Denver, CO,
07:04 AM

Left-Wing, Right-Wing: The Case For Realignment of Political Labels

Perhaps nothing contributes more to the rancor of political discourse than the indiscriminate use of political labels as partisan epithets. Labels such as “left-wing” and “right-wing,” “red state” and “blue state,” “liberal” and “conservative,” or “communist” and “fascist” have ceased to provide meaningful distinctions between competing ideologies and political movements. If such labels are ever to have any use in communicating ideas or in describing an ideology, they need to describe, at the very least, a common denominator of the people within them.

For example, what is the common denominator between “socialist” regimes such as Stalinist Russia, Communist Cuba, or North Korea, and “fascist” regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy or Hitler’s Germany? If it is the extent of government control and dictatorial power, should not both fascist and socialist regimes be described by the same label and not by labels that are inapposite? Given that the label “Nazi” is an acronym for National Socialist German Workers’ Party, it is somewhat of a puzzle why Nazi has not come to be equated with the “socialism” of communist dictatorships.

It would make better sense to label all political systems based on overweening government power as “right-wing,” and label those who advocate more limited government power as “left-wing" — terms that originally referred to the seating of the Ancien Régime in France, in which those trying to preserve royal and autocratic power sat on the right, and those seeking more limited government sat on the left.

A similar reversal may be justified with regard to the labels “liberal” and “conservative.” Liberalism in England traditionally was associated with free trade and anti-mercantilism, while “conservatives” advocated greater government regulation and restrictions on the free market. As with so many of these meaningless labels, they since have been reversed, with so-called “liberals” advocating high tariffs and protectionism and “conservatives” advocating free trade and resistance to government regulation and intrusion.

Here too, the labels of “liberal” and “conservative” should be realigned to their original meaning — which means labeling Bernie and Hillary (and yes, Trump, who has adopted their policies of mercantilist-style protectionism) as “right-wingers,” and mainstream conservatives seeking lesser concentration of government power and intrusion as “left-wingers.”

With political epithets so thoroughly engrained in the political psyche, such a reversal of labels seems impossible. But there is, in fact, a dramatic precedent.

Ever since the French Revolution of 1848, when a red flag was used to represent the “blood of angry workers,” the color red has been used by left-wing parties around the world to symbolize their liberal and pro-labor ideology. In the United States, blue first became the color of Republicans during the Civil War, when it came to represent the predominantly anti-slavery Republican north. By the time of the 1888 presidential election, blue had become the standard color of the Union and “Lincoln's Party,” while red was assigned to left-leaning Democrats.

Democrats sporadically tried to shed the red label associated with socialism and liberalism, with only limited success. In 1980, NBC newsman David Brinkley could describe Ronald Reagan’s landslide election map as a “suburban swimming pool.” And between 1988-2000, Time magazine assigned the color red to the Democrats and blue to the Republicans in every presidential election. Although there was no clear consensus, these color associations were common for most of our electoral history.

In 2000, however, NBC, CBS, CNN and USA Today all coded their maps blue for Al Gore and red for George Bush. (This was a departure from 1996, when states for Bill Clinton were coded red.) A couple of weeks before the election, as NBC’s Tim Russert and Matt Lauer discussed “red states” and “blue states” on “The Today Show,” blue became the color for Democrats and red, for Republicans. A polarizing election and long recount process meant that year’s electoral map was plastered on America’s television screens for more than a month, becoming so familiar to us that it now seems impossible to imagine the parties’ color assignments otherwise.

And that, of course, is the main obstacle today to engaging in a rational realignment of political labels. Like the “QWERTY” typewriter keyboard, long acknowledged as an inefficient arrangement, no one is prepared to learn a new one. Status quo almost always trumps rationality, especially when it comes to misleading political labels.

This opinion editorial first published in The Hill on March 3, 2018.