Behind the Misleading Labels

One of my pet peeves–okay, one of the aspects of American political debate that absolutely drives me up the wall–is the substitution of labels for adult argumentation. We see the use of labels to dismiss factual disputes from all parts of the political spectrum, with right-wingers accusing Democrats–and even moderate Republicans– of being “socialists” and”Marxists” and left-wingers calling everyone to the right of Bernie Sanders   “fascists.”

In fact, I just did that too–I labeled by using the terms “left” and “right”–terms that aren’t remotely accurate. What passes for the far left in the U.S. is middle-of-the-road in Europe and elsewhere, and while we have definitely seen a growing number of American fascists, most of the screamers on what we think of as the political right are just our usual, garden-variety racists and White Nationalists.

These right and left labels are especially misleading, because what constitutes left and right in American politics has shifted. Dramatically.

I’m an excellent example. When I ran for Congress in 1980, as a (pro-choice, pro-gay-rights) Republican, I was routinely labeled “too conservative.” Today, I’m just as routinely accused of being a lefty/ socialist,  although I haven’t changed my political philosophy. (I have changed my positions on a couple of issues, as a result of learning more about them, but I haven’t changed my underlying approach to issues of liberty and the role of government.)

In other words, while I stood philosophically still, the popular definitions of “left” and “right” changed. The Overton Window shifted.

In a recent column, Paul Krugman considered how–and why– that change occurred.

As anyone with a living braincell has observed, today’s GOP bears little to no resemblance to the party I once belonged to, and its transformation from a respectable center-right political party to the irrational and frightening cult it has become is a vivid illustration of how misleading those labels really are.

Krugman reminds us that the change occurred over many years; Trump was just the most recent manifestation. He rquoted congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, who warned us in 2016 that the GOP had become “an insurgent outlier” that rejected “facts, evidence and science” and didn’t accept the legitimacy of political opposition. And he noted a 2019 survey of international political parties intended to determine their commitment to basic democratic principles and minority rights. The G.O.P., the survey found, “looks nothing like center-right parties in other Western countries. What it resembles, instead, are authoritarian parties like Hungary’s Fidesz or Turkey’s A.K.P.”

Such analyses have frequently been dismissed as over the top and alarmist. Even now, with Republicans expressing open admiration for Viktor Orban’s one-party rule, I encounter people insisting that the G.O.P. isn’t comparable to Fidesz. (Why not? Republicans have been gerrymandering state legislatures to lock in control no matter how badly they lose the popular vote, which is right out of Orban’s playbook.) Yet as Edward Luce of The Financial Times recently pointed out, “at every juncture over last 20 years the America ‘alarmists’ have been right.”

Why has this happened?

Krugman compared the GOP transformation to populist emergences in Europe, and found those comparisons unhelpful. His ultimate conclusion was persuasive.

It’s a puzzle. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking for historical precursors — cases in which right-wing extremism rose even in the face of peace and prosperity. And I think I’ve found one: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

It’s important to realize that while this organization took the name of the post-Civil War group, it was actually a new movement — a white nationalist movement to be sure, but far more widely accepted, and less of a pure terrorist organization. And it reached the height of its power — it effectively controlled several states — amid peace and an economic boom.

What was this new K.K.K. about? I’ve been reading Linda Gordon’s “The Second Coming of the K.K.K.: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition,” which portrays a “politics of resentment” driven by the backlash of white, rural and small-town Americans against a changing nation. The K.K.K. hated immigrants and “urban elites”; it was characterized by “suspicion of science” and “a larger anti-intellectualism.” Sound familiar?

OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K. But Republican extremism clearly draws much of its energy from the same sources.

And because G.O.P. extremism is fed by resentment against the very things that, as I see it, truly make America great — our diversity, our tolerance for difference — it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.

It’s hard to argue with Krugman’s diagnosis. It’s even harder to see just how the rest of us can recapture our governing institutions. If we don’t, however, in short order that “fascist” label will become horrifyingly accurate.


  1. I can certainly argue with Krugman’s diagnosis since he isn’t even addressing the people who pay all their money to manipulate the modern-day GOP. This is my primary complaint with all these supposed experts why do they overlook the oligarchs pulling the strings?

    You know, the seats of power. The cartoonish characters running around looking for a microphone are just playing a part for money. So are the people holding the microphone!

    If you know anything about resentment, you know it is always fear-based. I can easily manipulate you if I know what you fear the most. The people with money use it wisely to manipulate people with fears.

    Guess what, though. If you’re black, brown, gay, female, etc., and fear _______, I can also manipulate you.

