Tag Archives: labels


A few days ago, Peggy left a profound comment about the cause of America’s currently unproductive public discourse. She wrote “The problem is actually in the labelling. Take the Democratic legislative priorities in Congress. If you just poll on the issues, urban and rural both approve of the voting rights bill, the infrastructure bill, and even the immigration (almost) reform bill. Only when you add the label Dem or GOP do they disagree.”

Let me share a recent illustration.

This week, our family is at the beach in South Carolina. We drive from Indianapolis (a long haul!!) and come in through Georgetown, SC. We typically stop on Front Street at Georgetown for lunch, and because we were meeting a cousin and we were a bit early, I shopped a bit. In one shop, I asked the owner what had happened to a similar store that was no longer there. She explained how the pandemic had hurt local retailing (which was already suffering), and we commiserated over the reluctance of people to be vaccinated.

Then she said something to the effect that “at least we aren’t Cuba–I hope Americans aren’t dumb enough to become socialists.” It was abundantly clear that she would not have been able to define “socialism” if her life had depended upon it.

And that’s our problem–right AND left. We throw labels around–often as epithets–because that relieves us of the need to actually know what we’re talking about. It explains the often-noted conundrum Peggy referenced between public opinion on particular issues and the same public’s rejection of those advocating for those issues: large majorities of Americans support Medicare, for example, but oppose “socialized” medicine.

As I have repeatedly noted, all functioning societies have mixed economies in which they “socialize” certain services and leave others to the private sector. We socialize–that is, communally provide–things like police and fire protection, public education (currently under attack), infrastructure (currently crumbling) and municipal services like garbage collection. We do so because we’ve concluded that the service is important and communal delivery is more cost-effective. National health care wouldn’t turn us into Cuba (nor, unfortunately, Denmark.)

Similarly, if you deconstruct the online diatribes I encounter against “Capitalism,” they mostly fail to distinguish between market economies and the corrupted corporatism that dominates in America these days.

As I have argued previously, labeling is not analysis. Worse, it gets in the way of thoughtful or productive discussion. The media’s default description of pretty much all public policies is “Left” or “Right.” That’s easy–and almost always misleading. In an era of tribalism and partisanship, the mere labeling of a proposal as either right or left eclipses any effort to ask the pertinent questions: does this make sense? Does this solve a real problem? Can we enforce it? Instead, the argument gets reduced to: “Who wins? Is this something those people support? If so, I don’t.”

With respect to those hysterical GOP accusations that Democrats are all “socialists,” I still quote a 2019 Paul Krugman column addressing the misuse of economic terminology:

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.

The foundational policy questions are: what is government for? What sorts of things do rational people believe government must–or should–do, and what sorts of things should a free country leave to the private sector? What sorts of rules should government establish to ensure that private economic activity is conducted fairly, and what sorts of regulatory activity is over-reaching? 

Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.

Left, Right, Center: Just Words

When it became apparent that Joe Biden had effectively won the Democratic nomination, it intensified the longstanding arguments between the party’s moderate and left wings about just where the American public falls on that beloved–and misleading–left/right spectrum.

A good example was this article from Washington Monthly, reprinted on Alterrnet.

This is the fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere: Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016; Sanders-style revolutionary candidates lost most of their Congressional races in 2018 while moderates were much more successful; Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was obliterated in Great Britain by buffoonish Boris Johnson’s Tories in a direct Sanders-Trump parallel; and now the Biden victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.

But defeatism would be the wrong lesson for leftists interested in passing social democratic policies in America and Britain. The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform.

The article went on to point to the mountain of social science research confirming that so-called “Leftist” policies are favored by significant majorities of Americans, which is undeniably true. (The author also pointed out those insisting that economic self-interest can trump cultural divisions are just as undeniably wrong.)

This was just one article among hundreds arguing that this or that campaign success or failure was the result of mistaken political strategies and issue framing. (If Bernie hadn’t insisted on using the word “socialist”….)

To an extent, that’s true.  What all of these analyses miss, however, is the role played by our American insistence on labeling everything. It isn’t simply intellectually lazy; labels significantly distort political reality.

If I consider myself a moderate or conservative, I will recoil when told that position A is “socialist” or “communist.” If I consider myself a liberal or socialist, I will automatically oppose measure A if it is supported by people I consider conservative or reactionary.

Actually, what is “left” and what is “right” at any given time is highly contingent.

When I was a politically-active Republican, the majority of the views I held were the same views I share on this blog. (Not all, obviously, but most. My basic political philosophy has been pretty consistent.) Back then, I was labeled “very conservative.” As the GOP marched over the ideological cliff,  my positions–which hadn’t changed– became “liberal.”

Hard as it may be to believe in our culturally and politically polarized time, many of the positions that Americans label “far left” today were considered unremarkable and mainstream in former years.

That shift is best explained by a concept called the Overton Window. Basically, as public opinion shifts, so does the location of the “middle.”  That middle, at any given time, defines what is politically possible.

In a sane society (granted, that isn’t what we currently inhabit), voters would analyze political positions based upon the perceived ability of those specific proposals to solve identifiable problems–not upon the consistency of that proposal with a label ascribing it to a tribal ideology.

But that would require understanding the problem, agreeing that it is a problem, and thinking carefully about the pros and cons of the proposed solution. It’s so much easier to react not to the proposal but to its identification with the “tribe” that supports it.

I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things…..


Left, Right, Center–REALLY?

As the competition among Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination heats up, pundits are warning against taking the party “too far to the left,” or alternatively reminding readers that “centrists” are failing to connect with the party’s rank and file.

We are once again entering bullshit land, where labeling takes the place of analysis. Plop a label on a policy proposal and suddenly it is a call to arms: if the label says “left,” self-identified conservatives and centrists bristle and oppose it; if the label says “centrist” or “moderate,” it is reflexively opposed by self-identified leftists.

Needless to say, no one is considering the proposal on its merits.

This rush to categorize candidates and policies as right, left or center is not just misleading, it is lazy and often irrelevant (not every policy position can be crammed into a nice neat ideological box). This habit has irritated me for years– in fact, in 2003, I wrote about it.

Periodically, someone will respond to a column I have written with a statement beginning “well, you liberals always…” Being dismissed as a liberal always amuses me, because I hold precisely the same political values I held in 1980, when I was the Republican nominee running for Congress against Andy Jacobs, and a fair number of voters found me “too conservative.” The only thing that has changed is the label….

Well, to be fair, the GOP has also changed, galloping off to the radical far right, and pulling the “conservative” label with it. But I stand by the following paragraph:

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.)

Labelling an opponent’s proposal as “extreme” (left or right) is a tactic to undercut that proposal without actually engaging with it.

Allowing citizens to opt into Medicare (i.e. making Medicare a “public option”) or advocating expansion of the program (“Medicare for All”) are hardly proposals to dismantle capitalism. They are proposed solutions to a real and growing problem. Imposing higher marginal tax rates on the rich would return us to tax policies that used to be widely endorsed by both parties. Doing so would hardly turn America into a communist gulag.

These and other proposals may or may not be sound policy. We won’t know if we refuse to   address the particulars of suggested policies and instead simply label and dismiss them.

Pundits notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is that America doesn’t really have the sort of leftists that have long been active in Europe. What passes for left-wing in the United States is moderately progressive. To the extent there is extremism in the U.S., it is on the radical right, and the most important task facing Democrats and Independents is to rid the nation of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Flinging labels at each other won’t get that done.




The Purpose of Language

Perhaps Tallyrand was right when he (purportedly) said that language was given to man to conceal his thoughts; we sure aren’t using it in order to communicate with each other these days.

In order to use language to exchange ideas, rather than to evade the chore of thinking, we’d have to stop the increasing tendency to substitute labeling for communicating. There are two major problems with that substitution: it allows us to avoid responding to the merits of an argument, and the labels themselves are all too often devoid of any meaningful content.

As many of you know, I alternate columns in the IBJ with Peter Rusthoven–I write one week, he the next. Generally, we do not take issue with each other, but a few weeks ago, I wrote a column that criticized the GOPs repeated efforts to derail “Obamacare,” including the House of Representatives’ forty (meaningless/posturing) votes.  Rusthoven disagreed with that column, as he has a perfect right to do. But opened his “response” by pointing out that I am (in his lexicon, at least) a liberal. The implication was clear: we need not spend any time on the merits of her arguments, because we’ve placed her in this particular box and we have all made up our minds about the content of that box.

It may not be fair to pick on Peter for this behavior, because he is far from the only person who engages in it–on either side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, we all classify others to some extent; it’s human and it’s often efficient. The problem is, if we are going to affix a label that actually assists us in understanding where another person is coming from, we need to agree on the meaning of that label. And these days, we don’t.

Labels have lost their descriptive utility–they’ve become insults. Epithets. This is especially true of political labels.

A couple of years back, I proposed a quiz:

What highly placed political figure took each of the following actions?
  • Established the Environmental Protection Agency
  • Pardoned a powerful person who had committed a felony
  • Changed the rules governing welfare to restrict benefits and add work requirements
  • Defended the right of gays to serve in the military
  • Imposed wage and price controls during an inflationary spiral
The answers are: Richard Nixon established the EPA and imposed wage and price controls during his presidency; Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon after his resignation; Bill Clinton proposed and signed legislation “reforming welfare as we know it;” and Barry Goldwater vigorously defended the right of gays to serve openly in the military.
Which of these actions–and political figures– would we label “liberal” and which “conservative”?
Since Obama’s election, the problem has only worsened. The people who insist that the President is a “socialist” clearly don’t have the faintest idea what a socialist is. (And as I have pointed out elsewhere, he can’t be both a socialist and a Nazi at the same time; “National Socialism” is not the same thing as the political philosophy known as socialism.)
Actually, when I read “The Audacity of Hope,” it reminded me of my own platform when I ran for Congress in 1980–and at the time, I was labeled a conservative Republican.
When I encounter one of these accusatory critics, I want to shout “Agree with the President or disagree with him on the merits of his performance or positions. The substitution of (highly inaccurate) labels simply lets people know that you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
What reasonable people hear when a label is used in lieu of an argument is: I don’t like person X or position Y.  I have no clear reason for my animus, and no persuasive counter to his position, so I’ll just call up a handy label.
That’s not communication, and it doesn’t advance any debate.  Tallyrand to the contrary, it doesn’t even conceal the speaker’s thoughts.