“Liberal”? “Conservative”? “Left-wing”? “Right-wing”? “Neocon”? “alt-Right”?”Progressive’? These are all terms that get thrown around quite a bit these days, along with several others that are considerably less complimentary (e.g., “libtard” “wingnut” and “snowflake“). They get used and misused and abused so much that their actual definitions are as blurred as the original shape of melted ice cream. So let’s see if we can sort them out, shall we? This is not going to be a comprehensive treatise, mind you; just a bare-bones approach to getting definitions straight. And yes, it will be rather subjective — but still quite accurate.
The two anchor categories are conservative and liberal. In broadest terms, conservative means cautious, resistant to change; and liberal means loose, generous, open to change. Neither is inherently a bad quality, nor are the two qualities inherently in conflict. A person can be liberal in some situations and conservative in others; or both in different senses in the same situation. Both are, after all, relative qualities. The conflict occurs only after we get more specific in ideological application — when we add “isms” and capital letters.
Among the best definitions of conservatism, in the political and ideological sense of the word, are surely these by Merriam-Webster:
2 a : disposition in politics to preserve what is established
b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change; specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (such as retirement income or health-care coverage)
3: the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change
Classic conservatism, then, is a devotion to tradition above all else. And this means that it is implicitly (and even explicitly) a reverence for hierarchy. In traditional conservatism, the rich are above the poor, males are above females, whites above blacks, religion above secularism, Christianity (in Western society) above other religions, and of course one’s own country above all others. Conservatives have been defenders of theocracy, monarchy, oligarchy, patriarchy and nationalism. They have championed slavery, segregation, strict gender roles, and all manner of class and caste systems.
One of the greatest contradictions of conservatism and its contemporary incarnations (which we’ll get to shortly) is that on the one hand they promote a draconian black-and-white approach to crime, encompassing the death penalty — the attitude that human nature cannot be improved, that people are either good or bad, and the bad apples are generally beyond reform. Yet on the other hand they promote a central role for religion in governance; and not only does Christianity at its best promote compassion and forgiveness, but Christian dogma hinges on the concept that human nature can be reformed drastically and instantaneously by the mere act of religious conversion.
The same lexicographers also have an excellent definition of (classic) liberalism:
a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (see autonomy 2) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (such as those involving race, gender, or class)
Liberal shares a the same root as liberty; and liberalism is at its best a striving for liberty from oppression. Specifically, in political terms, classic liberalism (which was first used to designate a formal ideology probably in the early Nineteenth Century) aimed to throw off the yoke of the religious establishment and the aristocratic establishment, which often are intertwined. But even before the coinage, settlers came to America prompted by the former type of liberalism; and revolutionaries in America established a new nation prompted by the latter kind.
The removal of aristocratic and theocratic domination, of course, means that some other type of government structure must be installed in their place if you don’t want pure anarchy. And the criticism often leveled against liberalism is that the government structures themselves may become oppressive. Sure, that can happen. And if it does, that government is no longer liberal.
At some point, liberals realized that true freedom demands equality, and thus requires more than just eliminating sources of oppression; it also requires proactively making sure the playing field is level as possible for everyone. You can’t achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” by just letting things take care of themselves — because oddly enough, those born on the top rungs of society tend to do whatever it takes to stay there.
In other words, equality requires progressivism, which is often used interchangeably with liberalism. But while progressivism is liberal, liberalism in not necessarily progressive. Officially declaring racial discrimination illegal is liberal. Taking practical measures to actually prevent it from happening is progressive. An official Progressive Party flourished in the U.S. in the first half of the Twentieth Century; it was neither the beginning nor end of American progressivism, lower case. The American Revolution was not only distinctly liberal, but quite progressive. Likewise Social Security, the 40-hour work week, child labor laws, female suffrage and civil rights legislation.
