One of the most frustrating things about politics is the use of simplistic labels to categorize political beliefs-in particular, the terms “conservative” and “liberal.”
Instead of a “left-right” political spectrum, Libertarians are quick to note that people embrace various degrees of freedom (or government) in two separate realms: economic markets and personal or social behaviors. A popular and useful “two-dimensional” quiz along these lines is available at www.theadvocates.org/quiz.
A two-dimensional quiz results in four categories. Conservatives are described as those who prefer a large degree of economic freedom, but significant limits on personal freedom. Liberals are those who prefer a large degree of personal freedom, but significant limits on economic freedom. “Statists” want a lot of government intervention in both realms. Libertarians favor minimal government involvement in both realms.
While a two-dimensional quiz is preferable to a one-dimensional spectrum, it still falls short in that it reduces complex policy preferences into relatively narrow categories.
In particular, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are immediately complicated by the fact that there are various types of each. At the end of the day, unless adjectives are added to these one-word labels, they are not particularly helpful for drawing lines in shifting political sands.
Some pundits are quick to make such distinctions. And so, for example, they commonly make references to more specific groups like fiscal conservatives and environmentalists.
But many others use the simple but muddy terms, adding to the confusion. Perhaps it is a desire to unify things under a single label. Perhaps it is driven by a desire to make politics into an “us vs. them” (conservative vs. liberal) contest. In any case, the tendency to use simplistic labels is more tempting under three circumstances.
First, when the general public does not pay much attention to politics (as is common), then labels are a convenient though flawed way to communicate about politics with most people. At some level, this is as unavoidable as the 30-second “sound-bite.” The fact of the matter is that most people are busy mowing their lawns and raising their kids and aren’t going to give much time to thinking about politics. Thankfully, we live in a country where this is possible!
Second, labels will be more prevalent when politics are not likely to solve much in terms of policy. Quick labels allow politicians to distract the general public from the inability of politics to address certain problems.
Third, when much is at stake in terms of political power, labels allow a political party to shore up its base and demonize its opponents. When combined with a general inability of politics to address our problems, the result will be more demonization — and shoring up the base indirectly by criticizing “them.”
As such, labels often encourage people to focus on who (or what) they oppose instead of who (or what) they support. We see a lot of this today. For example, people routinely vote for “the lesser of two evils” rather than avidly supporting a certain candidate.