Word Games: 'Liberal,' 'Conservative' Have Lost Meaning
The recent attention given Sarah Palin's unintended coinage of the ambiguous "refudiate" demonstrates an interesting aspect of the English language - how it grows through the addition of new words and changes in the meaning of old words.
Three prominent examples from the political realm are "conservative," "liberal" and "populist."
A standard dictionary definition of a conservative is one who wishes to "preserve old institutions, methods, customs, and the like"; a liberal as one who "advocates greater freedom of thought or action"; and a populist as one who "supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite."
Today's common understanding of a conservative (aka Republican) is one who advocates less economic regulation, a regressive tax structure, a minimum social safety net, an interventionist foreign policy and strong cultural (private conduct) regimentation.
Today's common understanding of a liberal (aka Democrat) is one who doesn't shrink from economic regulation and advocates a -progressive tax system, a broad social safety net, a cooperative-leaning foreign policy and -minimum intervention in issues of private conduct.
The use of the term populist is only recently again in vogue in American politics - a result of the so-called "tea party" movement.
The term is applied inaptly to that movement because the tea party program, to the extent it has been defined, opposes cap-and-trade emissions control, seeks repeal of the health care reform law and promotes regressive taxation (extend Bush tax decreases, move to single rate income tax, eliminate estate taxes).
Contrary to populist principles, there is much in this program for the "privileged elite" but little for the "common man."
As to the conservative and liberal appellations, neither of the major parties fits the mold in which it is commonly placed.
It appears that the last true conservative in the Republican Party was Barry Goldwater. He embraced not only the concept of economic freedom but also that of personal freedom. The Republican Party of today embraces only the former - its fundamentally religious base now compels obeisance to its cultural code as a precondition to party representation. It is safe to say that, today, a Barry Goldwater could not win the party's nomination.
If it ever did, certainly since at least the Roosevelt administration, the Democratic Party has not fit the traditional definition of liberal. As in the case of the Republican Party, it only half meets the requirement. While supporting cultural freedoms, it is less trustful of unregulated markets so scores low on the economic freedom test.
Unlike the Republican Party, however, it has not become monolithic in its credo. The left wing of the party advocates greater economic intervention than the right wing, with party centrists being somewhere in between. Were a moderate wing of the Republican Party still in existence, the right wing of the Democratic Party could fit comfortably within it on many issues.
This absence of common meeting grounds for members of the two parties explains much of the paralysis in government today.
Contrary to Ronald Reagan's assertion that "government is the problem," it is increasingly evident that a far more serious problem is its failure to govern. The polarization of positions in the two parties, abetted by rules permitting minority vetoes, leads either to legislation untempered by minority insights or to no legislation at all.
Many find the latter to be their idea of good government, apparently in the belief that, left alone, serious national problems will solve themselves.
While attractive in its simplicity, the no-government-action-is-necessary solution is disastrous in its consequences. Bridges are collapsing, highways are deteriorating, levels of educational attainment are increasingly dismal, illegal immigration can no longer go largely unattended, domestic antiterrorism safeguards at ports and other sensitive facilities are wanting, the need for environmental and safety regulation is demonstrable, and unemployment has become a social cancer.
These, of course, are all in addition to the elephant in the room - the accumulation of national debt through deficit financing.
For these and numerous other reasons, it is time our politicians stopped snarling at each other and started thinking seriously about their obligations as office holders. Responsibility for our present plight rests on both -parties. When all the political spin has been spun, the unalterable fact is the need to cut programs and raise taxes and, amid that -turmoil, to address responsibly the host of other issues confronting us.
We should refuse to accept, as substitutes for the obligation to govern effectively, political actions and utterances whose principal purpose is turning "conservative" or "liberal" into four-letter words.
J. Thomas Tidd is a retired attorney living in Pinehurst.
More like this story