Not all such measures are going to be effective, but at least liberals and progressives are willing to experiment. Affirmative action was intended to address racial inequality, but proved itself to be problematic. Other measures fail because they are sabotaged by reactionaries (defined below). The informal movement which has been named (rather inappropriately) “political correctness” started as an effort to foster respect for other demographic groups by urging people to be mindful of their terminology and iconography. But it has been branded and spun as censorship and totalitarian “thought control”, which is quite the contrary of what it was supposed to be. (More about “political correctness” in a future discussion.)
One contemporary philosopher who recently critiqued “liberalism” (and he was really talking largely about progressivism) posited that it ultimately is doomed to failure, because if we keep improving the human condition, we eventually will reach a state at which no other improvement is possible. And wouldn’t that be terrible! But aside from the astronomically dubious chances that such a plateau ever could be achieved in the lifespan of the human race, the very premise hinges on the false assumption that progress travels in a straight line. In fact its course takes many backs and forths and zigzags and loops. Who ever could have predicted, for instance, the progressive responses necessitated by the AIDS epidemic?
Although the word radical gets injected into political discourse quite a bit, radicalism in not a political movement, nor is it even per se a political term. It’s simply a modifier frequently attached to political terms. It’s often used as a synonym for extreme , but technically it’s a bit more specific. The word is derived from a root meaning… well, root (as is radish).
A radical approach, then, is one that aims to get to the root of something, totally root it out, and establish something else in its place from the roots up. An overthrow, a revolution, a new order. Once again, we can point to the American Revolution, which was not only liberal and progressive, but rather radical. Note, however, that it is by no means just liberals and progressives who are capable of being radical.
Left (wing) / Right (wing)
When representatives met to draft a new constitution during the French Revolution, the aristocrats were seated on the right and the commoners on the left. This arrangement has filtered down into the figurative lexicon of political discourse ever since. And it’s unfortunate, because for one thing, it reinforces the attitude among conservative types (as if it needed reinforcing) that their position is all that matters — that they are, in that other sense of the word, always right. Conversely, non-traditionalists are viewed as being left out or left behind.
Many of us who happen to be southpaws are quite aware of this linguistic bias. From the Latin word dexter meaning on the right, comes dexterity , meaning skilled or agile; while the French gauche, meaning left, has come to mean crude or awkward. And the Latin sinister meaning left or on the left has come to mean underhanded, malicious and downright evil. They’re merely words. you may say; but mere words do affect attitudes (which was the inspiration in part for “political correctness”).
Nowadays, when we speak of “left wing” or “right wing”, we’re generally referring to extremism — and not in a complimentary tone. If the wingers are especially extreme and unhinged they may be called “wingnuts” — which theoretically could be a loony at either end of the spectrum, but in practice the term is almost always applied to those on the right.
Wingnuts are people who spin separation of church and state as “taking God out of the schools (or courthouse, or whatever)”; who spin journalists’ reporting of facts that clash with right-wing convictions as “liberal bias” in the media; who spin abortion as “killing babies”; who spin protests against (Republican) presidents as “hating America”. And so on. And on and on. They often make a conspicuous display of “patriotic” gestures, and assail the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t copy them — indeed, they assail the patriotism of anyone who doesn’t concur with their beliefs. It’s also very characteristic of right-wing fanatics in any age to regard science as an enemy, and try to suppress scientific facts that undermine right-wing dogma — which is a great many facts.
Republican / Democrat
In our time, Democrats are known for dallying with interns and secretaries, while Republicans are known for dallying with underage boys — while lecturing about “family values”. Republicans are thought of as the party with no heart, while Democrats are thought of as the party with no spine. And not without some justification; certainly the Democrats are all too willing to compromise and cooperate, while Republicans regard cooperation and compromise as signs of weakness — after all, they’re “right” aren’t they?
