Liberal or Conservative?

November 2nd, 2008

In our current political discourse, the importance of the labels “liberal” and “conservative” seems undeniable. People often tag each other with these labels, either as a compliment or a condemnation. They sometimes label themselves prominently on their websites, and some even use one of the labels in the titles or descriptions of their online posts. Often entire arguments are simply dismissed because the writer or speaker is considered to be one or the other, which apparently disqualifies him or her from discussing the subject.

It happens everywhere. You hear the labels thrown around anywhere there is political discussion, often as a counterargument of last resort. The labels also intrude into other kinds of discussions, including those on economics, religion, and so on. Sadly, these labels also often define the kinds of ideas that are tolerated in classrooms, and not just at university level. More and more, children of all ages are subjected to ideological censorship and indoctrination by their teachers, the very people who should be most influential in promoting tolerance for ideas of all kinds.

The liberal-conservative paradigm isn’t some sort of evil. In fact, it serves a useful purpose, like most intellectual constructs that define the boundaries of discussion and belief. However, it fails when it ceases being merely descriptive of a general set of beliefs and becomes just another worn-out stereotype. Then we’re into generally true attributes being applied rigorously to anyone who holds certain specific views, regardless of nuance or the total body of that person’s opinions and beliefs.

For most of my life I’ve described myself as a slightly left-of-center Democrat. Liberals often label me as a conservative, and conservatives are often convinced I’m a liberal. That doesn’t bother me until it gets out of control. I’ve lost a few liberal and conservative friends along the way who couldn’t abide the fact that I disagreed with their particular orthodoxy. I’ve also been the subject of pity by a few people who couldn’t believe I could be so stupid or stubborn as to disagree with their vision of revealed truth. Even worse, I’ve been ideologically stereotyped now and then because of such things as my profession, where I was born, or where I went to school.

I have to admit that during the past few years events have probably driven me a little further into the conservative camp. I don’t think the red-blue divide is as profound as some seem to think, but there’s no doubt that true believers on both ends of the spectrum have been diving into empty swimming pools lately. The difference, it seems to me, is conservatives have been diving into the shallow end, while liberals prefer the deep end. The upshot is I find myself admiring Zell Miller’s comment a few years ago–he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him.

So, for the benefit of those who think it’s important to have me in the correct pigeonhole when they read my opinions, I thought I would do a brief inventory.

I’ve already written on some specific issues. I’m pro-choice, although reluctantly so. I agree with Bill Clinton that abortions should be legal, safe, and rare. I’m strongly in favor of gun control, and I’m against the death penalty. I also believe in the absolute necessity of two strong, viable political parties in our remarkably successful two-party system. I don’t much care about gay marriage, and it doesn’t bother me that there are gays in the military.

I guess I must be a liberal, and a Democrat.

But wait. I’m a steely-eyed pragmatist in foreign policy. I strongly support the U.S. military, and I don’t like seeing them blamed for the failures of their political leaders. I believe the federal judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court, should be practical enough to know that times change but should depart from the literal Constitution and the expressed intent of the framers only with great reluctance. I think illegal immigration is illegal, period; however, I support a reasonable guest-worker program. I think trial lawyers in general are parasites, and personal injury attorneys are the worst of a bad crew. And I think the UN is a disaster; the only reason it should continue to exist is because it’s all we have.

Well, maybe I’m a conservative after all and should be a Republican.

There are those who tend to reduce the whole matter to how one votes in presidential elections. Well, I’ve voted for seven Democratic candidates and three Republican candidates in ten presidential elections. Yes, I voted for Dukakis and Mondale. I’m even one of the 14 living Americans who will admit that they voted for McGovern. One Republican I voted for was Nixon in 1968 because I bought the line that he intended to end the Vietnam war within six months. Stupid me.

By the standard of presidential elections, I guess I’m a liberal after all.

Or maybe not. I try to regularly sample media sources of all persuasions. I’m convinced that the “mainstream media” is consistently leftist, and I think the New York Times has descended to the level of being little more than a liberal propaganda rag. I hold the perhaps quaint view that news should be reported factually, without embedded opinion, and not selectively to fit an agenda. Editorials and opinions are fine, but they should be clearly separated from reporting. Maybe this preference for straightforward, factual reporting makes me a conservative; I don’t know.

And then there are those issues I don’t know enough about or understand well enough to comment on. All I can say in my own defense is that unlike some folks, I know enough to know that I don’t know enough to say much about them. These include (but certainly aren’t limited to) particle physics, monetary policy, the trade deficit, post-modernism, and brain surgery. And of course, regardless of what I may know or think, I avoid discussions centered on religion.

I’m afraid I haven’t been very helpful if it’s important to you to know whether I’m liberal or conservative before you consider my ideas. If you find it hard to resist attaching labels to me and others, try remembering the words of a great old song: “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” The words have the same meaning, whether you prefer to hear them from Eric Clapton or Creedence Clearwater.


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