Politicians and political pundits label themselves and their opponents with names meant to garner support for their side and demonize the other side. These neat little one- or two-word descriptions are meant to encapsulate in a sound bite what they want the voters to hear, thus eliminating the need for the voter to think about the issues. It does not matter that few understand what the names mean. Let’s take the terms ‘conservative’ used to describe the Republicans and ‘liberal’ to describe the Democrats. Classical political philosophers for centuries have defined ‘conservatives’ as those satisfied with the current political, economic, and social set-up, needing at best small, incremental tweaks to adjust to changing times. They defined ‘liberals’ as those who believed in minimizing government intervention in business and personal life. Which political party matches either description?
Laying out a taxonomy of political terms would seem like a good way to start but is something that simple possible in today’s highly polarized political atmosphere? We should agree that we can divide governing systems between democratic, i.e., those where the people can change the government, and authoritarian where a small group makes all the decisions, but can we? Where does one put a system in which the candidate who loses the popular vote by millions still wins the election? Is gerrymandering democratic or authoritarian?
Political philosophers who wrote before the baby-boomers grew up would have labeled today’s Democratic Party as the conservative party trying to preserve the status quo. If that is the case, what would they have called today’s Republican Party? A good guess is that the political philosophers of yore would have labeled the current GOP, also known as MAGA or Freedom Caucus, as ‘reactionary’, another older political term we should revive for clarity’s sake. A ‘reactionary’ rejects the current status quo and seeks to return to an earlier halcyon period, when they believe everything was so much better than it is today. The Federalist Society and other ‘originalists’ clearly meet this definition as do organizations like Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda. The Federalists wish to restore the law to what (they argue) the drafters of the Constitution meant when they were discussing it 235 years ago. The roughly 70,000 members of the Federalist Society argue, in effect, that they alone possess perfect knowledge of the past, a knowledge available to no other American. Similarly, Islamic Jihad argues that it has the only tape recording of Angel Gabriel dictating the Holy Quran to the Prophet Muhammed. Unlike the Federalist Society, Islamic Jihad deals with alternative interpretations by beheading those who hold them.
The political lexicon has other, much more grotesque, misnomers. Many Republicans call themselves Libertarians – an offshoot of ‘liberal’ political and economic theory. Libertarians argue that government should play no role whatsoever in your personal, financial, or social life, (except perhaps to keep other libertarians from stealing your property). Governors Greg Abbot and Ron DeSantis tout their ‘libertarian’ administrations for making Texas and Florida, respectively, magnets for people to come live there. One wonders how public policies that allow the state to peer into bedrooms to see who is sleeping with whom conforms to libertarian principles. Somehow, both bedrock libertarian governors also believe they have the authority to decide what medical care a doctor may give a woman patient and have joined lawsuits asking a judge, with no medical knowledge, to overturn the decisions of medical professionals. Libertarians claim they have deified the principle that the state should not interfere in business decisions. Yet neither sees inconsistency in forcing private businesses to make business decisions based on the governors’ political views. Both governors see no contradictions to libertarian principles in threatening to jail educators who teach about slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement in ways their constituents do not like. I would suggest ‘authoritarian’ better describes both.
Abbott and DeSantis have left-wing authoritarianism for company. Self-proclaimed champions of academic freedom, civil rights, and progressive policies, the ‘cancel culture’ left, agree with Abbott and DeSantis that students should not be allowed to hear anything contrary to their views. They provoke riots to prevent an outsider from speaking on campus and shout down those they cannot prevent from speaking. They harass faculty who cannot figure out the details of today’s gender related pronoun wars, often coercing spineless university administrators into firing tenured faculty.
Left wing authoritarianism has spread beyond academia. ‘Cancelling’ demands that anything that might remind someone of even the slightest past oppression should be eradicated from public view. They demand the renaming of every public building named for someone who might have been a slave-owner or advocated Jim Crow. This might provide a certain visceral catharsis, but it does nothing to educate future generations and ensure that it never happens again. Removing the statues of traitors who rebelled against the United States in the Civil War from places of honor may make us feel good, but erasing memory of oppression ensures that no one will be prepared to confront it when it rears its ugly head again. More than half the Framers of the Constitution owned slaves. Erasing their memories from public spaces does nothing to prepare young minds to understand that they live in and must be prepared to cope with a flawed world, nor teach them much about history. Nor does it educate people to understand the great things those people accomplished, including the establishment of a democratic political system that allows left- and right-wing authoritarians to run amok. The Taliban who blew up statues of Buddha in Afghanistan or the Jihadists who leveled the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria share the same view.
Labels are the lazy man’s way of not having to think. That’s how we lose our freedoms.