It might seem silly to judge a person simply on the basis of a single word, yet we do it every day. Political labels are tools that help us identify immediately who is a friend and who is a foe. If someone calls himself a liberal, that must mean he’s pro-choice, anti-war, and in favor of gun control. If I am also most of those things, he is a good guy; if not, he is either stupid or evil.
Just as CliffsNotes can provide the basic idea on the content of a book, labels are shortcuts to assessing a person’s values. However, neither is enough to provide a precise picture, especially of people seeking power over the lives of a nation. To shed any real light on how politicians might wield the levers of law, you must focus on the modifiers they use to describe their various conservative or liberal philosophies.
Take the four self-styled conservatives remaining in the current Republican race. Rick Santorum calls himself the “true conservative,” meaning he holds views consistent with his view of Catholic faith: traditional Christian marriage and the charge to be fruitful and multiply. “True,” in this sense, appeals to the Christian notion of God-given Truth discovered through Jesus Christ.
Then there’s Newt Gingrich, the “Reagan conservative.” Gingrich shares many ideas with Santorum on the promotion of certain social views through government, but his modifier “Reagan” is meant to remind listeners of how Ronald Reagan lowered taxes and took a hard line against the Soviet Union.
At CPAC 2012, Mitt Romney called himself a “severely conservative Republican governor,” which brings to mind images of a strict parent who employs corporal punishment. Perhaps he thinks that’s what he needs to win over the Republican base.
Rounding out the GOP field, Ron Paul is called the “constitutional conservative.” Paul sees the U.S. Constitution as a guide for how the federal government should approach a limited set of problems and leave the rest to individuals within the states.
Whoever wins the Republican nomination will challenge a sitting president who has been called everything from a Marxist to a Roosevelt Republican. Many of Barack Obama’s supporters have pleaded for him to define himself forcefully as a liberal progressive, but he has been careful to describe himself simply as a “Democrat.” Perhaps the Obama team has discovered that although labels help to differentiate candidates in primary elections, they also complicate coalition-building.
Labels are designed to boost demand for the individuals who create them. Although labels begin broadly, modifiers soon diminish the meaning of the original terms. Compassionate conservatives were anything but, while progressive liberals have come to advocate many policies antithetical to the original liberalism that emerged in response to government tyranny in Europe.
Words serve as shortcuts to ideas. In our politics, however, conservative and liberal are no longer sufficient, so the real meat is in the modifiers.
Richard Lorenc is co-founder of the Liberty Markets Fund for Freedom, a community foundation recruiting small donors to the pro-liberty think tank movement.