If Joe Lieberman is a Liberal...(My 800 Words)
For a good portion of my life, political labels were uncomplicated things. I used them interchangeably, contradictorily, sometimes meaninglessly. I collected political labels. They were chosen as much for the intensity the reactions they evoked as for the quality of those reactions.
That approach made a certain sense when one is stuck in an adolescent punk-radical bubble. Leaving that bubble, however, makes things a bit more complicated. Labels communicate real ideas to real people, and if your intent is to influence those real people, you have to think carefully about what you call yourself or your ideas. At the same time, labels allow us to be clear about our ideas, to find others who agree with us, and to make claims about the large-scale implications of policy ideas. Contrary to popular rhetoric, there is no such thing as pure, non-ideological politics. Things really are “conservative”, “liberal” and “socialist”, even if there is also consensus, overlap and room for debate. Labels, and political vocabulary in general are simultaneously crucially important and blindingly dynamic.
Consider the word “progressive.” Just a few years ago, this word was unambiguous in its political meaning. A progressive was someone who thought of herself as to the left of liberalism, but distanced herself, for ideological or pragmatic reasons, from the socialist tradition. Progressives could be populist or academic/theoretical in orientation, but they were generally actively engaged in day-to-day politics while trying to expand some political space to the left of even the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
But that liberal wing is no longer dominant in American politics, or even in the Democratic Party. In fact, anyone in 2006 who calls themselves a Liberal is a kind of Weberian hero. Using the “L” word involves considerable political risk, and, frankly, doesn’t describe many of the positions taken by a great number of prominent Democrats. And so the lines between “progressive” and “liberal” have blurred, and the two words have become somewhat interchangeable. At your average meeting of Democracy for America or in the discussions on MoveOn.org or DailyKos, these words are used to describe the same general political positions, even when some of the analysis is decidedly not “Liberal” in any political theory sort of sense.
Stranger still, I have heard people defend the use of the word “progressive” by saying that it is less offensive or “extreme” sounding than the despised “L” word. That was an assertion which would have been impossible in 1995, before the Clinton Revolution both mitigated and completed the Reagan Revolution. For some, “progressive” is in a sense to the right of “liberal.” That’s strange.
All of this is to say that political vocabulary changes over time in relation to shifts in political power. What is more confusing, however, is that this relationship works in the opposite direction, as well- shifts in vocabulary have an influence on political power itself. The fact that politicians can call themselves “conservatives”, and with that statement convey a coherent world view is incredibly powerful. The media may still stage vapid debates between “liberals” and “conservatives” on TV, but when a real debate happens, say between two Presidential candidates, only one guy can clearly articulate what he is, what he stands for, what he believes in. The other guy is left defending arcane policy preferences or has to spend time explaining what he isn’t.
The results of losing our vocabulary are far-reaching. The vilification of liberalism has brought with it the vilification of government, feminism, multiculturalism and multilateralism. Sets of effective policy options have been simply wiped off the table. This process has had dire consequences for the world, and constricted the possibilities of positive social change for generations.
Nonetheless, the evasion of vilified political vocabulary is understandable in a country in which a majority of the electorate defines themselves as “moderate.” In the long run, the Left is exoticized and alienated from mainstream political discourse, but it is extremely difficult, in the course of a Presidential campaign, or even a run for school board, to try and redefine labels as you are trying to get to 51%. It’s not just for office seekers, however, that this is a problem. You will find labor, community, feminist, anti-racist and social justice activists all evading the vocabulary demonized by the Right.
And that’s my dilemma. I want to describe the world in which I want to live, and I don’t want to have to do that in excruciating detail every time I open my mouth. However, I also don’t have the time to explain what I mean by “social democrat” to people raised in an environment in which these words are either meaningless or vaguely sinister. For now, unsatisfactorily, I describe myself as a person of the Left, as a “progressive” rather than “centrist” Democrat, and as a feminist. I know allies when I see them, no matter which set of words they use to describe themselves. That’s the best I can do with the hand dealt to me. Let me know when it’s time to draw again.
And here are the other posts from this call to action, so far: