What it really means to be a (insert party here)

As an English-oriented person, I become annoyed when words are used improperly. I feel like smacking anyone who says “more unique” or “better then you” – it’s “than,” people!

Similarly, I’m dismayed by the gargantuan number of misnomers that are put into play in politics. John Kerry has been called “the most liberal member of the Senate.”

Talk show gadfly Dennis Prager has made a career out of misrepresenting leftists in his “Are You a Liberal?” column.

Many of President Bush’s critics are quick to label him “a right wing extremist.” The one thing they all seem to have in common is an ignorance of the terminology that they espouse.

Beneath all the exaggerations and straw man assessments, political labels have very concrete meanings.

Stripped of all its connotations, a conservative is simply one who seeks to protect the status quo. Conservatives defend existing traditions, values, institutions and norms and oppose change that threatens them.

In contrast to this, progressives (often mistakenly referred to as liberals) seek change and constant improvement. This change may come at the expense of existing traditions, values, institutions and norms.

At its ideological core, the battle between right and left is nothing more than a conflict between old and new.

Liberalism adds another dimension to the conflict. A liberal, as the name implies, is one who values individual liberty.

Liberals do not view either change or traditions as ends in and of themselves, but rather the means of meeting the aims of personal and economic freedom.

Liberalism is opposed by authoritarianism, which exists in both rightist (Fascism) and leftist (Communism) incarnations. In this sense, true liberalism (aka classical liberalism or libertarianism) falls outside the left-right spectrum.

Another point often missed by quick-to-label commentators is that these definitions are relative to place and time. We like to think of Republicans as being rightist and Democrats as being leftist, but this is true only in America.

Jacques Chirac, a conservative by French standards, has advocated pro-social economic policies that would put him to the left of many Democrats.

Similarly, while Hamid Karzai is on the left side of Afghani politics, his pro-corporate, faith-based views place him on the American right.

Perhaps the most egregious fraud perpetrated by the ignorant are the various attempts by members of one side to take credit for that side’s historical achievements. This assumes that political labels are continuous, that an 1860s progressive shares the same views and ideas as a 1960s progressive.

One needn’t take more than a cursory glance at American history to realize this is a false assumption.

For example, at the time of the American Revolution, obedience to the British Crown was the status quo and colonial independence represented a radical change. Our Founding Fathers were the progressives of their day and the Loyalists were that era’s conservatives.

At the time of the Civil War, progressives sought the abolition of slavery whereas conservatives aimed to preserve the plantation system and the Southern way of life.

Modern conservatives, however, are proud to have African Americans such as Condoleeza Rice as their leaders – something that would have distressed their ideological predecessors to no end.

Similarly, modern progressives generally seem to favor high taxation of the wealthy, an idea that would have alarmed the likes of James Madison. Procedural links between conservatives and liberals throughout the ages are virtually nonexistent.

With this in mind, it is easy to see how faulty a lot of today’s political labeling really is.

Given the true meaning of the word, John Kerry can hardly be called a liberal, let alone “the most liberal member of the Senate.”

Kerry, who voted to overhaul welfare and supports the death penalty for terrorists, can’t even be considered the most progressive member of the Senate (a dubious distinction which would more likely befall Barbara Boxer or Hillary Clinton).

Those who would dub Bush a “rightwing extremist” would also do well to rethink their choice of words. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is a buzzword for increased government spending, which flies in the face of fiscal conservatism.

Correspondingly, Bush’s policy of spreading democracy abroad borrows from Woodrow Wilson’s progressive idealism, while his use of an international coalition to fight terrorism is a paraphrase of John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress against Communism.

Not only is Bush not an extremist; by strictly conservative standards, he’s also a colossal disappointment.

I raise these points regarding the misuse of labels because the practice not only offends my semantic sensibility, but my political sensibility as well.

We should all endeavor to define ourselves and not let ourselves be defined by our most ardent opponents.

Conservatives should not be content to let themselves be called racists or religious nuts nor should progressives allow themselves to be pigeonholed as Communists or anti-Americans.

Lastly, I long for the day when I will be able to say that I am a liberal (in the classical rather than the modern sense) and have people think Thomas Jefferson and not Walter freakin’ Mondale.