Monday, July 19, 2010

Terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' have lost all meaning

The Texas Tribune published a "partisanship" ranking of Texas House members, ranking them 1-150 from the most "liberal" to the most "conservative." In response, Paul Burka posted about the methodology behind creating the list, and I left this observation in the comments:
“Liberal” and “conservative” are both terms that have lost all meaning, or rather their meanings today derive purely from the mind of the beholder.

Is it “liberal” or “conservative” for government to mandate purchasing private insurance? In Washington, the suggestion got Barack Obama labeled a “socialist,” but when we do the same thing for auto insurance it’s considered “tuff on crime” conservatism.

Both Leo Berman and the building trades unions want immigration limits enforced, does that make it a liberal or conservative policy?

These ideological distinctions were coined to describe disputes 200+ years ago. IMO they have little relevance when analyzing debates today and next to no probative value at all in the context of the Texas Legislature.
I could riff on this theme all day. Is mass incarceration liberal or conservative? How about opposing it? When I was growing up, conservatives complained of Soviet gulags and Communism's higher incarceration rates were widely touted as evidence of totalitarianism. I grew up firmly believing that meme.

In high school in the early '80s, I read and was significantly influenced by Solzhenitsyn's "Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" and "The Gulag Archipelago," and if - in those heady days of youth when in 1984 I was volunteering for Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign - you'd asked me to describe my antipathy for Communism, I would have regaled you about the moral decay demonstrated by mass incarceration and the casual violation of civil liberties by the state, beaming with jingoism to contrast our own, then-much smaller system, protections against state seizure of property, etc.. All the positions that today get me labeled a "liberal" in the early '80s were things American anti-communists boastfully championed in contrast with Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism, insisting such distinctions were fundamental to the American way of life.

Today, by contrast, the United States has 5% of the planet's population and 25% of its prison inmates. What does that say about the whole Free Markets = Freedom argument that from 1945 through the fall of the Berlin Wall was the animating distinction (on our side) between the "Free World" and the Communist hordes? The late, great progenitors of the conservative movement - folks like Ayn Rand, Bill Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Milton Friedman - all held views that today would have them either hounded out of the GOP by social conservatives, or at best tolerated and ignored as eccentric RINOs.

I've become incredibly cynical about the terms "liberal" and "conservative," which as I said to Burka have lost all connection to any historical meaning. They've simply become a kind of floating slang by which people delineate broad tribal connections within civil society, or else use as pejoratives to belittle views with which the speaker disagrees or doesn't understand. There was a time when I considered myself a "conservative," but not any more. That's because the working definition of the term changed; my own politics pretty much stayed the same.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

This ultra-conservative civil libertarian has been saying that for years.

Rage

Anonymous said...

"ultra-conserative civil libertarian"

I love that title Rage. That pretty much describes me also.

Donald said...

You have spoken for me, Grits. I grew up in a Republican family on NYC's staunchly-Democratic Upper West Side. My family and I considered ourselves more "conservative" than the typical New York Republican. (Think Nelson Rockefeller.) And now here I find myself in south Texas, which has itself morphed over the last forty years...and in Travis County, no less, which I've often described as the blue dot covering the genitals of Red State America...and I find myself to the left of many of my own friends and associates. It's to the point where I no longer have a clue what it really means to be a liberal or a conservative. I'm starting to feel like a mulatto child, ostracized by all. It's rather discouraging, to be honest about it.

Donald said...

I'm reminded of Kinky Friedman's observation that Texas has plenty of "gun-totin' liberals." LOL

Anonymous said...

I think left, liberal, right and conservative still have meanings which have to do with the extent of concern for the rights of the economically and politically powerless. You are correct that the ways in which those ideas are conceptualized in specific instances has changed, and is a point of confusion. I would note it is not the idea of forcing people to buy insurance that bothers conservatives, but the idea of forcing insurance companies to cover everyone. Those companies promote their agenda using the individual "being forced" gripe because it plays well with Americans.