    That’s all politics is today…it’s oligarchs manipulating fearful people who identify with one of our two political parties.

    And because the Democratic Party has leaned so far to the “right” guess what they are doing across the country?

    Making it impossible for political parties Left of them. In fact, if our free press was really independent and doing their jobs instead of the propaganda outfits we have today, guess where most Americans would lie on the political spectrum?

    To the Left of the Democratic Party. Unless you are an Oligarch who wants to keep on oppressing other Americans or own them as slaves. LOL

  2. As the current SK post stated:
    “it cannot be appeased or compromised with. It can only be defeated.”
    It is critical that “VOTE BLUE no matter WHO” be the playbook for the foreseeable future.
    They have been up to no good since the TEA party days and it will continue until they are soundly defeated. I can only hope — and vote — and donate

  3. It is good to point out a problem, but I hope for a solution as well-intentioned people begin to ponder the future of freedom and democracy in our country and the world at large.
    In agreement with Todd’s premise of “follow the money”, one thing I find sadly missing from the Jan 6 Commission is an effort to go after the dark money behind the insurrection. I do want to see the seditionists prosecuted, including Cheetohead and his minions, but to leave the money alone is to leave half the job undone.

  4. Regarding misleading labels, we must begin to understand by realizing “That was then, this is now.” A slightly paraphrased line from a very old movie, “America has never had to live with an enemy taking over this country.” We ARE living with that now; move ahead to a once popular cartoon character Pogo and we find the reason, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

    I turned to my dictionary for definitions of “mafia” and “Fascism” and found that we must find a term combining both to name current conditions brought about by one obese, pussy-grabbing, White Nationalist named Donald Trump and turn inward for answers as to how and why he was so quickly and easily able to “deconstruct” our government and democracy in less than four years after more than two centuries “discussing policy” to resolve most of our differences. The meanings, pro and con, for the term “socialism” will probably rage on as it has for decades due to misunderstanding as to how it is used in this country.

    Part of the problem behind “misleading labels” is the overuse of acronyms; there are simply too many issues and organizations, domestic and foreign, for us to know or remember the meanings behind virtually hundreds of acronyms appearing today in news reports and used by elected officials. A few years ago my granddaughter proudly announced on Facebook that she had been accepted as a “BM donor”; this resulted in a flurry of questions and comments till she explained she meant “Breast Milk donor”. Few realized there is such an organization which provides breast milk for hospitalized babies whose mothers cannot provide milk themselves. We are inundated daily, some days hourly, with new and conflicting “Breaking News” using labels and acronyms due to fighting the enemy within which now comes down to levels of family members, friends and neighbors and the fact that our elected officials have forgotten their Oath of Office as soon as they swear to uphold it.

  5. The reality deniers will always point to American government is being so redundant and unsinkable, it’s like a political Titanic! But in reality, the lookouts missed detecting the iceberg, so it sinks! The same outcome as the torpedoed Lusitania years before! So, undoubtedly, the sentinels today will not prevent the sinking of this Society. Will historians ask the same questions they did about the Egyptian, the Persian, the Greek, the Roman, and British empires, concerning the American experiment?

    No doubt they probably will, if, there’s any one to discuss this time in history left. The fiddler is fiddling on the roof unfortunately the house is on fire! Optical delusion, a self-deluded faith in men, that somehow, they can change the cycle of history? Never again the Lusitania? We’ve built the Titanic! Well, it was the same outcome in the end. With Society centered on self, how can there be a positive outcome?

    When self-aggrandizement and self-centered Me’ist culture rules, there can be no positive outcome. Everyone can shout the obvious, but nobody listens! The end justifies the means? More likely the means justify the end! The only thing misguided Trust and Faith in self have accomplished? Misery, War and Death! Those spots and stripes will never change.

  6. Regarding money in politics, the game has been changed. Too many people focus on corporate donations. But the real money driving much of what is going on in the GOP is the small donations and to get those as a candidate/office holder you have to engage in outrageous acts and say outrageous stuff. One of the best fundraisers in the Republican Party is Marjorie Taylor Greene and she gets zero corporate dollars. Not having to rely on big money from corporate sponsors has freed Republicans to act even more extreme.

  7. “It’s even harder to see just how the rest of us can recapture our governing institutions. If we don’t, however, in short order that “fascist” label will become horrifyingly accurate.”

    “A House divided against itself cannot stand.” Nor can a Senate! “A rose called by any other name can smell as sweet.” But a divided United States called by the same name does not remain UNITED States.

