Our current political labels aren’t working.
In my younger days it seemed we got along with just two: Democrat and Republican. I suppose the problem with these labels was that they didn’t convey much. America is a republic. America is a democracy. America is a democratic republic. If you did not know what Democrats and Republicans advocated then you did not know what it meant to be called one.
As far back as the presidential election of 1964 I became aware of new and more descriptive labels: liberal and conservative. Each of these labels once applied to members of both political parties. There were liberal and conservative Democrats, and there were liberal and conservative Republicans. Barry Goldwater was viewed not just as the Republican presidential nominee in that year but also as a conservative. His campaign slogan, “You know in your heart he’s right,” was re-worked by his opponents who added slyly, “Yeah. Far right.” By the time we elected Ronald Reagan president the terms “liberal” and “conservative” had been effectively conflated with “Democrat” and “Republican.” If you were a Democrat then you were a liberal, and if you were a Republican then you were a conservative.
But what do these terms, “liberal” and “conservative,” really mean?
In our politics today we generally define a liberal as someone who “taxes the people and spends their money frivolously.” We also generally define a conservative as someone who favors “lower taxes and smaller government.” The liberal definition, “tax and spend,” goes back to the Great Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt’s programs to re-start America’s economy. In that depression there was actually a lot of money – cash dollars – held by lots of people, it just wasn’t in banks. Bank failures had so spooked Americans that they took their money out of banks and put it in their mattresses or buried it in coffee cans in the back yard. Banks were not just repositories of cash in those days, they were also the major source of loans. In fact, when banks loan money to businesses and individuals they actually create money, so if banks are “cash poor” then they have less to loan. What Roosevelt did was to coax money out of the mattresses and coffee cans and return it to circulation.
This was a good strategy for that depression, and some economists offer it as palliative care for all recessions all the time; but there have been some recessions in more recent years when the problem was not enough money, not money in the wrong places. Unfortunately some politicians taxed and spent anyway and became known as “fiscal liberals.” Obviously, then, a “fiscal conservative” is someone who believes Americans should keep more of their money and spend it as they like, thereby allowing the market to decide which businesses should thrive and which should fail.
Ronald Reagan is generally regarded as the heir to the Goldwater political legacy. He was a fiscal conservative, at least in the sense that he advocated lower taxes, but he was not very effective at shrinking the size and scope of government. In fact, Reagan’s most fundamental application of conservative orthodoxy was to reduce taxes but keep the size of the government effectively unchanged. He did this by shifting the burden of government from those who paid taxes to everyone in America, and he did it by borrowing the money that his lower taxes subtracted from federal revenues.
But Ronald Reagan’s presidency added another wrinkle to our politics: social conservatism. Social conservatives are those well-meaning souls who try to co-opt the power of the government into making people live their lives “right.” Social conservatives are generally opposed to things like abortion, gay rights, uncensored speech, pornography, prostitution, illegal drug use, pre- and extra-marital sex, racial and gender equality and many forms of immigration.
It’s easy to be a fiscal conservative. All you have to do is favor tax cuts. It’s easy to be a fiscal liberal. All you have to do is favor tax increases.
It’s easy to be a social liberal. All you have to do is let people live their own lives their own way. It’s easy to be a social conservative. All you have to do is harness the law to keep people from doing things that you find immoral.
And up to a point it’s easy to mix and match. You can be a fiscal liberal and a social liberal. That is, you tax people but spend the money on things like public works. You can be a fiscal liberal and social conservative. That is, you tax people and use it to prosecute and punish people who live immoral lives. You can be a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. That is, you don’t tax people as much and you don’t prosecute and punish people who live immoral lives.
But you can’t be a fiscal conservative and a social conservative without compromising one or both of your principles.
To be a social conservative means you have to police and punish people who use drugs, people who live sexually adventurous lives, people who use profanity in public, people who want an abortion. To police and punish these people you need to raise taxes that you wouldn’t need to raise if you just left them alone. Politicians who say they can do both are lying.
So we need new labels.
“Progressive” is coming to the fore as a label for those who, regardless of political or fiscal convictions, want to see justice in the world, who want to see fairness, who want to see factual honesty and truth in the public realm, who want to see compassion in action and shared opportunity for everyone. We can easily posit the alternative as “regressive.” These are people and politicians who want to cling to something that should change, who want to revert to a time or circumstance that was good for some but not for everyone, who want to protect one segment of America at the expense of another segment of America. The ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency has cast this distinction in specific relief, and a wide swath of America is alarmed at what this means for our country’s future.
This blog is dedicated to “progressives.” The thoughts in this blog are my own, except where specifically stated otherwise, and I may or may not fall into agreement with other definitions, principles or policies of other “progressives” in the world. But my purpose here is to articulate arguments that are effective in stopping the worst of the regressive tendencies our culture is showing so that all of us might benefit from the promise of America.
Finally, a caution. Labels work pretty well to describe ideas, principles and policies. Labels fail miserably at defining human beings. My commitment here is to promote progressive ideas, principles and social policies. I will not be using this blog to label people, even politicians, in salutary or pejorative terms. I invite readers to give their feedback on these pieces, but I will not post ad hominem attacks, empty bluster or anonymous submissions.
So. Here is your invitation to join me for what I hope will be some timely and stimulating conversation.