Decades ago, Will Rogers quipped “I’m not a member of any organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” The point is, alas, just as valid today. No matter how strong their platform or their candidate, Democrats have an uncanny knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
There’s no guarantee that Republicans will be conservative/ right-wing or that Democrats will be liberal/ progressive/ left-wing, but in both cases the odds are substantially increased. But this hasn’t always been the case, and certainly not on every issue; the names Republican and Democrat have been applied during the history of the U.S. to a wide range of ideological platforms. This is something that Republicans often forget (assuming that they ever learned it in junior high history class in the first place), particularly when they are accused of promoting racism. When that happens, they are likely to respond that, hey, it was the Democrats who fought to defend slavery in the Civil War — even though at other times these same Republicans are likely to deny that the Civil War was really about slavery at all.
What they are forgetting, or ignorant of, is that the two major parties have both altered their stances drastically since then, particularly in regard to race matters — on which they pretty much have exchanged positions altogether. Portraying today’s Republicans as champions of emancipation because a party with the same name fought for it a century and a half ago is rather like saying that Henry Fonda must have opposed the Vietnam imbroglio, since Jane did. It’s inexcusable to be that ignorant about either your own party or the opposition.
Republicans have even been known to recast themselves as champions of civil rights in the Sixties, since a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (82% to 69% in the Senate, 80% to 63% in the House). But these figures are misleading. Actually, a larger number of Democrats voted for the Act (46 to 27 in the Senate, 153 to 136 in the House); but the percentages are reversed because there were a lot more Democrats and many of them hailed from Dixie. In fact, it was geographic origin and not party affiliation that was the overriding factor. When you break the parties down by geography, Democrats scored higher in every division. Among Northern states, it was 98% to 84% in the Senate, and 95% to 85% in the House. Even among Southerners, 5% of Democrats in the Senate and 9% in the House voted for the measure, compared to a grand total of ZERO Republicans.
Incidentally, the proper designation is “Democratic Party”, and not “Democrat Party”. The latter is a haughtily dismissive appellation applied by right-wingers only. And come to think of it, “Grand Old Party” is arguably a rather inappropriate nickname for the newer of the two parties. All of this betrays the Republican Party’s chronic problem with getting facts straight.
Another holdover from the French Revolution, reactionary describes an individual who wants to take things back to the way they were in the past. While this word, like wingnut, theoretically could be applied to a fanatic on either end of the ideological spectrum, it applies in practice almost exclusively to those on the extreme right.
These days, when people talk about “conservatism”, they almost always mean neoconservatism , which has dominated the Republican Party since at least the advent of Ronald Reagan. While true conservatism is cautious about change and clings to the status quo, neoconservatism actually seeks severe change — by reversing change that has been effected by liberalism and progressivism. It is, in other words, rather radical, which is actually the opposite of conservative (that’s why I so often put “conservative” in quotation marks).
Neoconservatives, in short, are today’s reactionaries. You will often hear them use oxymorons like conservative movement and even conservative revolution. Neocons want to take us back to the Golden Age of the Fifties, as their warped memories portray it: a time when there was no drug abuse, no welfare, no secularism, no homosexuality, no black power movement, no violence, no crime, no abortion — after all, these things didn’t receive nearly so much media attention, so apparently they must not have existed, right?
Furthermore, they attribute the existence of that lost Cold War Shangri-La to a raft of incredibly silly factors: capital punishment, parents spanking kids, forced prayer in schools, people attending church more frequently, tamer pop music, shorter hairstyles for men, censorship of profanity in the media, etc., etc., etc. Neocons frequently have been known to speak glowingly of Joe McCarthy, and to excoriate the decadent era of the Sixties, which ruined everything. Above all, they abhor liberalism (or what they perceive as liberalism) as the supreme evil, a plot to destroy America.
Still, neocons do have many values in common with traditional conservatives: they value hierarchy, oligarchy, aristocracy, theocracy, patriarchy, nationalism and warmongering, to name a few. But they are often more subtle about how they promote these supposed virtues. Whereas conservatives in the old days blatantly argued for racism on the grounds that the white race was superior, neocons are more likely to just deny that their policies promote racism — and indeed to deny that racism even exists.
