Bill Clinton is the icon liberal and George Bush is the icon conservative. We know they are poles and polls apart, but do the L and C words really tell us the difference between them? Under Bill Clinton one would suppose that American policies took a liberal turn. Yet, in his first term Bill Clinton announced, “The era of big government is over.” Isn’t big government a liberal standpoint? Also in his first term he supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and helped the formation of the World Trade Organization, two very conservative economic moves. Then, in his second term he signed a landmark trade agreement with China, which opened the doors for Wal-Mart to take a strangle hold on American consumers.
Meanwhile, President Bush, who is much more open about his own “conservatism” than Bill Clinton was about his liberalism, does not always fit the bill either. Small government being a virtue of conservatives, the government has grown under President Bush more than any other president in recent history. But Bush is a different case. Bush has molded his political stances based on the popular understanding of conservatism. Labeling himself as a “compassionate conservative” did wonders for his political career, although “compassionate conservatism” doesn’t really mean anything. It is simply the accessible persona he chose because it gave him the best chance of getting in office. Considering the ubiquity of their use, a closer look at the terms “liberal” and “conservative” is necessary to determine their practicality.
I would argue that although these labels encompass a wider array of political thought than party classifications, they are dangerous to critical thought. Where the party terms directly refer to the organization that a politician is affiliated, the new terms have no such concrete connection to any one organization, only a loosely defined ideology. They are abstract and therefore malleable enough to bring harm to political understanding. This harm is most apparent when one considers the mass media’s boxing of each politician along a liberal-conservative line that is supposed to allow the public a better understanding of a politicians view on any issue. What is most dangerous about this is how politicians are reacting to this classification system by placing their own public personas along this PH scale in order for their target constituency to more easily understand their positions. The mass media, which is of course tied to big business and the politicians themselves, has created this scale to make the sport of politics easier to digest by both covering politics using it and featuring analysts whose personas conveniently fit somewhere along it.
I don’t mind the terms liberal and conservative for general historical or even contemporary classification, some brilliant historians have used the terms to great advantage. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States uses them quite frequently, but these terms are not Zinn’s knee-jerk way of defining a person’s political beliefs. The problem today lies in the shear ubiquity of their usage. These terms might be useful in classifying a social or intellection movement, but are used extremely broadly and now are applied to such an extensive amount of ideologies that it is simply out of hand. They have become the way any common person classifies their Governor’s, Senator’s, Mayor’s, friends’, neighbors’, co-workers’, etc. political beliefs. Individuality is forgotten and replaced by broad duality.
Liberals are generally thought of as supporting a large, translucent government, war hating, environmentalist, for private rights and against big business. Conservatives are commonly held to be very religious, small government, pro-war, and largely for big business. A general survey of politicians who self-subscribe to one of these viewpoints will usually show that they are somewhat accurate when applied broadly. This is discredited firstly by the fact that the politicians often fall into these lines in order to make themselves more digestible to the popular palette (Just as political analysts do the same in order to become popular), and secondly is discredited because they are surprisingly oftentimes deceiving.
The best way to show how politicians fall in line with these classifications is to show what happens when someone does not. The October 18, 2006 issue of the New York Times reported on a political “Maverick”, who blurs liberal-conservative lines. Jack Davis, a multimillionaire businessman who ran for, and lost, a congressional bid in western New York’s 26th district as a democrat, upset many politicians and media people alike during his campaign with his defiance of the liberal and conservative caste system. Mr. Davis has held prominent positions in conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute and has been quoted as saying he wants to “seal” the nations borders. Yet, he supports liberal trademarks like gun control and abortion rights and has a “disdain” for free trade. “It keeps me up at night”, said an anonymous democratic operative. Has the system become so narrow that anyone who does not fit into the easily identifiable system cause rifts? It has come to the point that it takes a maverick to have his own opinion outside these two boxes.
