Political Brand Names
Paul Waldman has an interesting article in the American Prospect.
This view is embodied in what political scientists call the “median voter theory,” which posits that political success belongs to the party that positions itself closest to the voter who lies in the precise middle of the ideological spectrum. But who is the actual median voter in America? At this moment in history, that voter is pro-choice, wants to increase the minimum wage, favors strong environmental protections, likes gun control, thinks corporations have too much power and that the rich get away with not paying their fair share in taxes, believes the Iraq War was a mistake, wants a foreign policy centered on diplomacy and strong alliances, and favors civil unions for gays and lesbians. Yet despite all this, those voters identify themselves as “moderate.”
So if most “moderates” are Democrats who hold liberal policy positions, why don’t they call themselves liberals? One answer is that these words have meanings outside the political realm that affect what kind of labels we are willing to place on ourselves. Many people are attracted to the ideas of “moderation” and “independence” even if their beliefs actually align fairly closely with one of the two parties.
This is certainly true in my case: I call myself “independent” even though I vote Democrat a lot more often than Republican, mainly because I like the feeling that I’m an independent thinker and haven’t pledged unthinking fealty to one party or another.
But even if lots of people like thinking of themselves as “moderate,” why should it follow that more people choose to call themselves “conservative” than “liberal?” The answer lies in a decades-long campaign to make the word an epithet — from Ronald Reagan taunting Michael Dukakis as “liberal, liberal, liberal” to a host of Senate candidates who faced television ads calling them “embarrassingly liberal” or “shockingly liberal.” Through endless repetition, conservatives succeeded in associating “liberal” with a series of traits that stand apart from specific issues: weakness, vacillation, moral uncertainty, and lack of patriotism, to name a few.
In other words, “liberal” and “conservative” have ceased being descriptors of how someone feels about specific policies, and have turned into marketing brands, or tribal markers. Liberal vs. conservative, Coke vs. Pepsi, Raiders vs. Packers.
Which brings us to:
As part of a solution, many on the left have decided to start with a clean slate, ditching “liberal” in favor of “progressive.”
Indeed, the current usage of “progressive” has always struck me as a reaction to the neocon advertising machine’s hijacking of “liberal”.
This article gives me hope that if the Democrats (and, let’s face it, the odds of a third party fielding a viable candidate in the near future are slim) manage to put together a coherent, clearly-articulated platform that includes the “median voter” issues above, then they could take back a big chunk of the government. My fear, however, is that a lot of people will look no further than the jerseys worn by the candidates, and vote for the candidate who’s on “their team”, regardless of whether he’s the candidate who best embodies their opinions, or is even in their own self-interest.