Neocons also like to pursue the golden fleece of “limited government”, but how they (don’t) put it into practice is quite another matter. Contrary to the persistent spin, it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are the party of “tax and spend“. And not only do they pass excessive legislation, but much of it is of an intrusive nature, aimed at restricting such private matters as sexuality and reproductive freedom, self-expression and freedom of (from) religion.
When they hawk the fool’s gold of “deregulation”, they are being either disingenuous or inexcusably naive — as if they believe that if they can eliminate government controls, human nature will become perfect overnight, and we will be living in a Star Trek utopia. But as law professor Joel Bakan sums it up so nicely:
When you deregulate, you’re not reducing the state’s involvement one iota. You’re merely shifting whose interest government is acting for. Every time the state rolls back standards for environmental quality, worker safety or consumer protection in the name of deregulation, what’s actually happening is that the state is creating more rights for corporations, and throwing more power behind the enforcement of those rights. In a deregulated economy, the state remains heavily involved in the economy, but now on the side of corporations rather than on the side of citizens and the environment. (Utne magazine, June 2006)
Couldn’t have said it any better.
The Alt-Right (or alt/Right, as it is often written) is a very new faction, or rather a new term to describe an ideological sector that has been around in some form for a long time. It is an even more extreme form of neoconservatism that openly embraces white supremacy, white nationalism, islamophobia and other forms of xenophobia, homophobia, male chauvinism, and violent memes directed toward its perceived enemies. It has wormed its way into the Republican mainstream, and was instrumental in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. And no, there is no such thing as the “Alt-Left”.
Yes, there is a difference. The word libertarian, lower case, has been around since the Eighteenth Century. Like liberal, it shares a genealogy with liberty, which was originally its primary focus. In short, libertarians originally were essentially the same as liberals. In fact, the two words have been used as near-synonyms as recently as 1960 or so.
But the official Libertarian Party, capitalized, is a rather different animal, though not an incompatible one. It was formed in 1971 (essentially by one man), largely because some people felt that modern liberalism had strayed too far afield from its roots. And while it adopts some positions that are considered “liberal” — supporting same-sex marriage, ending capital punishment — it has others that are considered more right-wing — abolishing the IRS (not necessarily an exclusively right-wing proposal) and championing “gun rights”.
In practice, however, Libertarianism tends to fall discernibly on the right end of the spectrum — indeed, 12 percent of Republicans identify themselves as having Libertarian sympathies, compared to 6 percent of Democrats. You’ll hear Libertarians attack “liberalism” fairly often, but how often do you hear them attack “conservatism”? It’s quite likely that one of the main reasons the Libertarian Party has been unable to establish itself as a viable third party alternative is that it has been unable to distinguish itself sufficiently from the Republican Party.
Like many Republicans, Libertarians preach the virtues of “limited government” — some have even advocated for the privitization of police forces. But while Republicans tend to oppose government programs that enact progressive reform because they enact progressive reform, Libertarians tend to oppose them because they are government programs. It has been said jokingly (?) that Libertarians regard it as government overreaching if the city picks up their garbage. The chances are pretty good that you’ll hear them spout the “anti-collectivist” twaddle of the Ayn Rand cult. Moreover, they often can be found in bed with the NRA; and infatuation with weaponry is (usually) a distinctly right-wing trait.
Nonetheless, the wide ideological swath among Libertarians indicates that they tend to be much broader minded and more tolerant (not to mention better informed) than Republicans, and definitely more so than neocons/ reactionaries. But they do have their share of birthers, creationists, anti-vaxxers, climategaters and flat earthers.
