Thursday, November 09, 2006

Political Labels as Epithets

Now that our six year national nightmare looks like it will turn into something more like a two year bad dream, the badness of which will depend upon how well George Bush responds to negotiating with a Democratic Congress, I turn in this blog to talk about political labels with spirits buoyed by the Democratic victories. My guess is that Bush will play nice for a few months and then turn into a petulant child.

As I said in my last blog, I got off my lazy rear end and worked for two days on the campaign in Ohio. I was actually misled by my recruiter into thinking that I would be working for Democratic Senate and House candidates, I found when I got there that I was working instead for a PAC devoted to promoting a rise in the minimum wage in Ohio. I was a bit bummed out by that since it seemed like a penny ante game and I wanted to be a high roller. I was told that the lists we were working with consisted of "progressive" and "independent" voters and after a short while, it occurred to me that anyone on my lists I could talk into going to the polls to vote for a minimum wage increase would likely also vote for Democratic candidates. Sometimes I am a little slow, it seems.

Though a rise in the minimum wage is a low profile issue with little sex appeal, it seems that working people very much favor it and will come to the polls to support it much as the religious right comes to the polls so they can vote for bans on gay marriage. Every one of the state issues supporting a rise won this year and I believe that more than half of the states have minimum wages higher than the nationally mandated level. One of the first bills to come out of the new Democratic Congress will be one that raises the national minimum wage.

The PAC I worked for consistently used the term "Progressive" to characterize who they were, not the term "Liberal." This was alien to an old guy like me who grew up with "Liberal,." "Moderate" or "Independent", and "Conservative" as the labels of choice. That put me in mind of the linguistic issues involved in our current political vernacular.

The term "Liberal" has successfully been turned into an epithet by Republicans, with most Republicans screaming "Tax and Spend Liberal"in every election like windup dolls, knowing that that had become an effective device for smearing their political opponents. Why did that work? The answer lies to some degree in the actions Liberals took while in power over a number of years going back to the administration of FDR. But that alone would, I think, be insufficient to turn "Liberal" into an effective epithet. Conservatives have done a lot of bad, unpopular things over the years (Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Bush 41 and Iran-Contra, and Bush 43 and the rampant corruption that brought down a large number of Republicans in this last election) but Democrats have never been able to turn "Conservative" into an epithet. "Right-Winger," Yes; "Conservative," No.

The word "conservative" has primarily positive connotations. Even Liberals are in support of conserving our natural resources. Retired Liberals would normally, I think, tell their financial advisers that they want to conserve as much of their capital as they can. The Webster's on line dictionary provides the following as "definitions" of "conservatism":
a: disposition in politics to preserve what is established
b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt changeNowhere
in this definition is the notion of preserving natural resources but that was once part of the backbone of the Republican Party but abandoned on the first or second day of the Bush Administration when he refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Because of these positive or, at least, non-negative associations, it is virtually impossible to convert the term "conservative" into an epithet.

The word "liberal" is rather different. The Webster dictionary just referred to mentions the following in its characterization of "liberal":
2 a : marked by generosity : OPENHANDED [a liberal giver]
b : given or provided in a generous and openhanded way [a liberal meal]
3 obsolete : lacking moral restraint : LICENTIOUS
4 : not literal or strict : LOOSE [a liberal translation]
5 : BROAD-MINDED; especially : not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional formsAs
one goes through these properties, it is easy to see how they could work to support turning the label "Liberal" into something quite negative.

The use of "Progressive" by those who work for the political action committee supporting the rise in the minimum wage seemed odd to me initially and then it struck me that the word is inherently positive. There are no negative connotations associated with it, at least in my mind. As a result, expect the Democratic House and Senate members to consistently call the program Nancy Pelosi plans to push in the First 100 Hours to drain the "Republican Swamp" as being "Progressive."

The last election was seen as a repudiation of the Republican Party. A fairer assessment is that it was a repudiation of Bush's Neo-Con Administration, an administration that promoted the interests of big business over those of the citizenry as a whole (tax cuts for the rich, relaxation of clean air and water regulations, no-bid contracts in Iraq for companies like Halliburton (the Texas company which swallowed Brown and Root, the Texas construction company Johnson used in Vietnam), etc.), did nothing to check the rampant corruption in the Republican party, pushed an aggressive foreign policy that put us in two wars, only one of which had any merit, and alienated almost all of the rest of the world. A third of the Religious Right voted Democratic according to one television report I watched because the Republican candidate in their district or state was associated with one scandal or another.

The label "Neo-Con" will live in infamy, I believe. Whether or not any Neo-Cons ever used the term to refer to themselves, Bush, Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, and Pearle (former Chairman of the Defense Policy Board) and the rest might as well have it branded to their heads. It is ugly-sounding and is therefore an appropriate label for Neo-Con policies.

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Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

That's an interesting analysis. I've always wondered whether "liberal" sounded like an epithet in other parts of the country. It does here quite easily, since a little over half of our registered voters are Republicans and only about a quarter to a third are Democrats.

"Progressive" is a nice way to look at it. It seems to me that if we have a good balance of truly conservative people and truly progressive people in power, then good decisions should be made.

It will be interesting to you, no doubt, that our Republican candidate (who lost by about 2-1) claimed he was interested in "conservative change." It seems that is a contradiction in terms, under the definition of "conservative" that fits the party best.

12:57 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

"Conservative change" does sound like an oxymoron. I think a lot of Republicans were unhappy with the Neo-Cons, especially the genuine conservatives who promote sound fiscal policies.

I agree that a country populated by Progressives and Conservatives ought to end up at a Left-Leaning Righteous Middle. The Progressives are the gas pedal and the Conservatives are the brake. I don't mean "religious" by "righteous."

1:11 PM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

I don't know about necessarily being left-leaning. Lean the appropriate way for the times, I think. Sometimes left is good, sometimes right.

3:02 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

wow, this post acually struck a cord with me & that is because of the word progressive that takes a person out of the political arena & puts them on to a more philosphical plane. This is where people want to be wether they know it or not.

4:00 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Nice to hear from you again, L>T. You are right about your conclusion. Way back when I was in a tavern in a small town in Oklahoma and for some reason I do not recall, found myself talking to an old farmer about politics. I decided to avoid labels entirely and just talk with him about what would a good thing to see or a bad thing to see. He was progressive down the line but would have killed me if I said he sounded like a liberal. Progressive is where it is at. In this world, we must always be moving forward. Bush was an activist himself, rather than a conservative, but he got us into all sorts of bad stuff -- the war in Iraq, special tax cuts for the rich, etc., but did at least move on drugs for the elderly. We will see the Republicans withdrawing into their conservative shell and get a big butt-kicking in 08 unless the Democrats screw up an nominate someone unelectable.

6:28 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I thought I'd give you time to get over me being a jerk. :)
I've been doing alot of attitude ajustment lately. & along with that I've been thinking alot about how the average person thinks about & comes to conclusions about, for instance, politics. I can see that getting beyond the labels is most important if we are ever going to get anywhere. The funny thing is we had this same disscusion of labels at one of the atheist blogs I visit. & the term progressive came up as an alternative to the negative connotations of "Atheist". The trouble is if we see it as just another label pasted over the old label it will benefit nothing. So how do you get a society beyond that? It seems to me as if we are stuck on labels. does that make sense?

12:37 PM


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