How Do Political Labels Define and Divide Us?
I often wondered when I was a younger man why there were so many different music labels. The music stores would classify music as Hard Rock, Reggae, Heavy Metal, Hip Hop, Jazz, or Alternative. These are just a few examples of the cornucopia of music labels they utilized. What were the purposes of these labels? Music publishing companies need a way to categorize their music to make it easier to market to different segments of the general public. This also generally holds true when it comes to politics.
Politicians and political parties run their election campaigns the same way marketing and advertising executives run product campaigns. They pick a catchy label that they feel will define and explain their candidate in a favorable way to the voting public. They also use labels to portray their opponents in an unfavorable light. This all results in a myriad of artificial labels that political operatives create to define their candidates and separate them from their opponents. Identity politics has been created this way and it polarizes different political factions in the United States.
My goal with this article is to identify and define the most prevalent labels on our political spectrum and within our two major political parties. I will attempt to show both the differences and the commonalities among these labels. Then I will describe to you what all of this labeling does to our political discourse and landscape. Finally, I will describe what we can do to sift through this political brush and see what is going on more clearly. Both sides seek to confuse the public while demonizing their opponents while placing themselves in the best possible light.
The two major political labels that illustrate the opposite poles on our political spectrum are liberal and conservative. They are colloquially called left wing and right wing respectively. The liberals or left wing represents individuals who feel that government should have an expansive role in servicing its citizens and a moderate role in protecting them. They generally feel that government is and should be a positive entity. The label of conservative or right wing represents individuals who feel that government should have a very limited role in servicing its citizens and a more robust role in protecting them. They generally feel that government is in most cases a negative entity upon its citizens. This is the political spectrum that the various political groups and labels lie. I will now illustrate these various groups and the labels that have been assigned to them.
Let me start by examining some of the labels on the Democratic party side. There are less of them in our current era than for the Republicans. This is probably the case because the Republicans have been so effective in demonizing some Democrats with their labels. The Republicans have been successful in turning the term Liberal Democrat into a pejorative term. A good deal of the American population are unaware of most of the definitions of the political labels. The constant drumbeat of the Republicans have turned the label Liberal into an instantly negative image. Conservative Republican views on government administration are so diametrically opposed to Liberal Democrats that they naturally feel the urge to demonize them to the general public. Republicans have been enormously successful since the early 1980's in portraying Liberals as out of touch with most Americans. Further, they have instilled into the minds of many that Liberals do not hold the same moral values as the majority of the American people. This fallacy is the result of a relentless and effective marketing campaign by Republicans. Liberal Democrats have been relatively asleep during this process.
As a result, most Liberals have changed their brand name to Progressives. Their governmental view has not changed. They still believe that government should perform a prominent role in helping American citizens "progress" further in their economic security. Another prominent label within the Democratic party are the moderate Democrats. This group basically believes that government should have a less expansive role than Progressives advocate for. They are still progressive or liberal when it comes to social causes such as the environment, abortion, gay rights, and many others.
A final group that I would like to highlight are the so-called blue dog Democrats. This faction is much more conservative on social issues and taxes. They do generally profess that they wish to preserve the strength of the American social safety net. There we have the three major labels and factions that currently hold sway within the Democratic party. Progressives are the most liberal. Moderates are as the name suggests in the middle. The blue dog Democrats are the most conservative.
The Republican party has many more labels in circulation than the Democrats currently have. The reason for this is that they are the party most in flux in our current political environment. The principal reason for this is the rise of the Tea Party. Let us first examine the most obvious label and group which also happens to be the one that is disappearing before our eyes. These are the moderate Republicans. They tend to vote conservatively but not strictly so. They are willing to vote with Democrats on issues they believe in. These Republicans are also more willing to compromise to achieve outcomes that they consider important.
Another common label within the Republican party is that of the Social Conservatives. This group is generally religiously based. They believe that Christian tenets should strongly influence our governance. The constitutional concept of "separation of church and state" within the First Amendment is illegitimate to them. Their major causes are making abortion illegal, opposing gay rights and gay marriage, and opposing fetal stem cell research.
Another major group within the Republican party are the Neoconservatives. National defense and foreign policy are their major areas of expertise. They advocate for a robust foreign policy where the United States asserts its military muscle to shape world events to ensure its national security. They are also willing to strenuously push for freedom and democracy in the world including the use of force to make that happen.
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Libertarians are another classification of politicians within the Republican party who have historically run on their own party line. They seem to have become incorporated into the party over the last several years. This has mostly been by way of Congressman Ron Paul and his son Senator Rand Paul. Libertarians believe that government should stay out of the lives of its citizens as much as possible. They believe that government should provide for basic defense and the maintenance of civil order. Social programs would not exist under a Libertarian government. Our laws against activities such as prostitution and drug abuse would be abolished.
