Everybody fears semantics, and for good reason — there’s no quicker or more annoying way to bog down a discussion than by starting an argument over definitions. You might reckon that we’ve got enough fights going on right now, and we hardly need to start another one about words. Yet public discourse in America has gotten so scrambled that it’s become impossible to carry on a meaningful conversation about our government. It has become apparent to me that we’re never going to begin mending our politics until we clean up the language we use when we talk about ideology.
Over the past four decades, American society and American morality has gone through some vast and terrifying realignments. But because we insist on applying nineteenth century European terminology to our politics and ethics — terminology that doesn’t fit Europe very well anymore, either — we keep misinterpreting those changes. A complete overhaul of our political lexicon is probably in order. But that’s a big request, so to start, I want to ask for something simpler. I want us all to quit using the terms “liberal” and “conservative” for awhile. They’ve become crutches: trigger words that no longer correspond in the slightest with what they’re used to describe. They’re muddying the waters, and they need to be retired until their meanings can be recharged.
If that’s a habit you don’t believe we’ve got the will to break, maybe we can simply begin by remembering that “liberal” and “conservative” are adjectives, not nouns. No person is a liberal or a conservative. A person may have a predilection toward liberal ideas or conservative behavior; he may have both. But unless he’s a cartoon, his outlook will never fit under the umbrella of a single term. We know this, yet we go right on calling our friends and foes by category names that never really held water as descriptors of human beings*, and certainly don’t in 2018, when those terms have gone through a rhetorical shredder.
But if these terms are no good as nouns, they’re terrific adjectives. They describe ways of thinking and behaving that transcend policy and ideology, which is why their application to politics was initially helpful. They are not natural antonyms. Both describe approaches to a problem of scarcity that can be illustrated by imagining a wound and a bottle of healing ointment. A physician might liberally apply the ointment to the wound. He might look to conserve the amount of ointment in the tube for fear of wounds developing elsewhere. Whether to be liberal or conservative with the medicine is a judgment call specific to an instance. It isn’t necessarily predictive of what the doctor will do with his next patient. We don’t expect it will be: instinctively, we know that a doctor who treats each wound in the same way isn’t worthy of his caduceus.
A statesperson ought to think, and act, with similar flexibility. Policy knots usually require a combination of liberal and conservative approaches before they’re untangled. Consider a common land-use dispute: some businesspeople in a district want to log a forest to get at minerals underneath. Timber laborers looking for work support the initiative, but nearby homeowners don’t want to deal with construction noise, and environmentalists decry the destruction of a habitat for animals. A lawmaker might look to pass ordinances that force the timber company to proceed conservatively in the interest of environmentalism or the public peace, or they might look to mollify the homeowners with a liberal application of tax breaks. She might prioritize forest conservation, or she might prioritize the individual liberties of businesspeople looking to act in an ostensibly free-market economy. If she’s wise, if she’s worth anything as a leader, she’ll try to balance all of these competing claims. She’ll be behaving both liberally and conservatively, sometimes simultaneously.
It has become commonplace to refer to Republicans as “conservatives”. Sometimes the two terms — Republican and conservative — are used interchangeably, even though they’re incommensurate. One refers to a multi-million-dollar political institution that exists for the purposes of self-replication and power extension, and the other one is a fairly neutral adjective attached to cautious behavior. Do modern Republicans seem cautious to you? Circumspect in any way? Maybe they’re hesitant to embrace certain cultural changes (they’re more than fine with others), but by and large, that’s not what motivates them to go to Washington.
The main policy objective for Republican legislators is now, and has long been, tax cuts — even at the risk of major deficit spending. When they get power, that’s what they do. A zealot will argue that these tax cuts are necessary to stimulate the economy, and it’s worth it to gamble, with fingers crossed, that future growth will compensate for any financial shortfall. You may find this absurd, or self-defeating, or you may applaud it as a bold move. What you cannot do is call it conservative. It’s the opposite of conservative: it’s an aggressive throw of the dice in the name of economic expansion. This latest Republican administration has also tried to undo regulations on corporate activity put in place to force those corporations to behave conservatively. They’ve also stood in the way of any restrictions on gun ownership or gun production and distribution, and they’ve based their argument on a reading of the Bill of Rights that privileges individual liberties over social responsibilities. So when I hear Democratic politicians complain with absolute conviction that their opponents are too conservative, I can only conclude that our discourse has gone into a shredder, and our understanding of the real-life ramifications of policy has followed.
