Recently, ostensibly well-meaning people have dedicated themselves to reducing the resort to political labeling. Most prominently, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and some political moderates of both parties have joined together to inveigh against those wont to use the term "socialist" or "liberal" and maybe even "right-winger" on the grounds that the use of such terms does nothing to aid in political understanding and much to encourage verbal abuse.
Certainly, politics is replete with examples of overblown speech, as the temptation to resort to name-calling, stereotyping and outright mudslinging is as irresistible as ever. But the question is whether that temptation is given into more now than in the past. I doubt it.
If one wishes to understand some new development, it is helpful to look at the people responsible for it, as well as the circumstances. In this case, people hostile to conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers are prominent, such as defeated Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and former Gov. Charles Crist of Florida, who also failed to be elected senator. They have deplored the use of labels, particularly since the Republican sweep of the House of Representatives and numerous state legislatures on Nov. 2.
To consider the issue in this way is practically to understand it. Of course, those who deplore the principles and resent the success of their political opponents deplore the use of labels. For those labels here and now distinguish between those who prefer to use government to redistribute income from the better off to the less well off, and those who understand that government exists primarily to secure rights.
There is nothing new about the unpopularity of labels. Republican eschewed labels because for many years after the stunning popularity of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal politics of the 1930s, promising to do the same things Democrats proposed only less expensively and more efficiently. Conservatives called them "me too" Republicans because they did not take issue with Democrats on principle, only with particulars.
But Ronald Reagan's landslide victory in 1980, and especially in 1984, altered the political landscape, as then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, Democrat from Massachusetts, declared that "all politics is local" and Democrats running for president stopped identifying themselves as liberals and resurrected the label "progressive."
Thus, as political fortunes ebb and flow, the victors are proud of their labels and the losers run away from them. Today's losers are doing the same. If you can't beat your opponents on the issues, reframe the debate by declaring that political labels are misleading.
Obviously, the campaign against labeling can only go so far, or have only a limited following. For labels are not arbitrary and are no less accurate if they place someone in a bad light. (But that effect does not necessarily justify them.) One must inquire into how the label is understood by those who apply it to themselves and to their party, and evaluate it be reference to the first principles of our constitutional polity.
The founders of our country did not at first embrace political parties, but experience taught them that they were necessary, at least temporarily (as it turns out, permanently) for accomplishing worthwhile objectives. Those who devised and implemented the U.S. Constitution called themselves Federalists in order to distinguish themselves from those clinging to the weak Articles of Confederation. Among them were
George Washington, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison.
But differences over how to administer and direct the new government led Madison to join Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to form the Republicans in opposition. Other major political parties have been the Whigs, the Democrats and a newly constituted Republican Party that elected Abraham Lincoln.
If there is a benign intention in the current trendy animus against political labels, it is to discourage, as noted, the temptation to hurl invective against opponents. But this is hardly new either. The Federalists called their opponents demagogues, libertines and disunionists, and the first Republicans denounced their opponents as monarchists, aristocrats and consolidationists.
The resort to name-calling was not a result of labels. It was because of immoderate political ambition The lesson we should draw from this is that we should not throw out the useful label "baby" with the unhelpful invective "bathwater." Not only that. In our fallen human condition, we are unlikely to have the baby without the bathwater. Political life requires us to make distinctions and judge wisely.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.