When did liberal become a bad word? And just what is a conservative?

Our favorite political labels have become full of venom, drained of meaning

Staff WriterMay 21, 2006 

Consider this:

John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market-loving conservative think tank, wouldn't mind being called the dreaded L-word -- liberal.

But only in the 18th century, Thomas Jefferson sense of this time-worn political label. Back then, liberalism meant embracing laissez-faire economics and free trade; science-based enlightenment; democracy and the supreme rights of the individual; and religion without state sponsorship.

Confused?

Just wait.

The defining waters are just as muddy for that other traditional political title -- conservative, a label marked by its own historical metamorphosis. Fierce, intramural infighting among Republicans, the major party of preference for most American conservatives, on everything from immigration to the war in Iraq makes it harder to figure out what the term really means and who are its truest representatives.

And that raises the following questions: Do the terms liberal and conservative, in use for centuries in Europe and the Americas, still have much meaning? Or should these polar opposites be thrown into the bone yard of long-dead labels of political doctrine or party, there to join terms such as monarchist, prohibitionist, Federalist, Whig or Know-Nothing?

"They have very little meaning now," said Hood, whose Raleigh-based organization is named for John Locke, the 17th century British political philosopher and a founding thinker of classical European liberalism. "The meaning comes largely through the use of these terms as epithets rather than the description of a political point of view. They have been drained of all their original political meaning."

The coinage of these terms has been cheapened by the ceaseless din of talk radio and cable television hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, who have popularized the use of "liberal" as a rhetorical brickbat.

For David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic political operative from Virginia, to be called a liberal is an outrageous slur, a modern-day political insult akin to questioning his manhood or his mother's character.

Make no mistake: Saunders is a proud and partisan Democrat who touts the virtues of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society, two hallmarks of 20th century American liberalism. Just don't hang the L-word around his neck.

"It's a cuss word in the South," said Saunders, co-author of an outspokenly critical book that blueprints a path for his party to reclaim the South and rural America. "I'd rather somebody call me [an SOB] than a damn liberal any time."

The term "conservative" has not suffered a similar electronic fate, but its cousins have -- right-wing has morphed into wing-nut and, thanks to Hillary Clinton, has become associated with a vast, conspiratory cabal.

But beyond America's borders, "conservative" has become a catch-all label applied to an array of often unsavory political characters, Hood said -- from the hard-line Communists of the Kremlin who wanted to preserve the trappings of the Soviet Union to Latin American dictators and the mullahs of Iran and their Islamic theocracy.

In a sense, this is an old-school use of the term -- conservatives want to protect the status quo, be it an 18th century European monarchy or a 20th century Communist dictatorship. There's also a Southern variation on this theme -- in the aftermath of the Civil War, many of the ex-Confederates who resumed political control of the South preferred to be called "conservative," instead of Republican, which was the hated party of Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists.

How things change: from con to rad

But old-school definitions don't apply to a modern American conservative, particularly one who favors the constant change of an unfettered free market and wants a flat tax, constitutional amendments banning flag burning and same-sex marriage and a partially privatized Social Security system, said Ted Arrington, a political science professor at UNC-Charlotte.

"If you use the old definition, the Republicans aren't conservative at all -- they're radical," Arrington said. "It's the Democrats who are conservative and who want to protect the traditions of the New Deal."

Even in the land of the original liberal-basher and arch conservative, former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, the terms have little practical use, Arrington said. Suburban newcomers to North Carolina who consider themselves conservatives and vote Republican might have little in common with Helms' most avid supporters, particularly on issues of race, the environment and the role of government.

"These labels are shopworn in the sense that they don't have an intrinsic value unto themselves," Arrington said. "It is true that in this state, the term conservative has an aura of good, a halo. But that's not because people understand what these words mean or have a sense of political tradition."

Theoretically, labels of political party or doctrine should serve as signposts that help voters and politicians navigate complex and contentious policy debates. They are supposed to be indicators of bedrock political values. If you're a liberal Democrat, you should favor gun control and affirmative action and oppose the death penalty and the war in Iraq. If you're a conservative Republican, you should favor tax cuts, military might and balanced budgets, and oppose abortion and the expansion of government programs of almost any kind.

