Right to the Point12/18/08

Political labels — pragmatic and problematic

Dec. 18, 2008

By Mike Benevento


As 2008 ends, I would like to thank you for reading my column this past year. Although each column is about 750 words long, they usually take over seven hours to write. Harking back to my college days, it is like having a term paper due every two weeks — except more people than just my teacher read the column. Thus, I hope you have enjoyed reading about the “right” side of the issues.

Since I have limited space to broadcast my message, I must carefully choose my words. Words that convey ideas and are full of meaning are extremely valuable. This makes words describing political philosophies very helpful in getting my point across.

Throughout my column, I use words like “liberal,” “conservative,” “independent,” “left” and “right.” These political labels represent a set of beliefs and ideas that help define an individual or a group. While most people in the group will share many of the same characteristics, the label may not apply to every individual in that group.

There are risks with labels. The word may contain deficiencies, be outdated or lack significant detail. Words can hold different meanings to different people. As President Bill Clinton demonstrated, even simple words like “is” can be open to interpretation. Further, labels can be stifling.

My wife Kristine dislikes generalizations because she wants to leave room for individualism. Kris is right when she says that not all people fit into whatever category they are placed. For instance, while the Republican Party is pro-life, not all members agree. Many believe that it is a woman’s right to choose an abortion and that the government should not be involved.

Even still, labeling by general characteristics helps better understand a group’s beliefs and principles. With that in mind, let’s explore three common political labels — conservative, liberal and independent — for a better idea of their meaning.

Classically, liberals and conservatives are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, with liberals on the left and conservatives on the right. Most Democrats align with liberalism while Republicans side with conservatism.

Independents are a different kind of political animal. Technically non-affiliated with either the left or the right, they tend to fall in the middle. Theoretically, they move left or right depending on the issue.

These days, however, most independents at all levels of government align with Democrats. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman are two prime examples in American politics. While they are Independents, they vote alongside the Democratic Party on most issues.

In America today, members of the media and academia tend to be liberal. Most military members and veterans are conservative. Based on his voting record, Barack Obama is decisively liberal. A left-slanting Congress backs him as Democrats control both chambers. Closer to home, while Vermont’s Legislature is liberal, both Gov. Jim Douglas and Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie are conservatives.

The conservative philosophy champions the power of individuals and free markets as opposed to government in combating society’s ills. Conservatives believe in lower taxes, a strong military and a strict application of the Constitution. Thus, limited government, freedom of speech, religious freedom and the rule of law are important to conservatives.

Individual rights are liberalism’s most important political goal. Liberals fight to remove almost all impediments to personal liberty. Because of this, liberals view the Constitution as a living document, using activist judges to mold it to their desire — while using the legal system to circumvent it when necessary.

Conservatives believe that most individuals will do what is right when given the chance, including taking care of the poor. For liberals, the government — not the individual — is in the best position to provide for others. Thus, liberals back increased taxes (especially on the wealthy) to pay for social programs.

Some of the biggest social spending increases occurred during Democratic presidencies, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s work programs and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Obama appears to be no different — both his call to redistribute wealth and his socialized health care plan will increase the size of government spending.

While preferring a multilateral approach to international issues, conservatives will act unilaterally with the military to defend America. Liberals tend to be internationalists, preferring diplomacy and consensus with others (including the United Nations) before taking action.

A person’s political philosophy and party affiliation is very important. Both play a part in the person’s choices. If Democrat, the more liberal decisions will be. If Republican, decisions will be more conservative. Yes, political labels carry lots of baggage, but they are still very helpful in getting my point across.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.