Magazine | July 30, 2012, Issue

A World of Labels

‘Moderate liberals’ and other interesting creatures

The New York Times can be amazing in its language. After the Supreme Court voted to uphold Obamacare, the paper said that Chief Justice Roberts had joined the Court’s four “moderate liberals” to form a majority. Roberts and the other Republican justices were “conservatives,” unqualified. That includes Justice Kennedy, who has long been a swing vote. But the Democratic justices — including President Obama’s picks, Sotomayor and Kagan, and Ginsburg, the former general counsel to the ACLU — were “moderate liberals.”

Earlier in the year, the Times had described George Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic.” He is the shooter in the Trayvon Martin case, Martin being the black teenager whose death is the subject of great and inflamed controversy. “White Hispanic” was a novelty. Bernard Goldberg and others asked, “If Zimmerman had done something heroic, would the Times have described him as a ‘white Hispanic,’ or a white anything?” And if he had been a victim?

Race is touchy in the Hispanic world, as it is most anywhere else. When Castro was hiding out in the Sierra Maestra, people in Spain referred to him as “the great white hope.” Cuba’s dictator, Batista, was mulatto. The next dictator would be of much paler hue.

By the way, why isn’t Justice Sotomayor a “white Hispanic,” in the Times’ eyes? The paper describes her as a “Hispanic,” plain and simple. Maybe there is some color chart at the Times, secret from the rest of us.

Most people, I imagine, like to think of themselves as “moderate,” or certainly not immoderate. An exception would be Barry Goldwater — who famously declared at his convention, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldwater was a conservative, the author of The Conscience of a Conservative, no less. But he was also a classical liberal: a free-marketeer, a constitutionalist, an anti-statist.

The Times allows for “moderate liberals,” but the paper seems to have less room in its heart, and lexicon, for “moderate conservatives.” Are there such creatures? In some liberal minds, the only good conservative is a dead conservative. Goldwater, Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr. were all portrayed as right-wing monsters, to varying degrees, when they were alive and kicking. Since then, they have enjoyed a much better press.

And consider the case of the Bush family. People used to say of 41, “Why does he have to be such an awful right-winger, unlike his nice moderate father?” (Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut). In the 1988 debates, Bush had to defend himself against the charge that his father would be ashamed of him. “I think my dad would be pretty proud of me.” When 43 became president, people said, “Why does he have to be such an awful right-winger, unlike his nice moderate father?” And if one of 43’s twin daughters becomes president? Will she face the same treatment?

“Liberal” has been a contentious word in America since the early 1930s. The New Dealers called themselves liberals, causing others to say, “Hey, wait a minute: Aren’t you too keen on government expansion to be liberals?” In Europe, an older sense prevailed. The Nobel peace committee gave its prize to Cordell Hull, recently secretary of state, in 1945. The committee chairman, an economist of Norway’s Liberal party, praised Hull as “representative of all that is best in liberalism.” What he meant was that Hull was a lifelong foe of protectionism and friend of “free competition.”

#page#Americans applied the word “liberal” to all manner of left-of-center people, as the 20th century wore on. Some of these people were quite far to the left. I can tell you that serious leftists, among others, resented this: the equation of liberalism and leftism. One day, a Marxist professor of mine sneered that Christopher Hitchens was a “liberal,” nothing more. That made an impression on me: the first time I had ever heard “liberal” as a pejorative from the left.

The memory of this professor (whom I loved) brings up another point: “Liberal” and “conservative” can be quite relative terms. She once chided a colleague of hers for being an arch-conservative. He said, “You have to remember, Barbara, that where I come from [a town in the South] they consider me a pinko.”

In this country, we don’t have Liberal and Conservative parties, nationally, although others countries do. Our neighbor to the north, Canada, has Liberals and Conservatives. Britain has Conservatives, but they no longer have Liberals. (They now have Liberal Democrats.) Churchill belonged to the Liberal party from 1904 to 1924. At the end of his long, illustrious, and Conservative life, in the 1960s, he made a curious statement: “I’m a Liberal. Always have been.

Down in Australia, the conservative party — the Reaganite or Thatcherite party — is the Liberal party. During the Bush 43 years, the Aussie prime minister, John Howard, was denounced as a fellow warmonger and right-winger of our Texas cowboy. Howard was, of course, the leader of the Liberals. In Europe, they often denounce Reagan-Thatcher types as “neoliberals” — which throws Americans off. Here at home, neoliberalism was associated with a journalist named Charlie Peters and his magazine, The Washington Monthly. These people were moderate liberals, in my opinion. “Neoconservatism” used to mean something: but, in the last decade, unreason and malice rendered it meaningless.

