Among the many time-honored structures left in ruins by the 2016 presidential process, perhaps nothing has suffered more than our comfortable set of political labels.
Terms like “conservative”, “progressive”, “liberal”, “libertarian”, and even “classic liberal” (courtesy, Speaker Paul Ryan) have been growing dull for years, but this year seems to have become so useless that warring activists under each label were forced to drop their weapons, crawl out of their respective trenches, scratch their heads, and try to figure out which side they really belonged on.
Who can blame them?
Every election has its share of word-bending, but 2016 dropkicked our traditional categories completely by nominating two remarkably similar New York moderates claiming to represent opposite sides of the political spectrum.
President-elect Donald Trump, a walking comment section barely capable of identifying a conservative position throughout his campaign, is inexplicably feared by liberals as a far-right maniac, just waiting to overturn all the liberal policies he embraced just a few years ago.
Hillary Clinton – the warmongering corporatist who was roughly one inch to the left of Trump on policy (as each deviation from her tone-deaf glass-ceiling drivel showed) – was feared by Red America like a gun-grabbing, baby-devouring, pantsuited political terminator.
As I watched the two pretend to punch each other in the debates, I just kept marking off a mental checklist of areas where they have historically agreed.
Cozy with Planned Parenthood?
Supports mandatory maternity leave and forgiving student loans?
Supports minimum wage hikes?
Supports socialized healthcare?
Though, in fairness to Hillary, only Trump has publicly backed this Bernie-esque stupidity.
Even on marriage equality, the left’s only remaining connection to civil-rights-era moral superiority, Hillary is actually on the record supporting traditional marriage, while Trump has openly backed the Supreme Court’s pro-gay-rights ruling in the Obergefell case.
It’s like the Tea Party got in a bar fight with Occupy Wall Street one night and they woke up in bed together the next morning both wondering what the hell happened.
How can any reasonable person conclude that Trump is a conservative and Hillary a liberal?
Lest you think the definition problem is limited to our historically unlikeable presidential nominees, let’s remember that Mitt Romney called himself “severely conservative”, Republican House Speaker Paul “Cromnibus” Ryan referred to himself as classically liberal (a gambit that drew scorn and derision from thousands of right-wing illiterates nationwide, and set many on an unfortunate collision course with dictionary.com), President Obama thinks he would have been a moderate 1980s Republican, and in one of 2016’s more comedic moments, failed dynasty ascendant Jeb Bush claimed he had “libertarian blood” running through his veins.
There are really only three possible explanations for this.
- Our political definitions have outlived their usefulness and become completely divorced from real policy solutions.
- We have created a political system that tends to attract delusional schizophrenics.
- Our political system is part of a computer-generated dreamworld controlled by futuristic self-aware machines, who also have no idea how to make sense of it.
As much as I believe option two is a real possibility, I’m pretty sure the first answer offers the best explanation for the tectonic shift of our political terminology.
Words Have Meanings – Just Not The Meanings They Once Had
An unfortunate side effect of the short-lived dominance of relativism has been its distortion of language.
Words are for sale to the highest bidder, destroying reasonable dialogue and common ground, and allowing ignorant Social Justice Warriors to nod grimly when Republicans are called terrorists while insisting that Islam is a religion of peace.
When an establishment twinkie like Sen. Lindsey Graham can call himself a conservative, the term conservative doesn’t mean anything.
In the age of Bernie Sanders, it’s nonsensical for Hillary to call herself a progressive.
She’s not. The lines have moved.
Of the three, at least “libertarian” has a sort of concrete value, since it is anchored in a particular ideological set. Conservative and liberal don’t even pertain to a specific ideology, but rather, a method of producing and prioritizing ideologies. 1960s liberal icons like John F. Kennedy were far more conservative than many modern Republicans, and if you go further back you’ll find that the founding fathers who have now been sainted by conservatives were actually the liberals of their day.
Words like “conservative” and “progressive” are really only defined by their surroundings. Ditto social terms like racist, sexist, homophobe, elitist, globalist, etc. – the preferred perjoratives of our generation.
Conservatives today generally advocate for free trade, states’ rights (a lynchpin value of pre-Civil War Democrats), and civil liberties – policies that, in the greater scope of history, are shockingly progressive.
Liberals, meanwhile, work to conserve ragged, century-old socialist ideas birthed in the time of steam engines and Mark Twain.
Americans today tend to identify, not by what ideals we support or oppose, but by which team we feel we belong to – which is why, despite the aforementioned presidential candidates’ remarkable list of similarities, both sides considered the alternative a calamity.
This helps explain why, during Trump’s rise through the Republican primary ranks, he was able to take both sides of nearly every issue, and maintain loyal defenders throughout. Trump wasn’t considered a conservative because of his policy proposals, but rather because he continually dumped on Obama, Hillary, and the liberal media. This allowed him to join utterly diverse groups together into a political Frankenstein’s monster of national proportions – which is pretty much the story of 2016.
This cycle has forged alliances between avowed socialists and left-libertarians, between Donald Trump moderates and Alex Jones conspiracy theorists, between Vladimir Putin and Anthony Weiner.
Add to that the fact that the Chicago Cubs won the world series and the Dallas Cowboys have the best record in football again, and it’s clear that the universe just doesn’t care anymore.
Redefining The Future
What we now face is a complete reset of American political terminology – a polar shift in which conservative and progressive can be redefined completely in light of modern innovation and populist trends, and where more concrete terms like “socialist”, “federalist“, and “nationalist” may start to develop into their own identities, independent of parent labels like conservative and liberal.
Perhaps more intriguing is how political parties will fit into this new landscape, since their carefully-tended duopoly is facing more challenge. In 2016, third party voting saw a 300% increase from 2012, and an 800% jump from 2008 – resulting in the largest third party share of votes since Ross Perot. It’s a trend that will become increasingly hard for Democrats and Republicans to ignore.
For better or worse, our definitions are changing, and along with the definitions, our political identity. And with every such shift comes an opportunity – a chance to stake new claims on issues and policies that we believe in, to create new electoral successes by pushing people to step out of their team’s dugout for a moment and reconsider the assumptions behind their worldview.
Jill Stein notwithstanding, the fight for the White House is over. The fight for America’s political language has begun.
Win the language and you win the argument – and as Margaret Thatcher famously said, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.”