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Political Labels & Contentiousness in American Politics


Politics and Social Issues

In my life, I can’t remember a more contentious time in American Politics.

For purposes of this article, I am going to refrain from using the labels Republican and Democrat, the two political-party distinctions with which most of us in the United States consider ourselves to be aligned. Instead I am attempting to address what I consider to be the differences between two political philosophies, liberal and conservative.

This is obviously made murky and difficult by the fact that our society identifies one party most often with one political philosophy and the other party with the other political philosophy. But these labels are often situational, depending on the issue or how the poll questions are phrased.

So why do we label?

Categorical labelling is a tool that humans use to resolve the impossible complexity of the environments we grapple to perceive. Like so many human faculties, it’s adaptive and miraculous, but it also contributes to some of the deepest problems that face our species.

Labeling isn’t always a cause for concern, and it’s often very useful. It would be impossible to catalogue the information we process during our lives without the aid of labels like “friendly”, “deceitful”, “tasty”, and “harmful.” But it’s important to recognize that the people we label as “black”, “white”, “rich”, “poor”, “smart” and “simple” [“liberal” or “conservative” – burton] all seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, simpler, [liberal or conservative] merely because we’ve labeled them so.” – 1

And why are Political Labels so troublesome?

Many people use political labels to divide and to negatively categorize.

Let’s look at a definition for both Liberals and Conservatives

Liberals believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. It is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights. Believe the role of government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems.

Conservatives believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, traditional American values and a strong national defense. Believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems.

Other than the role of government in these values, hardly anyone can take real serious exception to these stated beliefs of either philosophy. The primary difference is in how they are to be realized.

Political Labels/Politics and Social Issues


But when we use some of the descriptions commonly employed:

Liberal – left-winger tax and spenders, pro-gun control, excessive welfare spenders, abortion supporters, reduced military support, socialist-leaning, supporters of more government regulation on business and free enterprise, believers in bigger and bigger federal government, excessive taxers of the wealthy, critical &/or suspicious of all law enforcement actions/involvement, supporters of amnesty for undocumented immigrants, supporter of same-sex marriage, believer that global warming is greater threat than terrorism, pot-smoking hippie………..add your own additional characterizations.

Conservative right-winger, supporter of the religious right, narrow-minded, favor the rich and corporations, anti-abortion, anti-affirmative action, pro-second amendment, likely NRA member, supporter of Defense of Marriage Act, supporter of lower taxes and smaller government with limited power, believe terrorism greatest threat, opposer of long-term welfare, redneck, reluctant to change……………..again, add your own additional characterizations.

When these inflammatory phrases are used to describe political leanings, the rhetoric heats up and any sane, logical, rational discussion goes out the window.

“Not too long ago, however, terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” served as neat, precise pigeonholes. Take “conservative.” During most of the 45-year-long Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union — which divided the whole world into opposing camps — conservatives were well defined. They were staunch anti-Communists, believing the old Soviet Union was bent on taking over the world. At home, they generally opposed government regulation of the economy or government involvement in social problems such as poverty. They attacked what conservative former President Ronald Reagan called “big government,” believing that power should reside with local authorities, not in Washington.

Liberals, on the other hand, championed government programs to improve the lives of poor people, and welcomed government regulation of business if needed. They emphasized civil rights, women’s rights, and other so-called progressive issues. Liberals were more concerned with avoiding nuclear war than with containing Communism, and sought compromise rather than confrontation with the Soviet Union.

Since the terms “liberal” and “conservative” didn’t have overtly negative meanings in those days, rival politicians threw juicier names into the pot. Conservatives called their enemies “bleeding hearts,” meaning they were overly sympathetic to the poor, or “doves,” meaning they were antiwar, or “flaming” liberals, implying that anyone with such ideas was prone to excess.

Liberals, meanwhile, branded conservatives “reactionaries” and “Neanderthals,” whose old-fashioned ideas prevented social progress, and “hawks,” who were too eager to use warfare to solve problems. When conservatives cried too loudly about Communism, liberals called them “McCarthyites,” a reference to notorious U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who ruined the careers of many liberals in the 1950s by falsely accusing them of being Communists.

Political Labels/Politics and Social Issues

In the old days, you knew a liberal or a conservative when you saw one. But today, these neat categories have broken down. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made it much harder to divide the world into left and right, Communist and anti-Communist. And in the U.S., more and more people came to believe that strictly liberal or strictly conservative policies were not working. As a result, a new breed of politician arose who borrowed ideas freely from both camps. Perhaps the best-known new-breed politician is President Clinton, who helped found a school of thought called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberals, or “New Democrats,” as many are known, still believe government has a role to play in the economy and social policy, but they have adopted many conservative ideas, such as limits on welfare and a tougher response to crime.

