The Problem With Labels

I’ve written previously about the problem labels present for political discourse. Rather than a means of communication–labels are used to insult, to foreclose communication.

When I was younger, the insult was “liberal,” and when that lost its potency, the Right  substituted “socialist.”

You can make a pretty convincing argument that people throwing these terms around are utterly unable to define them. (When Putin asserted that western liberalism had outlived its usefulness Trump’s embarrassing response disclosed he hasn’t the foggiest notion what western liberalism is.)

Paul Krugman addressed the intentional misuse of economic terminology in a recent column

The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists — no, not even Bernie Sanders, whose embrace of the label is really more about branding (“I’m anti-establishment!”) than substance.

Nobody in these debates wants government ownership of the means of production, which is what socialism used to mean. Most of the candidates are, instead, what Europeans would call “social democrats”: advocates of a private-sector-driven economy, but with a stronger social safety net, enhanced bargaining power for workers and tighter regulation of corporate malfeasance. They want America to be more like Denmark, not more like Venezuela.

Of course, reality won’t keep the GOP from using the term to frighten their base (most of whom couldn’t define socialism if their lives depended on it), and assorted pundits are agonizing over the effectiveness of this strategy in columns with titles like “Are Democrats Moving Too Far To The Left?”

The belief that there is electoral danger in policies that are too “left,” however, rests on what may be a faulty premise: that the 2020 election will be a contest between Left and Right. An interview conducted for the Atlantic with Dave Wasserman, an editor for the Cook Report suggests otherwise.

Wasserman agreed that more extreme positions would be unwise– a platform of completely open borders or the immediate abolition of private health insurance. As he said, there are, of course, limits. But he sees the political battleground as essentially cultural, not ideological.

A few of his observations:

Generally, the tiny sliver of voters in this country who are still persuadable are not highly ideological people. They are fundamentally anti-élite in nature, and they are looking for three characteristics in a candidate for President that don’t have much to do with left-versus-right. And those characteristics are authenticity, being a credible agent for change, and empathy. In other words, does this person understand my daily struggles? And a common thread between Obama and Trump was a common touch.

It’s all relative, but, whether it was having been a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago or a billionaire who ate K.F.C. and went to professional wrestling matches, it struck a chord with those voters….

At this point in 2015, there was a widespread notion that the Republican candidate who wanted to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it was unelectable in a general election. That proved to be false. And we should be careful about making broad pronouncements about platform positions such as Medicare for All or an overhaul of ICE….

Wasserman noted that the bar is much higher for Democrats, thanks to the Electoral College, but he dismissed conventional wisdom about needing to appeal to “moderates” as a result.

I believe too much of the media in Washington, D.C., is viewing candidates’ chances against Trump through a left-versus-right spectrum, or a sliding scale, in which if they nominate Biden they can win middle America, but if they nominate someone too far left they will risk alienating those voters. I don’t view it that way. The reason that, in my opinion, Biden is vulnerable—perhaps more vulnerable than other Democrats in the race [against] Trump—is that I have watched congressional races for the last twelve years, and, over and over again, I have seen candidates with long paper trails and voting records get picked apart for every comment they made twenty or thirty years ago. And that’s what is happening at the moment.

Wasserman dismisses the hope that disillusioned Trump voters will desert him; he says they have become “culturally loyal” to Trump. And he points out that those voters are likelier to live in places where local news is declining—making them more susceptible to aggressive social-media propaganda campaigns.

And he clearly expects the “aggressive” use of social media, like the one Fox employs on Facebook.

The entire interview is worth reading.


  1. I have pointed out on Facebook often that virtually every country in the world today has a mixed economy with the choice between capitalism (some of us own the means of production) and socialism (all of us own the means of production) by market. Markets in which competition is practical and regulation can protect essential stakeholders (consumers, investors, employees, suppliers, public, environment) can benefit from private ownership of the means of production but otherwise public ownership is necessary.

    The terms of “capitalist” or “socialist” countries are meaningless. They are left over memories of the 20th century economic philosophy era that’s been resolved now as mixed economies won the debate and the experimentation with alternatives.

  2. “The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists …”

    I view this move left as changing with the changing times; of course not even Bernie is seeking actual socialism but upholding government regulations set in place to secure and protect the country and its people. The Democratic party is currently running in place as if on a hamster’s exercise wheel due to the forced retreat to the Republican view of our future.

