics being a major focus. I find NPR to present very fair and balanced points of view, in a way that encourages listeners to think. A novel approach these days.

  9. Thank you, Sheila, for today’s post. I detest labels in every way, shape, or form. I immediately disregard the persons behind any online posts that include certain labeling words, including Libtards, Wingnuts, Obummer, Trumpf, Obammy, Trumpet, etc and etc.

    Well before I was born, Cole Porter wrote what has always been one of my favorite songs simply because the lyrics describe my innermost longings. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5OoiWGygq4

  10. Labels are easy. Thinking, research, and deciding are hard. We always take the easy way.

  11. Peggy Hannon, I’ve always considered labels the sign of a lazy person, a person who does not think.

  12. It seems that for the past decade any meaningful political policy discussion I have tried to have with someone who adheres to the Republican Party quickly dissolves as they abandon reason and logic for Bible quotes and deep seated prejudices. It takes more than one party in a discussion to find common ground, particularly when the other party is operating out of magical thinking and long held bigotry.

  13. Theresa Bowers, I’d recommend your not engaging in conversations with those Republicans who toss our scripture as their explanation for whatever reasons. And, if you find yourself in a pinch and wish to end the conversation with a zapper, here’s an idea that plays into the King James Version of the New Testament (this carries great weight among those who quote scripture). Say something to the effect of ‘Cast not your pearls before swine’ and then quietly walk away. 😉

  14. BSH,

    I would try this “Cast not your pearls before swine” routine if I knew what the hell it meant, but not having studied the Bible I would not want to get into a Bible quoting harangue with some fundamentalist.

    With bigots and their lot I most often use as my exit line “Gee, I thought you were a better person than that.”

  15. Under capitalism, the only label that matters is who has the most money to manipulate elections. Period.

    The Koch brothers are winning the majority of elections and they don’t care what the platform is because shrinking government is the primary focus. Yet, none of our newspapers or television stations discuss the Koch’s or Wall Street.

    When it comes to health care discussions, we need to be looking behind the facade to see who and how much. The media won’t look because they receive billions in ad revenues from these folks.

    Therefore, the only thing left to discuss are social issues which fit into a right-left spectrum. We’re embarrassing ourselves.

  16. Your article is perfectly timed for a recent experience I had with a “conservative” in the “conservative”, rich town of Horseshoe Bay, Texas. This town, fifty-some miles west of Austin, TX, is a bastion of rich retirees and just plain rich Republicans who live in an echo chamber served by Fox News and nobody else.

    Anyway, this individual asked me who my leaders were. I told him I had no leaders, but followed certain opinionated experts and journalists. He retorted that I picked a list of anarchists. That list included Michael Steele and Nicole Wallace. Clearly, the labeling thing among Republicans is merely self-serving, and the more conservative/backward these people are the less they understand what the labels mean. Amazing.

  17. Most of my friends are Rotarians (as am I). Most Rotarians are Republicans (as I am not). I like my Rotarian friends. They’re generous. They’re thoughtful. They’re fair. But they can vote for some of the world’s weirdest people. (Fake President Donald Trump fits that label.)

    I’ve spent most of my adult years in advertising. I know of no company that doesn’t want to be labeled (positively, of course .. whatever that means). Look in any supermarket or drugstore and you’ll see the results of millions of dollars worth of labeling. I’d like to see the Democrats use some elbow grease (that is positive isn’t it?) to find the most effective words and images available.

  18. Theresa Bowers at 9:15am,

    Actually one does not need to be a Biblical scholar to comprehend the meaning of ‘Cast not your pearls before swine’ which is now a literary allusion meaning don’t waste your good stuff on the ignorant common person, just as ‘having the Midas touch’ is a literary allusion to King Midas whose every touch turned to gold, just as Pinnochio’s nose grew longer with each lie he told, just as a Good Samaritan is a person who stops to assist any person in need.

    This conversation reminds me of the importance of a broad liberal arts education for all people.

  19. Labeling without thought is clearly a bad thing. However, I would argue that labels in general are a necessary evil to sort through the clutter we experience. A shorthand to get through the day, if you will.

    I would posit that democrats\liberals would do much better if they understood and used labels as effectively as their republican\conservatives rivals. Conservatives slap a label on something and demand that it’s true until everyone falls into line. “Barack Obama is the most liberal president in history” – laughable in reality. But, there are no shortage of liberals who will quickly agree and demand the party moves “closer to the middle” and “finds common ground”. Conservatives seem to have figured out that if all the ground is crazy, democrats will happily split the difference with them so those democrats can claim to be the reasonable ones looking for compromise. A win all day for the wildly conservative tea party sort.

  20. Framing is labeling on steroids. Take for instance ” Have you quit beating your wife?” The argument is over before it begins because of the assumed premise that you beat your wife. The Republicans are good at this. Thus tax “relief” is substituted for tax “giveaways” to the rich and corporate class. Grover Norquist and others have taken this idea to its dry logical end with a no taxes for any purpose other than defense and police protection all with a view of “drowning big government in the bathtub.” So what’s big, Grover? Shall we repeal the Pure Food and Drug Act and poison ourselves? How about disbanding the U.S. Patent Office and the protections and monopolies granted to innovators? Weights and Measures? George Lakoff tells us how to counter such framing with framing of our own in his books. I recommend them. There is no such thing as big or little government; there is only that size of government that is sufficient to efficiently carry out its duties under the law. Grover, of course, is a nihilist, and nihilists such as libertarians are nothing more than social and economic predators. Labeling? Let’s have some counter-labeling, beginning with regulation of Wall Street excesses and going from there.