Another such group is the so-called “neoconservatives” — former liberals who have moved to the right, especially in foreign policy and on issues such as civil rights.

So if the old labels don’t mean what they used to, why do politicians and pundits keep using them? For one thing, lawmakers know that pinning a simplistic tag on an opponent is the surest way to win a political battle. Most legislation that comes before Congress is so complex that few voters will take the time to truly understand it. By exploiting the public’s ignorance, politicians can create a bad image for a bill or a policy with a single, well-chosen negative term. As Senator George Mitchell (D-Maine) said during the fight over health-care legislation in 1993, “If you call something ‘socialized medicine’ enough it won’t make it true, but it might make people believe it’s true anyway.”

Simplistic labeling also meets the needs of the media. With more than 500 lawmakers on Capitol Hill, reporters fall back on easy handles, even if they distort a legislator’s record. The growing popularity of slash-and-burn-style talk-radio shows is also a factor. Audiences love to hear conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh tag First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as “a flaming liberal,” for example.

Is all this name-calling good for our political system? Many political analysts say no. As much as it might make for colorful verbal combat, the labeling game tends to make compromise between the two political parties difficult. It also tends to feed cynicism about government in general, making it appear as if public officials are more interested in pulling off witty one-liners than in addressing the national interest. -2

“But still, the essential truth is this: Our political beliefs come in shades of such astounding subtlety that any definitive labeling system is destined to obscure meaning, at best, and prescribe opinions, at worst. We must be careful. The only label we may adopt without worry is that of a Skeptic.” – 3

While it may be necessary to align one’s self with one or other of the political parties, i.e. in your region you may have to “register” as either Democrat or Republican in order to vote in the primary election, the vast majority of us do not subscribe to all aspects, platforms and beliefs of the party with which we may be affiliated.

Political Labels/Politics and Social Issues

How we characterized ourselves, liberal or conservative, at any particular time is in many cases dependent on the issue being discussed, or how the poll question is phrased.

In light of all this, neither of these political philosophies are totally good or totally bad; neither entirely right nor entirely wrong. But the extremes of both are equally and totally BAD!

The extreme left wing of the liberal philosophy carried to fruition leads to socialism at best, communism at worst. The extreme right wing of the conservative philosophy, carried to fruition leads to fascism and dictatorship.

The political pundits and mainstream media seem to see, evaluate and define all things political from the perspective of those on the west coast and the east coast, giving very little thought, credibility or consideration to the vast number of folks between the two.

While it may be naïve, I believe the political temperature and tolerance of the country tends to swing back and forth like a pendulum. When those of us among the “great unwashed” in the middle of the country; who may not regularly watch CNN or Fox News, listen to NPR or Russ Limbaugh, read the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or New York Times, begin to sense the pendulum has swung too far to one side or the other, that’s when political administrations change in this country. I anticipate such a change in the 2016 elections.

1 – Psychology Today –

2- Scholastic –

3 – Duke Political Review –


Politics and Social Issues










  1. Matthew B. Matthew B.

    Very well written. I’m really enjoying as always your insight. Thanks….

    • BurtonB BurtonB

      Thanks, Matt.

  2. Steve Nesbitt Steve Nesbitt

    Billy, as usual, your article is terrific and well-written. I think that the entire south, with some exceptions, of course, could be considered “conservative”. I am sincerely hoping and praying for a huge “shift” in the 2016 elections!

    • BurtonB BurtonB

      Thanks again Steve, for the kind words. I agree with your assessment of the south and join with you in your hopes and prayers.

  3. James L. Ward James L. Ward


    I would call my politics MODERATIVE. Believe the role of government is to provide services that we cannot financially or socially while not interfering with our daily lives. i.e. infrastructure, etc. While at the same time I do not want government interference with my daily activities. i. e covert monitoring of who we contact, religion, abortion, etc. I pin it as a very simple personal well being.

    • BurtonB BurtonB

      Thanks, Sonny! Well stated.

  4. Lucy Stoffel Lucy Stoffel

    Yes this is very well written! I find myself sitting on the fence, so to say, on a lot of issues and completely agree or disagree on some issues!
    I agree we need to swing the pendulum , however, as you stated!

    • BurtonB BurtonB

      Do so appreciate your response and insight. Thanks!

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