But these markers are antiquated and don't delineate fissures within liberal and conservative camps; they also ignore splits shooting through the vast swath of independents. A recent scientific survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press charts a more detailed political course. The study shows nine distinct types of voters scattered across the two major parties and the middle ground of independents and indicates the issues that divide them. For example, those labeled "liberals" may clash with "conservative Democrats" on foreign policy, such as the war in Iraq, and social issues, such as abortion or the death penalty.

And in the rough-and-tumble reality of modern American politics -- nationally and in North Carolina -- the old signposts add confusion instead of clarity.

On the national level, there's upheaval among Republicans over President Bush's record-high deficits and his championing of the No Child Left Behind act, which has significantly expanded the federal government's role in public education, and the prescription drug benefit for Medicare, seen as the largest entitlement act since LBJ's Great Society.

"Conservatives do not support an expansion of the federal government," said U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, the Farmville Republican who voted against the prescription drug benefit and has called for a timetable for withdrawing American troops from Iraq. "This administration has frustrated many conservatives, not just in Congress, but with the grassroots. We are not staying true to our principles."

Coloring outside the party lines

Jones, swept into office during the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress, said congressional Republicans have forsaken the conservative reforms of the party's Contract With America, which included a call for term limits and a balanced budget. In 1995, Jones' first year in office, the nation's public debt was $4.98 trillion; last year, it was $8.17 trillion, a 64 percent increase ballooned, in part, by the war against terrorism and Bush's tax cuts.

Along with fellow Republican U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte, Jones has also favored a tough, enforcement-only House immigration reform bill that would make it a felony to illegally enter the United States. The bill also would strengthen border security with a nearly 700-mile fence and add agents patrolling the line with Mexico.

That places Jones on one side of a party-wide schism on immigration. Pro-business conservatives favor a guest worker program proposed by President Bush and oppose get-tough measures they say could hurt the economy. That position makes them strange bedfellows with liberals who favor loose immigration laws for civil rights reasons.

Other conservatives worry about the impact of illegal immigration on traditional American values and the strain placed on state and local budgets for health care, education and other services. These conservatives also favor get-tough measures because of the potential terrorist threat posed by porous borders.

"I'm more concerned about terrorists coming from south of the border than I am Iraq," said Jones, who favors stationing National Guard troops along the border with Mexico, a measure President Bush proposed last week during a televised speech on immigration.

Change Constitution? That's a liberal thing

On the state level, the shaky definitions of these frayed political labels make it easy to oversimplify the complex mix of motivations behind the successful drive by Republicans to boot a fellow Republican, former state House Speaker Richard Morgan, from office.

Led by Art Pope, a Wake County businessman and former state legislator, the battle against Morgan has been portrayed as a battle about who is the truer Republican and, thus, the better conservative. In 2003, Morgan entered a power-sharing arrange- ment with House Speaker Jim Black that allowed Democrats to maintain control over that legislative chamber. And he made moves that rankled conservatives, including support for reauthorizing temporary taxes passed to prop up a recession-wracked state budget and for a redistricting plan that Pope and his allies successfully challenged in court.

But to call this intra-party blood-letting a battle for the conservative soul of North Carolina's Republican Party would be a mistake, Hood said. Personal animosity, party unity and pure partisanship were also in play.

"There were aspects of a lot of things going on at the same time," Hood said.

On the other side of the fence, Saunders, the Virginia political operative and self-described Bubba, says he no longer knows what a conservative is. With their penchant for pushing constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage and the burning of the U.S. flag and for term limits and balanced budgets, Republicans can't truly wear this label.

"What is conservative about changing the Constitution?" he said. "That's the most liberal thing you can do."

And Saunders isn't the only Democrat who considers liberal to be a dirty word. Left-wing Democrats are also running away from the label, preferring to call themselves "progressive," another term from America's political past.

That's fine by Hood.

"If they don't want the term liberal, I want it back," he said.

(News researcher Becky Ogburn contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at 829-8955 or jim.nesbitt@newsobserver.com.

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