Ed Koch, the fabled New Yorker, has always called himself “a liberal with sanity.” This must bother liberals who are, by implication, without sanity. Bush 41 once declared, “I’m a conservative, but I’m not a nut about it.” This bothered those of us who are nuts about it.

In the 1980s, conservatives had liberals on the run, and not many Democrats would embrace the designation “liberal.” In Florida, Connie Mack III (No. 4 is now in the House) ran for the Senate against a congressman named Buddy McKay. He beat him with the simple ad line, “Hey, Buddy, you’re a liberal.” Liberals, meanwhile, made the term “conservative” as black as they could. In the last stage of the Cold War, American hawks — Peace through Strength types — were conservatives, of course. But so, in the liberals’ language, were hard-line Communists in the Soviet Union. Either way, the bad guys were conservatives, see?

Not wanting to be a bad guy, Jack Kemp called himself a “progressive conservative.” That did not catch on. Bush 43 called himself a “compassionate conservative” — which prompted Phil Gramm to remark, “Freedom is compassionate.”

In recent years, left-leaning Democrats have called themselves “progressives,” rather than “liberals.” “Progressive” is an old American word. We used to have Progressive parties, and Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, and Henry Wallace ran under their banners. “Progressive” is a self-flattering word, too: Your opponents are regressives. “Realist,” in foreign policy, is another self-flattering word: Your opponents are unrealists.

We have one socialist in the Senate — self-declared socialist — and that is Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who caucuses with the Democrats). Some have called Obama a socialist, which provokes a furious reaction, including, crazily enough, charges of racism. The president is probably more a social democrat, but consider: If he were a Frenchman or Italian, would he not be in the Socialist party? In America, the Socialist party is negligible.

#page#A few years ago, Andrew Sullivan, who is sometimes described as a conservative, called me “an apparatchik of the far right.” Understand, I am for equality under the law, equality of opportunity, colorblindness, E pluribus unum, civil liberties, human rights — all that good stuff. If I’m far-right, what language is left over to describe the actual far right?

I must say that, when I left the Left behind forever, sometime in college, I was not quite comfortable with the word “conservative.” I choked on it. In my environment, “conservative” meant bigot, ignoramus, plutocrat, war-lover, and other nice things. Jeane Kirkpatrick had a very hard time leaving the Democrats for the Republicans. She did so at the ripe age of 59. (Reagan was 51.) “I’d rather be a liberal,” she said.

“What are you?” I once asked Robert Conquest, in so many words. “I’m an anti-extremist,” he said. “And I’m for a law-and-liberty culture. Those are Orwell’s words: law and liberty.” He continued, “I am strongly against the EU. I’m against regulationism and managerialism. I’m against activism of any sort.” As for conservatism, he said, “I feel that, when other people and nations are veering from civilization, I would prefer to conserve.” Me too. Although conservatives are obviously more than people who are against change. In my lifetime, the conservatives have been the reformers and the liberals have been the conservatives, so to speak: They have wanted to keep the New Deal and Great Society frozen.

Sometime in the mid-Nineties, I grumbled to Bill Kristol about being stuck with “conservative.” He said, in essence, “Get over it. You have to accept labels as they are used and understood in your own time and place.” In 1960, Hayek wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Well, tough luck, Friedrich: Today you would for sure be a conservative or right-winger, whether you liked it or not. The world doesn’t give you a choice.

Still, I have not entirely made peace with the standard terms. I especially balk at describing as “liberals” those who are plainly illiberal: supporters of speech codes, race preferences, abortion on demand . . .

The best thing Reagan ever did for me, I’ve long said, is give me something to call myself: a Reaganite. Neat, accurate, and, so far, understandable. I have sometimes described Obama as a “McGovernite” — but the meaning of that term fades in the national memory. A couple of years ago, some moderates founded a group they called “No Labels.” Their slogan: “Not Left. Not Right. Forward.” Not many people claim backwardness. In any event, labeling can be very useful, in part because normal conversation cries out for shorthands.

Before long, the New York Times may call Chief Justice Roberts a “moderate conservative,” separating him from the villains who would have struck down Obamacare: the unqualified conservatives, so to speak. Today, I saw a headline over an Associated Press report: “More nuanced view of Roberts after health care law.” Ah, there you go.

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