In the current climate, you’re most likely to hear socialist used as a term of disparagement, applied as a knee-jerk reaction to Democrats/ liberals/ progressives. But while socialism does utilize the concept of liberalism — and even progressivism — it is not in itself a political ideology. It is, rather, an economic ideology. The basic idea of socialism is that the people control the means of production, and the proceeds go to benefit both the common good and individual citizens in proportion to their contribution and/or need. Of course you need some kind of government system to make it function, but there is all manner of leeway about what kind of system. Accordingly, you have many different flavors of socialism: e.g., Democratic Socialism, Libertarian Socialism, Green Socialism, Revolutionary Socialism, Fabian Socialism, Market Socialism, Utopian Socialism and even Christian Socialism.
No nation has an entirely socialist system, but a great many nations, including the U.S., have long employed socialist ideals to some extent. And several nations are nearly totally socialist, and despite the potential drawbacks (high taxes, for one), it has worked out rather well for them.
Once the favored bogeyman of reactionaries, the commie label isn’t quite so much in vogue as it once was. But by no means has it gone away. It’s still often applied as an insult to anyone who is left-leaning, and often is construed as synonymous with socialist. But there are many important differences, with perhaps the most important being that under communism, private property is abolished and replaced by the concept of “usership”. While both systems in theory strive for equality among classes, and even a class-free society, the reality is that under communism there is equality only among the working class, but there is still a ruling class, with an iron ceiling between the two.
Another distinction that gets perhaps more press than it deserves is that a communist system is officially atheist — which has prompted many reactionaries to conclude that since communism is atheist, atheism must be communist. Furthermore, they conclude that atheism itself is an ideology, and that it is directly responsible for the atrocities committed by (nominally) communist regimes.
In reality, communism has embraced atheism precisely because atheism is not an ideology. Communist rejection of religion is based not just on its being a competing ideology, but also on its being a competing power structure that wrests away a portion of control from the state, and perpetuates the class structure that communism seeks to eradicate. The great Communist Messiah Karl Marx indicated that he believed religion would die a natural death if communism flourished. Accordingly, there was no reason for the state to be overtly hostile to religion or persecute its practitioners — although that little wrinkle was certainly added by some of his later disciples. That said, there is such a thing as Christian communism.
Although communism is, like socialism, primarily an economic system, one could make a much stronger case that it is also a system of governance. Because while socialism can be practiced under a wide variety of governments, communism demands central control. The decisions are not made by democratic process, but by an oligarchy, a dictatorship, a one-party state. Wealth is not distributed for the benefit of the people but for the benefit of the state. One could also argue (quite successfully) that pure communism never actually has been applied. Every country that has ever had a go at it has devolved into oppressive, even genocidal totalitarianism. It is the prime example of a system that begins with liberal impulses and morphs into something that is the opposite of liberalism.
Finally we come to the f-word, which is used almost as often as the other one. It has become the default smear to brand anyone whose policies you don’t like as a fascist. In the past, there was at least a general understanding that fascism is historically a form of right-wing extremism. But in recent years neocons, in their tireless quest to demonize “liberals” above all else, have undertaken a propaganda campaign to rewrite history and proclaim that liberalism spawned fascism. Just for good measure, they also have declared that fascism spawned liberalism. Seriously. Meanwhile, they also brand “liberals” as communists, apparently blissfully unaware that communists and fascists were on opposite sides of the Great War. (We’ll address the myth of “liberal fascism” in the future.)
As with other ideologies, there are different kinds of fascism — though the two main varieties, at least historically, have been the Italian (under Mussolini) and the German (Nazism, which is what most people associate with fascism). Perhaps the main difference is that Nazism promoted a strict class structure, and the inherent superiority/ inferiority of races and classes. Both varieties believed in fierce nationalism, strict gender roles, warmongering, corporatism and — most important — absolute dictatorship, even to the extent of the state controlling media.
The United States has long incorporated certain hints of fascism. But never has it done so to such an extent as its installation in the White House of a white nationalist, isolationist, dictatorial corporatist.
And there you have it, a rundown on the primary labels and categories of political ideology as practiced in the U.S. today. It’s quite possible, however, that in a few years this list could look very different.