Originally posted Thursday, October 28, 2004:
You always know that a Republican candidate has run out of things to say about his opponent–it doesn’t matter whether it’s another Republican in a primary election or a Democrat in a final election–when he calls the opponent a “tax and spend liberal.” These are the magic incantation of Republican politics, and they’re supposed to make voters avoid the epithet’s target like radioactive waste.
The epithet can be used in other grammatical constructions: “All Senator Snort has done in office is tax and spend”; “For the past four (two, six) years, he’s been over there in Washington (Columbus, City Hall), taxing and spending your hard-earned dollars.” It’s the ketchup of political invective–it goes on anything. “Tax and spend” is a magical incantation; no epithet thought up by Democrats has quite the same mojo.
At the same time, it’s a little silly. After all, the unique and defining characteristic of government is that it taxes; nobody else can do that. And once you’ve taxed people, you pretty much have to spend the revenues on something; taxpayers tend to rebel when governments just collect their money and store it in warehouses.
So let’s be clear, what governments do is “tax and spend.” Without taxing and spending, you don’t have a government. Liberals and conservatives both do it; Republicans and Democrats both do it. President Bush has done it, and John Kerry will do it once he’s elected.
I bring this up because we use political labels far too often. Right and left, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, pro-choice and pro-life–part of our handicap in state and national politics today is the overuse of simplistic labels. (Fortunately, the labels are harder to use in municipal politics, so they’ve never really caught on there.)
(Digression alert: personal reference coming.)
A few friends have noted that I seem to be exceptionally motivated in this campaign, and they’re right: I haven’t been this excited about a presidential election since forty years ago, when as a high school student I was doing volunteer work for the campaign of . . . Barry Goldwater. (This is when the reader says, “Barry Goldwater? Wasn’t he that conservative Republican senator from Arizona, somewhere to the right of Vlad the Impaler? How does this joker support John Kerry, that tax-and-spend liberal?” But Hillary Clinton started political life as a Goldwater Republican too: that’s why she and I are so tight.)
Well, my candidate now is quite different from my candidate then; politics have changed, and so has our country. But now as then, I am disturbed and frightened at the direction in which our country is going. My own political odyssey over those years has taught me a disrespect for political labels.
(Personal reference over; reading can safely continue here.)
The notion that you can sum up a person’s political beliefs in a simple label is ludicrously simplistic. In general, liberals are supposed to favor governmental interventions to correct societal problems; conservatives are supposed to favor economic policies that increase profits. Liberals are supposed to help the poor; conservatives are supposed to protect the rich. Both, of course, claim to be the savior of the middle class. But of course, there are social, economic, foreign policy, and civil rights liberals and conservatives; trying to track one’s beliefs in all four seems unfulfilling.
The most common break between the two philosophies concerns the role of government in private enterprise: since resources have to be allocated somehow, liberals favor government involvement in that allocation, while conservatives favor leaving it up to private business and markets. Like most idealogues, both liberals and conservatives take their philosophies on faith with very little empirical evidence; neither one has very good data to support its own pure ideology.
Ordinary people distrust ideology instinctively; but ordinary people aren’t the ones who make campaign donations. So in order to be nominated, most candidates have to persuade their own parties that they have the right beliefs, while simultaneously convincing those same supporters that they can appeal just enough to moderates to get their votes and be elected.
So, in this campaign, as Bush campaign ads trot out that tired “liberal” epithet, what should undecided voters do? I believe they would do well to realize that classic American liberalism is essentially dead. Most Democrats accepted Bill Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over,” and liberals recognize just as much as conservatives that a strong defense is essential to our security.
I respect conservatism: it’s is a proud and honorable political ideology that values responsibility, individual initiative, and self-reliance. What I don’t accept is fake conservatism, and today’s conservatives, including the President, are mostly fakes. Passing debt onto our children isn’t good financial policy; inadequately staffing and supplying our military isn’t good defense; and pushing difficult economic decisions like Social Security reform into future administrations isn’t good planning.
Ignore the labels, especially when candidates use them against each other.