Political labels:
Who are we really?



Paul Ryder, 2001

Q: What kind of group is Ohio Citizen Action?
A: Weíre a citizen action group.

Q: No, seriously ...
A: Grassroots ... environmental ...

Q: No. You know what I mean: Are you liberals, or Democrats, or radicals, or what? Whatís your real agenda?

Sometimes people pose these questions, implying that is not enough to be a citizen action group. "If you are serious," you need to wear a political label and follow its agenda. If not, you are superficial or deceptive, keeping your agenda hidden.

Most people do not want to be considered unserious, superficial, or deceptive, so there is pressure to label ourselves.

The old labeling scheme -- the political spectrum -- was simple:

To the right were conservatives, right-wingers, and the far right -Ė all enthusiasts for the market and big corporations as the solution to all problems. To the left were liberals, left-liberals, and socialists -Ė all enthusiasts for big government as the solution to all problems. In elections, Democrats got 40% of the vote, from the left side; Republicans got 40% of the vote, from the right side. The contest was always over the votes of the remaining 20% in the middle, centrist swing voters.

This never accurately described U.S. politics, but there was some truth to it, and it sure was simple.

By now, however, it has nothing to do with political reality. Democratic and Republican politicians agree on all the big issues; they consistently support big government and big corporations. Most Americans do not agree with them, and most Americans do not vote.

Conventional wisdom, however, still uses the old spectrum to interpret events and categorize people.

Q: Why donít we come up with new labels and a new spectrum?

A: Three good reasons:

1. Labels can be confusing.

Like any other words, labels should communicate something to the listener. You have to pick ones that mean to the listener what you intend. For example, "liberal" can mean "generous," as in "Thatís a liberal portion of cheesecake youíre serving yourself, Uncle Ned." If Uncle Ned only understands "liberal" to mean "pro-welfare," he is going to be confused.

Many common political labels have multiple confusing meanings:

"Progressive" refers to a middle class reform drive in the early years of the 20th century; they wanted to do away with corrupt big-city political machines, whose base was working class immigrants. "Progressive" is also a euphemism for "left," that is, the whole left side of the old political spectrum, including all government enthusiasts from liberals through socialists. "Progressive" can also mean "forward-thinking," whatever that means.

"Liberal" refers to a political viewpoint from the 19th century, which championed the rights of the individual against the power of the state. For most of the 20th century, "liberal" meant the opposite: expanding the power of the state to meet collective goals. Some say the word connotes equality and compassion. Others think of decadence.

"For social change". Is social change necessarily good? If more fathers abandoned their children, that would be a form of social change. Would that be good? People who identify with the term "social change" have in mind "good social change," which by itself tells us nothing.

2. It is easy to get hung up on a label.

Some people think long and hard about what they believe, give it a name, and stick to it. "I am a ..." "Everyone should be a ... " They think it is being principled to stick to the label even if no one knows what they are talking about.

Relax: If a word is not effectively communicating an idea, stop using it.

3. Labels are inhibiting.

This is because people are generally ready to act and to change before they can give a clear reason why, and certainly before they can categorize themselves.

Even when people start talking about it, they have stray ideas before they are ready for labels: "Iím no womenís libber, but..." or "Iím no tree-hugger, but..."

(Of course, people may later reinterpret what they did -- kicked their husband out, deserted the army, or quit their job Ė as a conscious political act.)

You can see the same thing when canvassing door-to-door. Someone will be writing a $50 check, and while writing, say, "You know, this is not going to do any good. You canít win."

This is not rational behavior. If the person believed what they were saying, they would not be writing the check. The action contradicts the words because the person is ready to do something before they are ready to explain why. They are still offering defeatist comments even as they pitch in.

This is the problem with public opinion polls: They require the respondent to put themselves in one of several preselected boxes. Are you a "liberal" or a "conservative"? Are you "pro-growth" or "anti-growth"?

Pollsters do not like this to be known, but half the people they call to interview refuse to talk to them. The other half end up in one box or another, and whoever paid for the poll has not learned much. Polls inherently miss the only thing that matters: peopleís potential.

Action first, labels later. If you fixate on political labels, you will miss opportunities for action, which are always greater than current labels would suggest.

Q: OK, no labels, but who are we? Is there no current in history that we identify with? Are we all alone?

We have plenty of company. We are heirs to a long tradition of freedom-fighters who have overcome monarchy, slavery, colonialism, child labor, subjugation of women, 84-hour workweek, fascism, racial segregation, communism, apartheid, and so on. Thatís us.

These days, labels do not mean much and do not help much.

We are in a time in which imagination and creativity can make the most difference: finding examples, patterns, hints, clues, and opportunities.

It is much harder to see them if you are inside a box with a label on it.