Communist. Liberal. Moderate. Conservative. Fascist. This is just a sampling of labels that have been generously applied to political figures at the expense of evenhanded political dialogue. Using labels enables the erroneous denigration of diverse political principles.
Pundits and politicians sling these false characterizations around carelessly in an effort to box in their opponents’ values. Politics has reached a point where the language used partitions the philosophical landscape with fallacious boundaries of discourse — straw fences.
America’s arrival at this juncture is similar to its desire for fast food. As a result of the demand for convenient and digestible politics, the media have essentially developed a system of drive-thru politics. While this may make the selection process easier, it hurts the citizenry and the country by developing “health risks” to public policies.
Superficially classifying a politician’s philosophy based on a small selection of issues makes it easier for some voters to decide how they feel about a candidate. After all, if you order from the value menu you’re limited to a particular selection with no substitutes. Don’t even think about having it your way in contemporary American politics.
Perhaps the most impressive exploitation of political language was achieved by Karl Rove. Thanks to Rove’s unscrupulous genius, the term “liberal” is now used pejoratively more than ever. In both the primary and general elections Barack Obama has been framed as “the most liberal senator” in an attempt to alienate voters who do not consider themselves liberal. It is unclear how they arrived at this figure or how one could even begin to quantify liberalness. If someone does figure out how to measure liberalism and conservatism scientifically, I propose “latte” as a unit of measurement for the former and “six-pack” for the latter.
Michael Dukakis and John Kerry know how devastating the dreaded “L-word” can be. It had an even greater effect when coupled with their state’s name. During Kerry’s campaign, “Massachusetts liberal” soon become a common phrase used to reduce a candidate to a single negative element.
Who knew a state’s name could be used as a criticism? Even Mitt Romney, 2008 Republican presidential candidate, had image issues related to his position as governor of Massachusetts.
A true objective analysis of an issue must be done apart from one’s predisposed notion of what is correct. It is much easier to arrive at an untainted and rational position by reducing each issue to its smallest components. It seems almost obvious that one should use scientific and ethical examination rather than see an issue exclusively through the lens of conservative or liberal (or worse yet, Democratic or Republican) viewpoints.
Unfortunately, it is hard to step away from what is comfortable. Many times, a belief in a particular political view is predicated by itself. In other words, the ideology one holds is a product of tradition and custom rather than scrutiny and investigation.
Even the so-called “sensible centrism” heralded by many pinned as moderates falls short of reductive analysis. Instead of trying to develop a policy that is best for a country based on scientific, historical and socioeconomic conditions, the effort is put into compromising between two imaginary poles of “left” and “right.”
The ongoing battle between liberals and conservatives is absurd. Two ambiguous, essentially meaningless labels cannot be valued as having credence in any formal debate. It is illusory banner-waving to think it’s possible to side with the left or the right. The justification for holding a belief must stand apart from any overbearing, abstract political philosophy. A healthy skepticism of one’s beliefs forces political dialogue to focus on pointed arguments based tightly around ethics, applicability and functionality.
The only label we should share with solidarity is “American.”
Daniel Dunn is a junior majoring in philosophy.