Finally, we turn to the newest incarnation of the Far Right of the Republican party. They claim to not be part of any party. This faction is the Tea Party. The Republicans have taken them into their bosom and they benefited mightily from their presence in 2010. Make no mistake, they are the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican party. The basis of their political philosophy is that government is bad and should be shrunk as much as possible. They wish to slash taxes drastically to help to downsize the government. Tea Party followers wish to cut enormously or eliminate most spending especially for social programs.
I have shown you the spectrum of our national political dialogue and the many labels assigned to constituencies within our two major political parties. Are you confused or is the picture clearer now? I hope I have made our political landscape and the labels within it a bit more clearer. Political operatives and consultants use these labels to make their candidates and issues more clear to the public while also portraying their opponents in the worst possible light. These operatives attempt to exaggerate an opponent's adherence to certain views that the chosen label encapsulates. The public learns about these views and they are constantly stressed to them until they are ingrained into the public's consciousness. Labels are a major tool in accomplishing this task. Soon the public is only aware of this view or policy and the rest of the candidate's body of work and policies are forgotten. This is true no matter how positive the candidate's record is.
Lee Atwater ran Vice President George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. His major strategy was to portray the Democratic candidate, Governor Michael Dukakis, as a very liberal northeasterner who was soft on crime and foreign policy. Atwater ran advertisements showing Willie Horton, a convict granted a weekend furlough during the Dukakis administration, who raped and assaulted a woman after he failed to return to prison. Then Dukakis took a ride in a military tank with a helmet on. It was a very unflattering and silly-looking video. Atwater combined these two images and cemented them into the public's mind. The weak Liberal label stuck. Vice President Bush defeated Governor Dukakis handily. This is the starkest example of one campaign crystallizing a negative label onto an opponent that I can recall in my lifetime. Atwater was very successful in portraying Dukakis as out of touch with the majority of the American public. All sides in all elections attempt to do the same thing in one way or another. The problem is that large parts of a candidate's views and record are then ignored. Governor Dukakis had a strong economic record in Massachusetts that the electorate was listening to and approving of. Dukakis had a 17 point lead coming out of the Democratic convention but that quickly evaporated after the Atwater negative media campaign got up to full speed. Governor Dukakis' economic record was soon rendered irrelevant. This was a textbook example of how a campaign can define their opponent negatively to defeat him.
Karl Rove was highly successful in discovering what areas of the country and what issues he could use to secure victory for his candidate Governor George W. Bush in 2000. Rove knew the entire map and political makeup of the United States. He stressed issues and values he knew would carry the south, southwest, mountain states, and just enough swing states to secure a victory. He used Bush's religion, "compassionate conservatism", and Texas toughness to secure the states he needed while contrasting them with the states he conceded to Vice President Al Gore. This was a classic example of a campaign using labels and tactics to divide an electorate in such a way to secure their candidate's victory albeit by the slimmest of margins.
Tactics such as using labels to reinforce identity politics have been used throughout the history of the United States. Mass media and huge amounts of campaign funds have made these tactics easier to deploy and embed into the public psyche. What can be done to sift through these tactics to make all candidate records and policies more clear and complete? The most obvious and clear solution would be to have all voters thoroughly research each candidate. This way all voters would develop a complete picture of all the candidates. Unfortunately, most U.S. citizens lead very busy lives and often do not have the time or inclination to do this sort of complete research.
The media could do a better job of illustrating the full records of all the candidates. Media outlets, especially in television and radio, jump on the most provocative statements and events during campaigns to maximize their ratings. Unfortunately, this form of broadcasting political election campaign news is not very informative. It certainly is not complete in any sense of the word. The media should perform a much better public service by covering each candidate's policies, records, and statements thoroughly in a nonpartisan manner.
Political campaigns also need to do better jobs at both refuting these labels placed upon them but also expounding more fully upon their own records and policies. Politifact.com is an organization that works to examine the truthfulness of all statements and assertions made by politicians and their campaigns. Political campaigns themselves should use this model to fight back against false and misleading statements made against them. Media outlets should do this also and some of them are starting to do so. Maybe campaign managers would be much more reluctant to employ this labeling tactic if the Politifact model became more prevalent. I wish the electorate would employ this method to some degree though I realize they have limited resources from which to draw upon to successfully do this.
The bottom line is that we all need to be more vigilant when we hear or read political statements. We must be cognizant of who is making the statement and what his or her political agenda is. Research the issues being debated and access different media sources with different political slants to get a more complete picture of what the campaigns are asserting. Never take one commercial or one set of statements or events as the absolute truth until you have checked out their veracity completely. We the voters are the ultimate arbiters of political campaigns and we must take this responsibility very seriously. I know that many citizens feel that politicians will do as they wish after they are elected no matter which candidate emerges victorious. The truth of the matter is the person we vote for really is consequential. The two major political parties are more polarized than I can ever remember. I advise all voters to study up on the issues and have a strong idea how you wish the candidates to conduct themselves in office and on the campaign trail. Then choose the candidate who best exemplifies your views and morals. Look beyond the political labeling and name-calling. Make an educated choice. Do your homework. It does matter.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2011 Howard Schneider