  8. “OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K.”

    Yes it is.

  9. If I may repeat myself, “vote Blue” makes close to zero difference in district-specific (state or Federal) races where the district has been gerrymandered to be BLUE. Wanna make a difference? Give money to a candidate who might have a chance to take out a MAGA. Not many of these, but they exist. Most MAGAs are in districts that start with a GOP 15-40 % vote advantage. Get real, folks…

  10. I think it’s great that somebody felt the need to go back to the 1920s to describe the movement of the GOP to the way, way, way too far right. I’d go back farther than that to the good old days of what we used to call “waving the bloody flag.” North AND South Dakota when the Dakota Territory altogether had fewer residents than any of the other states? Why? Because Grover Cleveland had the audacity to win the Presidency, Can’t have that, so let’s bring in not 2, but 4 Senators and at least one Congressperson per state, all with an eye on the Electoral College. Even earlier, remember that they also gave up on reconstruction to maintain the Presidency, giving us the extraordinarily mediocre Rutherford B. Hayes. The arc of GOP history seems to bend toward authoritarianism.

    There have been many remarkable Republicans, who have done a great deal of good. I still have respect for the likes of Everett Dirksen, Margaret Chase Smith, Teddy Roosevelt, Sheila Kennedy (naturally), and Liz Chaney (whose policy positions are mostly bonkers) who put country before party.

  11. When one can end a debate by announcing that his/her opponent is a socialist leaves the issue undebated and cheats the polity of understanding where the “debaters” stand. Further, the meaning of “socialist” varies a great deal depending upon the particular society to which it is to be applied, as Todd rightly suggests with his observation that the American people are to the left of both parties – which introduces the meaning of “left” to the political equation. “Left” of what?

    What’s left or socialist seems to me to have no universal meaning depending, as they do, on extraneous variables galore, including even geography. I also worry that our attention these days is diverted by such word games while Rome is burning, and burning brightly since the end of the Supreme Court’s term last week. Perhaps it’s time to ignore word salads and instead debate the real issues of the day – energetically and without ceasing – like adding four new justices to the Supreme Court and saving the planet, for instance.

  12. Evolution, be it physical or cultural is an organic response to changing environments. These times there are massive changes overwhelming the human race. They aren’t homogeneous but then environmental changes never are. Each large group of people experiences different changes but there are global themes.

    Overpopulation is one. The realization that our energy system has become unaffordable is another forcing us to collectively take on the largest project humans have ever faced, but despite that, our past energy related behaviors have permanent consequences now as well no matter what we do. The obvious end of the illusion of world peace is another.

    The world is different now than it was over most of many of the human lives on the planet and we are truly terrible at change when we are out of control of it.

    Global post-traumatic stress disorder has consumed the entire human population.

    What that collective and individual PTSD has left in its wake are both functional and dysfunctional responses.

    Our future is in the hands of those responses and the balance between them.

  13. Thanks, Peggy, for reminding me of what I think was the first Republican theft of the presidency when Tilden (the modern day Gore) was counted out by Hayes (the modern day Bush). Trump tried his luck, too; but his 1/6 caper lost out to a 50-state certification that his opponent won and his own VP counted. Perhaps, as Stalin once noted, he (Stalin) was more interested in who counted the votes than those who voted.

  14. The immense power that the gop white nationalist extremists have acquired through their skillful use of propaganda has brought our country to a breaking point. In my view, everything about this right wing power mirrors Hitler’s radical takeover in the late thirties and I can only see things continuing to get worse.

    The Dem national party leadership has chosen to remain silent while fascist right wingers continuously scream lies at the top of their lungs. We don’t see or hear anything at all from the top national or state party leaders. As a realist I don’t have hope for any positive change in the near future. It seems that the people choosing to believe the rightwing propaganda will not wake up until they finally realize they dug their own graves by voting the fascists/autocrats into power. The fascist leaders will then be met with violent outrage from their former followers who will use the weapons that propaganda convinced them they needed.