Republicans often deride their opponents as liberals. When I was a kid in the eighties, this was used as a pejorative; George Bush Senior spoke, quite often, as if a liberal outlook was a hallmark of weak character. Abetted by talk radio hosts, Republicans really did manage to turn “liberal” into an insult — so much so that many Democrats ran like hell from the label. To fill the void, some Democrats began calling themselves “progressives” instead, reintroducing a meaningless term into a political arena already chock full of meaninglessness buzzwords. This was a nice bit of rhetorical gamesmanship by the Republicans, even of it was never too clear about what, exactly, they were accusing their opponents of. “Liberal” became a code-word for softness on crime, which few Democrats ever are or were, and willingness to challenge the need for tax cuts, which, depending on circumstances, can be quite a fiscally conservative position to take. But mostly, it meant opposition to Republicans and Republican-backed initiatives, and since many Democrats dislike Republicans for very good reasons, they accepted the Republican supposition that they were instinctively liberal — liberal by identity as well as ideology.
But are they really? Are Democrats any more liberal in their approach than Republicans are conservative in theirs? Some prominent Democrats have worked to reinforce and extend certain liberties, but that’s hardly been the party’s preoccupation. When in power, the Democratic party has accelerated the concentration of authority in the hands of a class of experts, pushed for government regulation of the private sector, and attempted to extend some healthcare benefits to those who aren’t lucky enough to have insurance. Depending on your outlook, you might call all of that commendable; you might even call it necessary. But you can’t call it liberal. Nearly everything advocated by the modern Democratic party infringes on the individual liberties of somebody or other; again, you may decide that certain people need their rights curtailed, but when you do, you’re taking an awfully illiberal position. In opposition to the current administration, Democrats have gotten cozy with law enforcement, and they’ve made heroes — and bedfellows — out of CIA and FBI operatives who are among the most illiberal people on the planet. The ease and speed with which Democrats get comfortable with spooks tells you all you need to know about the true state of liberalism within the party.
To confuse things further, another troublesome term has wormed its way into the rotten frame of the Overton window. Certain critics of the Democratic party — including Democrats — have taken to decrying something they call “neoliberalism”. (Don’t look for an advocate of neoliberalism; it is, like “emo”, a tag that nobody wears voluntarily.) According to critics, neoliberals want to grease the gears of global enterprise and make labor as flexible as possible, and, as a corollary, reduce oversight from regulatory bodies and governmental authorities. There is a much better, more elegant, and more historically accurate term for this belief, and that term is: liberalism. The free market is a liberal concept and always has been. Those who complain about neoliberalism may be loath to say it, but it’s liberalism that bothers them.
And that’s fine. It is absolutely okay for you to distrust certain liberal solutions to policy questions, just as it is absolutely valid to challenge this administration for its troubling incapacity for conservative behavior. It doesn’t make you liberal or conservative to do either, and it certainly doesn’t make you a liberal or a conservative, because such a thing doesn’t exist. Alas, politics has become wrapped up in individual personal identity, and we’ve all become more interested in what category we fit in than we are in understanding what the heck is happening. Because we’re all rather determined to signal what team we’re on, we gotten caught up in our placement on a left-right spectrum — another European import that’s not even slightly salient to the realities of American political life anymore, if it ever was.
So I’m asking you today to drop it. Ignore the hollow terminology for a little while. When you hear these words in action, ask yourself whether liberal and conservative behavior, or liberties, or conservation are even being discussed, or if you’re just listening to barkers and cheerleaders calling out team names. Remember that the people who work for the big political institutions try as hard as they can to sell you a total lifestyle package; that’s part of the marketing strategy, and the sorting has been so successful that America is now a mismatched pair of feuding single-party states. Even if you don’t agree with me that this is a terribly unhealthy thing to have happened to us, I hope you’ll concur that the language that politicians and their attaches in the press use has decayed to the point of incoherence. If we can’t talk about things, we can’t fix them — which means that those with an incentive to keep things as broken as possible will keep trying to confuse us. One day we may recall what “liberal” and “conservative” used to mean, but we’re going to need to do a lot of hard work before we get there: we need to strip them down and rinse them of their cultural associations. That won’t happen overnight. For now, they’re insubstantial at best and toxic at worst. Don’t use them. Start calling things what they are, and we may someday remember where we are — and maybe even who we are.
*Again we have borrowed this nasty habit from the Brits, who have, or have had, actual political parties called the Conservatives and the Liberals. One hundred years ago, a Westminster supporter of Asquith had legitimate strategic reason to call himself a Liberal, just as a delegate to a nominating convention on behalf of a Clinton is a Democrat. Then and now, that’s a party descriptor, and only a vague indication of ideology. Consider that the Conservatives count among their members some of the most intemperate men and women in the British Isles — people who haven’t acted conservatively in years.