    Those of us who remember, but not necessarily supported the Republican party of the past, ask what happened to it and keep accusing it of deserting them. The regulars on this blog know I love using movie quotes to make a point; can’t remember where I got this one but I believe it describes those Republicans in office who secretly speak against Trump but publicly vote “yea” on all of his issues: “Have you (they) moved away by standing still?” They are trapped in their own party’s hamster exercise wheel and refuse to jump off.

    “Wasserman dismisses the hope that disillusioned Trump voters will desert him; he says they have become “culturally loyal” to Trump. And he points out that those voters are likelier to live in places where local news is declining—making them more susceptible to aggressive social-media propaganda campaigns.”

    The Indianapolis Star (currently the USA TODAY NETWORK) and our local news reporting are excellent examples of the decline. Certainly, the bar is set much higher for Democrats, we are looking to the future beyond the coming Friday when Trump ends the weekly chaotic and traumatic events for us to stew about over the weekend.

    Labels, like job titles, can be used as a form of identification or as they appear to have become today, “them’s fightin’ words!”. Label me “Democrat”, “liberal”, “Democratic socialist”, “leftist” or “trouble maker”…”a rose by any other name…”; this old woman will keep on fighting for democracy, Rule of Law, the Constitution and civil and human rights for all. And the bottom line is fighting against Trump, Pence, McConnell, Graham and the White Nationalist party in the White House today.

  3. finding that the working class i deal with,const,trucking,seem to follow,FB and most times its carried over from a assoc FB,who moves the info to thier FB acct,or social forum.tieing the web and spreading it. i do not, and will never,use such devices or its forum. i read,i keep abrest of a few subjects,and pass it on,face to face. and now that is becoming a problem. people dont seem to want to talk,or avoid it. lazy? to self absorbed? avoid others perspectives? cant deal with issues? cant deal with life? being i work with the same socio economic group,its a little easier. but when im out and about i hear real time spin on subjects,being passed on by another group. if i pass on the story ( actual independant journalists)and reasons why they got it wrong,,they tend to feel interupted,and just go away,your wrong.. though it may well be a issue ive followed for decades. and back it up with stories and issues related. of course,here is a issue. people are generally to lazy to read,or dont have a clue, or where to look. i believe the euro form of socializm is, the best market. and the euros form of privacy ranks well above Americans bastardized version of privacy.(none) their social progamns formed from post war years,ours are still,locked in the civil war years,,, best wishes,y,all

  4. I would argue that any use of the “left-right” political spectrum nullifies your argument on the spot. It’s fun to talk about but doesn’t represent our reality which is “top-down” or an Oligarchy.

    Robert Reich writes: “In reality, the biggest divide in America today runs between oligarchy and democracy. When oligarchs fill the coffers of political candidates, they neuter democracy. The oligarchs know politicians won’t bite the hands that feed them. So as long as they control the money, they can be confident there will be no meaningful response to stagnant pay, climate change, military bloat or the soaring costs of health insurance, pharmaceuticals, college, and housing.”

    The folks accused of being socialist really want more democracy in the equation vs Oligarchic rule. The whole left-right argument is to keep America divided. The Trump followers think Donny had plans to snub the Oligarchs because he was a billionaire himself. His tax cut plan was evidence he had no such plans and uses his position to enrich himself and his fellow Oligarchs.

    I repeat, Donald has done nothing to “drain the swamp” and honest followers would be able to admit this to themselves and others.

  5. And all this time, I thought the next election was a battle of good vs. evil, light vs darkness.

  6. Pete and Todd capture the essence of the coming election. That said, Democrats need to get off their asses and campaign EVERYWHERE. The DNC and Clinton didn’t ask enough people for their votes. They ignored those they could have had vote for them. This is a DNC problem and Tom Perez must realize that by now, or we’ll absolutely lose our democracy to the Trump-ites and the compliant Republican (Germans).

  7. I see a pattern to Trump’s campaigning this season. He goes to medium size cities that border two or more red states. The advantage to that is that he draws a crowd from more than one red state where he needs to win the electoral vote, and he get press and TV news coverage from those surrounding states. You won’t see him in the big cities because he knows that he will get plenty of coverage just by appearing in their state, and he will not draw big crowds of protesters. He is crazy like a fox.