Overall, Grits, I think most people who would call themselves liberals today knew what Reagan was in 1984 and didn't like it. If your politics haven't changed since 1984 and you campaigned for Reagan in 1984, then you are not a liberal! In fact, as I have stated before, the reason you find the terms so useless is because of a problem of anyone to compare to. There simply aren't very many liberals anymore. The conservative revolution (the Reagan revolution) essentially stamped out that ideology as an acceptable mainstream belief system. They have had three decades to follow up, and they have created a false category of "liberals" (which are actually moderate conservatives) to fill the hole left when they killed liberal ideology. You are right the terms aren't very useful because there really aren't any liberals! There are hell-bent-maniacal-rightwing-nutjobs, plain old right-wing-nut-jobs, and right wingers who can still speak English and reason with a full range of ethical principles. The latter are called "the left" nowadays, but it is a useless distinction because there is really no left. I agree it is not a useful category, but it isn't because people stayed the same. People changed.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to feel like a mulatto child, ostracized by all.

As a Democrat who has a gun on his person 90% of the time, and who is personally pro-life, I feel your pain. I've historically voted Democrat locally and Republican nationally. Gingrich made me start questioning that, then Delay and other congressional leades helped me switch to almost all Democrat. The Iraq war is when I switched for sure from 'independent' to Democrat. And here I've stayed, without prefix, without suffix, and without apology.

Anonymous said...

What bothers conservatives is that liberals are smugly tolerant of or permissive toward negative societal changes.

Liberals, while constantly preaching diversity, seem to have no problem with the fact that they have hijacked the educational system and allow only one point of view to be taught.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Scot, I’ve been wrestling with this for a while now. I supported Regan as a young Republican in college, but now just seem all over the place. Like the idea of gun totin ultra-conservative civil libertarian.
Sheldon

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:15 writes: "If your politics haven't changed since 1984 and you campaigned for Reagan in 1984, then you are not a liberal!"

Please be sure and return frequently to explain that to my many anonymous critics who insist otherwise.

12:25, I still go with "independent." This year I voted in the GOP primary.

12:30, both sides are "smugly tolerant of or permissive toward negative societal changes." Think Phil Gramm and deregulating Wall Street, for a prominent Republican example.

Anonymous said...

The posters boasting that they both understand this argument and that they are "ultra-conservative civil libertarians" are mistaken.

You may want to educate yourselves as to what "conservative" and "civil libertarian" mean.

Donald said...

The self-described "Moral Majority" muddied the waters considerably. Remember all the "conservatives" who thought Lawrence v. Texas was a sign of the apocalypse? And here I was, thinking that the hallmark of "conservatism" was "the right to be left alone."

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@2:53: My point precisely is that I don't think the word "conservative" has any meaning anymore. The historic meaning has been lost and the current usage is a hodgpodge of politicized intellectual gibberish. Ditto for "liberalism."

Also, 12:15, I should add that I dispute your contention that the liberal/conservative divide may be explained by "the extent of concern for the rights of the economically and politically powerless" ask any pro-life activist about their level of concern for the "powerless." Same goes for the tuff-on-crime victim rights folks. All sides claim to be fighting for the powerless, they just define the power relationships and thus pick their sides in different ways and contexts.

3:19, you're sure right about the flip flopping. Pols just tell people whatever they want to hear, even if it contradicts what they said last week, and sadly that strategy appears to just work.

Anonymous said...

You may want to educate yourselves as to what "conservative" and "civil libertarian" mean.

Son, I've forgotten more than you will ever know about those terms.

But please explain how I cannot be an ultra-conservative civil libertarian and not understand what the word conservative means.

I'll be sitting here and waiting for a rational explanation. Won't be holding my breath though.

This year I voted in the GOP primary.

Come on Grits, voting for the guy you think a Democrat could beat isn't really the same thing.

Rage

Donald said...