Looking at politics through these bifocal lenses is completely antithetical to the purpose of politics; it becomes a battle between one team and another instead of an open forum to discuss political action and change. Yet, it is extremely palatable. A sport is much easier to cover than a complex debate, thus media has a distinct advantage in keeping the ostensible liberal vs. conservative war going. A sport leads to conflict, which helps ratings while at the same time misdirecting the general public of any kind of true understanding of the issue being covered. The loosely defined abstract terms only make it is easier for political, financial and media elites to keep the public at bay. The useful information that does get through and is remembered by the public is lost in what Neil Postman described as the “sea of information”, and becomes useless in the face of everything else. This is no new problem, but only heightened in relatively recent history by the advent of cable television and the Internet, which have widened the sea to such an extent that one has to be ever more discriminate to find land.
A thorough enough understanding of the regulation of all this information or any major national concern to make an educated decision about it would take years of study. Nobody can claim that they are able to do this for every issue, and that is, of course, within reason. I do not expect any one voter or politician to be an expert in every political subject. Yet, I expect at least some basic understanding from the politician. Ted Stevens, a Republican Senator from Alaska who is chairman of the Senate Commerce committee and therefore in charge of regulating the internet and all the information it provides recently explained during a hearing about the Net Neutrality Act, an Act that would give powerful corporations higher speed access to customers:
The Internet is not something you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand that those tubes can be filled, when you put your message in it gets in line. It’s gonna be delayed by anyone who puts in enormous amounts of information… I just the other day got Internet sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday.
Clearly this man has no idea what he is talking about, but in this blood sport political arena that isn’t necessary. My point here is not that looking at politics with liberal vs. conservative mind frame allowed men like this to become in charge of things they have no idea about, but rather that it is one more deceptive tool that curbs understanding through focusing on politics as simply as possible. Knowing the needs of your constituency and understanding your responsibilities does not matter, knowing what abstract phrase to get yourself elected by your constituency does, and the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are the two most common of these abstract phrases in use right now. Senator Stevens is elected again and again in Alaska because of his “conservative” stance on the issues, not because of his understanding of them.
As social psychologists Smith, Bruner and White concluded long ago, people form opinions for three reasons: to understand, the need to be accepted, and to vent inner resentment. The image-based PR campaign that is necessary to get elected and to stay in office is focused on the later two reasons and forgets the first. It seems that research has shown that people vote with their hearts and guts; so pragmatic political operatives can ignore their heads. The media only falls in line. In a world of immediate news, it is nearly impossible to form an opinion through understanding of an issue because one must spend time with the object or issue without outside influence and then render an opinion based upon that still observation. Constant news analysis leaves understanding nearly obsolete, for in the time it would take to appraise any piece of news, five analysts have already told the viewer exactly what to think and objectivity is lost. We are left with only social approval and inner frustrations, which are no basis to make an educated vote. With a want to be apart of national political trends, one is either liberal or conservative, and thus falling in line with exactly what has allowed the American elite to become and stay so successful during the countries history.
By consistently overflowing the publics consciousness with abstract terms like “liberal,” “conservative,” or even things like “The American Dream” and “War on Drugs” or “War on Terror” American elites have mislead the public into thinking their existence is important to them, and therefore to trust the elites with the major decisions.
These two supposed ideologies have become a part of a directionless political social smog. If these terms referred to movements, if liberals or conservatives were connected to an overarching organization it would be different. Yes there are many “liberal” or “conservative” organizations but they fail to reach wide enough to include even a fraction of the people who refer to themselves as liberal or conservative. Or even if these terms were not everywhere, they could be useful. But they are everywhere, and distracting the public from understanding the motives behind political action. Before subscribing to one of these two choices Americans need to take a step back and realize that the political spectrum does not need to be so myopic, and needs to be more organic. If it were not so easy, if these classifications were not used to this degree, then quite possibly people would have to classify their political leaders on their own, which would lead to critical thought and then maybe the possibility of critically questioning ones government.
recently graduated from Fordham University with a degree in Media
Ecology and plans to study further in the field towards a doctorate
after his stint teaching English in Prague. He has been published in
The New Haven Register, The Clinton Recorder, The Ram,
and most recently, The Norwood News.