  8. Now that Trump is furious with Fox Noise (you know, his state owned media) for reporting some actual facts that he doesn’t like, can there be a sliver of hope that Fox viewers might begin to see a bit of reality? Could this ultimately affect their devotion to those awful opinion creatures on that network that keep their watchers extremely angry by believing in the lies they conjure up?

    Common sense tells me that those news reporters will be cut off at the knees if they continue to report the truth about Trump and what is actually going on. That could ultimately be bad for business and media’s number one purpose is to bring in advertising dollars. Oh well, wishful thinking was fun for a moment.

  9. Virtually all of the thinking left behind by the country’s founders addresses what “we the people” need from government in order to consent to living governed.

    That wisdom has be shunted aside by tv political evangelists spouting propaganda/fake news/advertising/brainwashing in support of oligarchy simply because that’s where the money is. It’s just like Willy Sutton’s famous remarks as to why he robs banks.

  10. Trump is beatable, but not in the partisan politics arena. We have to find a VENUE where RACE can be removed as the overriding issue.

  11. Theresa – kudos – nails on the head! The Trump evil planners have a mark on each and every electoral vote they need – just like last time. They don’t care if he loses by 10M popular votes. The gerrymandering by the GOP-led states has his map before him…

  12. Thank you all.
    It is truly not about “Us vs. Them”… a larger frame of reference we all fit into both catagories.

  13. Some history > I disagree with Republican propaganda that Democrats have moved to “the left,” whatever that is in the real world of political science. I have written elsewhere that Democrats have not moved “left” but rather that Republicans have moved to the hard “right,” which leaves the appearance of a move “left” by Democrats, that we Democrats are still fundamentally FDR New Dealers, and that insofar as “socialism” is concerned, Republicans who provide a pipeline of deregulation and tax money to their rich sponsors fit the definition of “socialists” far better than Democrats who favor breaks for the many as opposed to breaks for the few.

    At the expense of being labeled politically old-fashioned, it is worth remembering that FDR came into not only a hair-raising depression but a laissez faire unregulated marketplace marked by the “Roaring Twenties” in which (during the Thirties) I personally saw communists and Nazis with hammers and sickles and swastikas emblazoned on their shoulders marching in New York City as we were headed for failed state status. (I saw these marches on what was then called Movietone News, which usually preceded the movie to be shown in those days, movies that cost a dime to attend before FDR’s luxury tax, after which “the show” cost an outrageous eleven cents.)

    With Social Security, the WPA, CCC, SEC, federal insurance of bank accounts that ended bank runs and other “socialist” measures as defined by Republicans of that day, we rebounded from the depression and a war, after which we had the greatest sustained boom and expansion of the middle class in history, marked by wage equality that moved in tandem with the Dow up to Powell’s infamous memo and Reagan’s destruction of FDR’s New Deal. Financiers have since taken over our markets and lately our government, and as for socialist and communists, I am reminded of an old politician who when asked to define a communist, replied that “A communist is anybody you don’t like.”

    I think that view is overstated, but neither Republicans nor Democrats can give such a blanket definition of socialism, seeing as how we “capitalists” are knee-deep in socialistic practices ranging from Social Security to highways to many other practices and investments that we do better together than privately while recognizing that there are practices and investments that private interests do better in varying mixtures of private and public efforts designed to benefit the common good. The argument is not whether capitalism or socialism is bad; the argument is rather in what proportion and to what end the employment of one or the other or in what proportion of both we shall choose for use in practices and investments most likely to make for the common good. It thus comes down to definition of the common good. I define that phrase as what’s best for the most; others apparently define it as what’s best for the few who will keep them in power the good times rolling. Ah, there’s the rub. . .

  14. Honestly, I am not sure I understand your criticism of labels.

    Cambridge Dictionary: a word or a phrase that is used to describe the characteristics or qualities of people, activities, or things, often in a way that is unfair.

    I suppose you mean if the “characteristics or qualities” are untrue or unfair; otherwise labels are ubiquitous, and I would argue essential, in our thought and speech.

  15. Todd is right on. We are, as Jimmy Carter says, an oligarchy with legalized bribery.

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