Word Musings

Do the words liberal and conservative really mean anything in politics these days? Or like words to the Mad Hatter do they mean what ever the speaker wants them to mean in a particular context? I really think so.

It used to me that a liberal wanted to change things while a conservative wanted to maintain the status quo. Or in some cases a conservative was someone who wanted to move things back to the way they were after they had been changed. In other words liberals had their eyes on the future and conservatives in the past. Over time in politics a liberal was someone who wanted to spend more money on social services and a conservative was someone who wanted to avoid that. Conservative in the vernacular thought social services were best left up to charity and religion. Note that all major religions have this notion of charity and taking care of the poor and unfortunate. So in a sense liberal meant changing how we take care of people while conservative meant keeping it the same.

Some of that is still true today but increasingly liberal seems to mean in favor of more government and conservative means less government. But by my reasoning that means that both major parties at liberal. Both want more control by government – they disagree on what things to control though. Both want to spend my money on their pet projects. Both want to stick the government’s nose into things it may not belong in. Can you say "Iraq?"

The old joke is that the Republicans want to steal from the middle class and give to the rich and the Democrats want to steal from the middle class (and occasionally the rich) and give to the poor. So who you vote for depends on if you aspire to be rich or poor. Feels true a lot of the time but neither play directly on how I view the words liberal and conservative. They have no meaning in that joke.

For what it is worth I have concluded that the two parties are the party in power and the party out of power. Both the Democrats and Republicans seem to do largely the same things – disagree with a policy of the party in power and then try to implement that same policy if they make it into power themselves. Democrats started us in Viet Nam in a big way and Republicans started us in a big way in Iraq. Perhaps a Democrat will get us out of Iraq as a Republican got us out of Viet Nam? Over simplified? Perhaps but then most political discussion these days is so I’m in good company. (Or bad )

I can’t deal with either conservative or liberal as labels for myself. I am anti-abortion and pro-gun which causes some to label me conservative. I am very unhappy with the notion of homosexual sex but want to see people in happy loving relationships have the same rights as heterosexual couples regardless of gender. Perhaps that makes me a liberal. But I have a notion of marriage and relationships that delegates sex to a very small role. (Please no jokes about that being because I have been married for over 31 years. Rather I think that placing sex in proper context is what makes a marriage or other relationship last.)

I believe in charity and taking care of people. I would prefer a faith-based way to do that because I think it involves more emotional support and less overhead. But at the same time I realize that that is no longer practical in our secular society. So I want to see government taking more of a role in health care and unemployment and some similar issues. I’m pro-choice on education. That’s a very conservative notion these days involving things like vouchers, charter schools and other ways of providing government funds but less government control. But at the same time I support public education not only through taxes but though donations to public schools and making sure my son can continue to live a good life and afford to teach in public schools on a teacher’s pay.  Liberal or conservative? Does it matter? Is the label helpful or distracting from the issue? I vote for distracting.

I want all men to be treated equally. I see that as a religious idea. Visit a Catholic church in an ethnically diverse area and the mix of people will amaze you. They do it better than most Protestant churches much to my sadness. Like wise the Moslem community seems to be able to ignore racial and ethnic divides at least among Moslems of the same sub faith. We need more of that between faiths of course. I see that as a conservative notion because it harkens back the the early church while some see that as a liberal notion because it is a change from the church of the last few hundreds of years. Does it matter which label one applies? Is it even healthy to the goal to apply a label? I think not.

Conservative/liberal & Republican/Democrat are tribal labels. We join (or are born into) a tribe and that is our name. The other tribe is wrong so using the other label on people in an attack. The worst of this is that it removes granularity. It blocks the possibility of ad hock groupings of people united for something that benefits everyone. If the tribe leadership decides something is good or bad the members have to put aside their own beliefs and go along with the leadership. That may have been appropriate at one time but clearly is not today. And yet it is the reality. 

But in a discussion those labels serve as a block to clarity and adds an ambiguity that is unhelpful. Ideas should not be seen as liberal or conservative (nor should people) but as what they are. Sure there is a context in society and I am not saying that ideas live in isolation. What I am saying is that those labels only detract from understanding and, dare I use the word, truth. I would prefer to avoid them when possible.

2 Responses to “Word Musings”

  1. Matt says:

    I can’t deal with either conservative or liberal as labels for myself… e join (or are born into) a tribe and that is our name. The other tribe is wrong so using the other label on people in an attack.

    In short, “Yup!” I’ve felt for a long time that maybe 45% of each party just clings to their party and wholly ignores the facts. And then there’s the 10% leftover (between the two) that actually considers both sides and makes informed decisions.

    I’d like ballots to not even note political parties. If you know their party, then you probably know something about them. If you don’t, then you shouldn’t be voting for them, and you certainly shouldn’t let their party label be the deciding factor. It’d be like putting “Male” or “Female” (or “Black” and “White”) next to a name — it can’t possibly accomplish anything good.

  2. […] as Mr. T talked about the other day, it sometimes seems hard for normal, thinking people to wholly fit in one party or […]

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