  21. How does a country turn back from extremism? It’s ingrained now to the point of winning elections. For 30 years now it’s been a huge income generator for the entertainment industry. It’s the primary fuel of social media. It’s how the NRA sells guns. It’s like Big Brother in “1984”, everywhere. It has proven to be the most effective formula for propaganda over the last few hundred years.

    I would guess that it’s impervious to wishing it away. Putting that toothpaste back into the tube is not possible. Moderates can’t call it out and watch it retreat.

    No matter who wants what a cultural tiger has been uncaged. He will have his way with us and America will fail.

    Any hope is in how we recover.

  22. I went to my first town hall last night and remember the gentleman that gave the first public response which everyone applauded loudly after. He said what I’ve been thinking all along. When are the Democrats going to fine tune their messaging? We can’t just be “against trump and his administration,” we have to use words that mean something. For example, stream line our talking points better than the other side. They are masters in saying ‘entitlements’ are bad, and all liberals want free stuff, etc. We need to organize our talking points to counter this b.s.

    How about, if you enjoy your 40 hr work week, thank the Democratic party. Or, the ACA has lowered the need for abortions because of the availability of birth control by remarkable percentages! Isn’t that what the conservatives want? No abortions? Or how about reframing the words used about ‘gay marriage’. The Democratic Party changed the wording to marriage equality and there it is, it’s now the law of the land.

    This is something that the liberals need to do, yesterday.

  23. Gerald, thanks for bringing up ‘framing’ as in a legal or quasi-legal sense. Have you quit beating your wife? Have you recovered from your bankruptcy? Has your daughter moved past her heroin addiction? How’s your grandson doing after that university cheating scandal? Has your mother returned that stolen merchandise yet? How’s it going with your returning those unpaid taxes?

    Framing has got to be one of the cheapest forms of publicly slamming a person based on half-truths.

  24. The Republicans and far right have been excellent at marketing. They have developed a list of key words which are simple, but yet they derive greater meaning through the imagination and wishes of their target audience. Mention death taxes, death panels, free enterprise, onerous regulations, law and order, support the troops, intelligent design, war on Christmas, liberal news media, leftists, liberals and the minds of the target audience run riot with constant reinforcement piled upon by exaggeration.

    The Corporate Wing of the Democratic Party never really frames the issues of here is what we are for, except in the most nebulous terms. I guess it is extremely difficult to sell the Democratic Brand, when what it meant was FDR, Pro-Unions, and main street, has given way to obedience to Wall Street. They are more concerned with trying to run to the right.

  25. Fear and anger sell.

    Stability and freedom of diversity and economic opportunity and equality under the law etc are essential things for thinkers but not exciting entertainment.

  26. Democrats can fine tune all they want…But folks wanting a real Democrat Party know that the current corporatized party is unwilling to do the work needed to right the ship. Instead,the current Democratic Party is a bunch of sell-outs wanting to court the right. They want the white-suburban Republican voters to the detriment of the previous supporters of the party. Hell,they would rather lose with Hillary than win with Bernie. The current Democrat Party doesn’t want support from those wanting to expand genuine Democrat ideals.

    Instead,their message is appropriately;

    Vote For Us,We’re Not Crazy As Real Republicans,We Will Govern As Republican-Lite! We Are Not The Party Of The Past! Suburbia,We’ve Got Your Back! Believe Us!

  27. Posted on Facebook.

    Conspiracy theories are in the realm of extremists. Unfortunately in today’s world building extremists with fake news and science is a huge money maker for the entertainment business.

    I don’t know if there’s a path back.

  28. Since he is mentioned in the article/post…

    The Democrats lost the plot and have been out of touch. Running/supporting Evan Bayh is proof.

    The Democrats have become the party of Clinton Inc.,Wall St.,Big Business and of Evan Bayh….and folks wonder why so many have decided to stay home instead of voting for Democrats?

    Today’s Democrat Party would be unwilling to fight for a 40hr work week. Hell,they will not even fight for real healthcare instead of giving gifts to the insurance industry.

    The Democrats have a message and folks get it; We Are The Party of Evan Bayh and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

  29. William: since you’re not a member of the liberal left, why do you give a sh*t what they say? Serious question. Every one of your comments call liberals names, so why bother? Your comments are boring.

  30. You’re not reading,I am a liberal.

    There’s the problem! The corporatized executives of the party and their sycophants such as yourself.

  31. Btw,JoAnn,I hate to defend Manson,but he never killed anyone. So Manson deserves the death penalty for what? Negative media exposure?

  32. AgingLGrl; I find you an intelligent, warm and loving person and I believe I am in excellent company to have my intelligence insulted by someone who misjudged you for an imagined shortcoming. Have a great weekend.

  33. My granddaughter – who has one Republican and one Democratic parent – is a teenager who has begun paying attention to politics. When Trump had been running for a while, she was appalled by his statements and behavior but was also listening closely to both Trump and Pence. She summed up her assessment of the two political parties. “Grandma, it looks like the Democrats are for including and helping people and the Republicans aren’t”.

    By George, I think she’s got it.

  34. Thank you, thank you for this concise, well stated, thoughtful graph. I have added it to my permanent collection.
    Labels–Left, Right, Center–are a substitute for thought. They’re a framing device. If I can label you–if I can put you in a pigeonhole–I can dismiss you. You are either “one of us” or “one of them.” Either way, I don’t have to consider your arguments on their merits.

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