  15. the past convesations with like minded trumpers,in a blue collar world,they didnt have a clue who anti-fa was. it was given a definaition by the rightwing,er, wherever they get their needless drivel,became a catch phrase to them. i dress in black jeans and black Ts ,( wear blue jeans also,stained,but the black dickies T has been my solid dress code for decades)my job is to haul asphault,road oil, 350 degrees,messy,tar,whatever. in my forays of discussion,with those i have casual conversation about whatever, they would agree,democracy must be kept,our rights to,own guns say so,etc. at one point back a few years ago during construction season in NoDak,the word anti-fa was in style again.. seems those liberals who,protect your rights no matter what,have stoked trumps fire over some needless crap. it was the topic of the day. in conversation i heard the term anti-fa used to degrade the idea that anti facism was killing America. look i said, you know i defend the rights of all? right, as they look me over,i asked,how does the anti-fa dress? again,blank stares. your looking at one… damn ya coulda pushed them over with a lite breeze.. they didnt question me they looked like,they just swallowed a hand full of hot asphault.. most of these people dont read,period,they only contribute when their mentors of death are listening,and what they have been programed to repeat… someday if? we lose our democracy over their ignorance,we can atest that people like murderdock and his band of billionaires killed America,one word at a time…

  16. “‘OK, the modern G.O.P. isn’t as bad as the second K.K.K.’”

    “Yes it is.” I have to agree with Lester, on this!

  17. The mass of labels, acronyms, etc. is yet another symptom of the destruction of “us” into multiple “we” tribes, enabled/driven by technology. Even the chant “USA” doesn’t mean the same thing anymore, nor the flag. I fear that this “Independence Day” may be the very last that any significant meaning for a majority of Americans…

  18. “Pet Peeve”?? Heck No!! How about Outrage? These labels from the GOP make my blood boil (and I really don’t want to take any more blood pressure meds). They’ve got people scared to death of the word “socialism”. So, I have to ask: Which horrible socialist countries scare you? … Sweden…Denmark… Canada… UK… Australia? Or would you rather us be like Communist countries? … like Trump’s favorite buddies… Russia… North Korea… China? Do the words Fascism, Authoritarianism, Oligarchy make you feel warm all over?
    I recently talked to a guy (probably in his 60s or 70s who lamented the move to Socialism. I wanted to thank him for not taking Social Security, Medicare or his government- guaranteed savings account. Being the nice guy I am, I kept my mouth shut.
    Democrats’ biggest problem is they always want to be the nice guys. Take the high road when Republicans take the low road.
    And how about “Conservative”? There is nothing about the GOP that is conservative. Small government means stay out of people’s personal lives… like abortion, gay marriage… freedom to vote for a representative government (you know, like it’s outlined in the real Constitution).
    Make a list of all the issues currently before the House and Senate. Which of those are designed to punish people and which actually help people? You can guess how they fall along partisan lines.
    Thanks for the rant space. I’m going for a long walk and a nap now.

  19. Republican candidates that are pro-life, pro-second amendment, and pro-medical freedom are logically and morally inconsistent and obviously lying. I tell candidates that when they call me.

  20. Gail,

    So this is the crap sack that your mindless umbilical cord is attached to? Good for you! Garbage in, garbage out? How about, bull crap in and manure out? Yes, you faithful and dedicated manure spreaders! Your cited article is about as intellectual as a bean fart!

    Victor Davis hanson? He’s a smart fellow? He’s a senior fellow at a right-wing think tank? That’s what they call it these days? A think tank? It used to be called a septic tank.

    Since he’s a smart fellow, say this 5 times fast: “Hanson’s a smart fellow he felt smart” the truth will be revealed lol!

  21. You know John, all your “christian” talk is just that: TALK …. you love hearing YOURSELF TALK. Do you think anyone actually reads those “novels” you write on here ????
    1 Corinthians 1:27
    BTW – ever hear of a place called “Stanford”?

  22. We play our government in the margins. It is already socialist in nature politically. Most Republicans see the increase of new programs now an overreach much more than before, we are polarized, but polarization is not what is defeating us. It is the demonization of the other side. Clarence Thomas is a black conservative judge. The racism in the democracy is yelling out loud and clear as he is worse than Satan himself as he looks at the original intent citing the amendments to the constitution.
    Let us wirk together to find solutions. The policies in regard to climate change are being challenged acccross the globe as leftist lunacy. We may financially lose 2% of our wealth due to climate change. But some are saying that each persons wealth may grow substantially and wealth is what allows us to change to EVs and other technologies. When the government over reaches and shuts down farms and small industry, we see the lical economies fail. On a large scale that outs us into a recession. Its not the words of socialism but the policies of government according to economists that say we need to priorotize climate change solutions not make them so they destroy the poor and middle class as we see right now. Inflation is running rampant not due to use of words by one party to describe another, but one party actually instituting policies that even economists in the Obama administration a calling out as too far gone, or continual missteps.
    Socialism is here and we are seeing the effects. Words are nothing but political mud slinging, but todays government over reach is destroying our financial futures one family at a time.

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