Ross Douthat's "The Roots of White Anxiety" on the op-ed page of today's Times is an excellent read.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rage, I don't actually think the Democrats can beat anybody this year statewide in TX unless there's some fluke, so I'm not sure what you're talking about. I pick primaries based on which competitive elections I care about most. This year, Travis had some competitive district court races on the D side, but I wanted the chance to vote AGAINST Cynthia Dunbar's heir apparent for SBOE and Rick Green for SCOT. However, I harbor no illusions that Democrats will win those seats and would be quite surprised if they did.

matthew said...

I don't agree that the terms have lost all meaning. They hold tremendous power for their sensationalist impact depending on the way they are wielded. They are meaningful terms in a meaningless battle of rhetoric. I'll offer my definitions...

Conservative: Hide in a closet and pretend like nothing is happening. Pray to Jesus that no one notices.

Liberal: Blame everything on conservatives!

Anonymous said...

I'm just talking about the tactic of switching parties in the primary to vote for the weaker opponent, so your true favorite can beat them in the general. It's a common tactic, especially in smaller counties where crossing over can have a real impact, and is the only time I'll vote in a primary. And, it was a joke.


Rage

Anonymous said...

04:23
About Ross Douthat's "The Roots of White Anxiety"

Some Whites don't like it that they are becoming extinct in what they thought was their country. Get over it.

Anonymous said...

The Smith County judges and prosecutors and jail-building-against-the-will-of the citizens in the story above would ALL claim to be tax-cutting, small government, constitutional loving conservatives! And they are busting the budget and locking up everyone in sight!

Anonymous said...

How 'bout the moniker lefty for you, Scott? I consider myownself as an objective rationalist. lol

Plato

Anonymous said...

The terms are meaningless because the definitive boundaries are constantly changing. What my grandfather considered democrat or republican does not hold true today, and I find myself in your same predicament facing criticism from left and right about my own 'split' alignment. I'm quite sure I've seen somewhere the rationalization that comes to mind when trying to decipher why 'conservatives' or
'liberals' today push the laws that they do, but will reiterate as I have come to understand it: money and power. A pure moral principle party based on the belief that government should remain as small as possible (which is what I would like to support and what 'conservative' should mean to me) is not possible in a system of financially influenced elections. Actually, I like to believe it is possible, but no one knows how to undo the current ties to the 'religious right' or 'big business' without alienating most voters, most of the funding, and surviving as a party. I too love the term 'ultra conservative civil libertarian' but am hesitant to use the term libertarian because it too is evolving rapidly, and will mean different things to nearly everyone you ask. Such is the problem with all labels, but unfortunately labels become necessary to form the support needed to win an election. Even the current labels depend on other factors, such as geography. While living in Hawaii, I was outcast as a conservative, but was once again branded as a liberal upon moving back to Texas. My politics have not changed either, but depending on the years and the location, I have been called every name in the political book.

One comment on the car/health insurance argument- in bringing up the same argument on an internet forum one night, someone responded with the retort that car insurance is to protect the property of others that one might destroy (liability is whats mandated), while health insurance is for one's own sake. This is a logical fallacy in that if you want protection from others, it should just be included in your own policy and chalked up to a simple consequence of the privilege to drive. However, the real distinction is in the presentation, and the presentation is based on the profits. Quantity of policies is important for profits in car insurance, but definitely is detrimental to the profits of health insurance. And so it is portrayed to the American people that mandating car insurance is 'tough on crime conservatism' and that health insurance is 'liberal garbage socialism' even though it is the exact same thing. In both cases the presentation is directly related to money in someone's pocket, and you can bet its not mine. What saddens me the most is that so many people allow themselves to be influenced without thought as to motive of the messages.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, it's all a matter of perspective. When I was run out of ACLUTX on a rail I was accused of being a reactionary "racist" and a "white supremacist." From my observation, all these ideological labels tend to say more about the person doing the labeling than they typically do about the target of their generalizations.

R. Shackleford said...

I'm with Rage.