Those who have wrestled with the frustrating but seemingly trivial topic of political labels know that to embark on an analysis is to trace the contours of the snake devouring its own tail. It wastes time and energy to create further confusing distinctions which no one else is likely to use, and profits the analyst and their audience nothing. There is no end to the cycle of seeking to affiliate with like-minded people, growing frustrated with how opponents characterize this affiliation and uncomfortable with some elements of that affiliation, and fruitlessly carving out a more fine-grained distinction that few will actually use. What is the point?
We at Liberal Currents have a special interest in the subject, committed as we are to stewardship of the liberal tradition as a whole. In our sketch of that tradition, we use labels such as “neoliberal” or “libertarian” or “progressive.” Are these distinctions meaningless? Many of our readers pushed back and insisted that one or more of these groups are not True Liberals. And naturally, within each distinction, someone who uses the label to describe herself may herself be considered no True Liberal from some other perspective. Without attempting the futile effort of breaking the vicious cycle of political labeling, I would like to take the time to elucidate it, and to give context to the distinctions we rely on here and what we hope to achieve.
Labels in play
A great deal can be illuminated if you stop trying to look for the essence of term or phrase’s meaning, and simply ask “what game is the speaker playing here?”
Consider “liberal” hurled as an invective. When Breitbart writers use the word “liberal,” it is rarely meant as an illuminating distinction. Often it is pinned on people who are conventionally considered to be quite conservative. But that’s precisely the point: by calling a presumably conservative person “liberal,” Breitbart is insulting them, casting them out of a shared association, rallying that person’s own allies against him. This isn’t an attempt to suss out intellectual history. It is an aggressive move in a political game.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made a similar point:
“Inexact” is really a reproach, and “exact” is praise. And that is to say that what is inexact attains its goal less perfectly than what is more exact. Thus the point here is what we call “the goal”. Am I inexact when I do not give our distance from the sun to the nearest foot, or tell a joiner the width of a table to the nearest thousandth of an inch?
If we think exactness has a universal and specific meaning, we will miss how the term is actually used. In practice, it is more closely related to “good enough” or “not good enough” than to some specific quantifiable metric. As Wittgenstein says, it is goal-dependent, and the particular goal depends on the particular game.
Political labels can be used to draw genuine distinctions among groups or ideas, but they are often used merely as reproach or praise. If we believe that the label must share some essential features in every use case, we only spread confusion and frustration. It would be no less futile than trying to figure out how video games fit our definition of board games.
Adding to the confusion is the fluid nature of these labels and words in general. In America, famously, the way the word “liberal” was used deviated from other English-speaking countries after the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As Hans-Georg Gadamer puts it:
No one fixes the meaning of a word, nor does the ability to speak merely mean learning the fixed meanings of words and using them correctly. Rather, the life of language consists in the constant playing further of the game that we began when we first learned to speak. A new word usage comes into play and, equally unnoticed and unintended, the old words die.
Changes over time add to the frustration of political labeling. When I was sketching the liberal intellectual terrain, my fellow editors vetoed the use of the label “high liberal,” opting instead for “progressive.” I resisted this, because for political scientists and historians, “progressive” usually refers to a specific body of thought from the progressive period in American politics, and it was often quite illiberal in character. Some of those ideas are still in play today and I would want to distinguish them from liberalism. “High liberal” is a term used in political philosophy and political history, and refers more precisely to the specific current of thought I had in mind.
But this is simply stubbornness, a typical symptom of one who has spent too much time thinking about labels. Etymology is uninformative for anything but interpreting historical documents; the key question is always how a term can be understood in its specific context. Today, “progressive” means someone who only ten or fifteen years ago was more likely to refer to themselves as “liberal”. Attempting to substitute academic terminology is simply a recipe for misunderstanding.
A current by any other name
Nevertheless, when discussing politics and ideas and their history, it is important to recognize that there are genuine distinctions to be made. Political scientists and philosophers play this game professionally; labels such as “high liberal,” “socialist,” or “neoliberal” have more or less agreed upon meanings. More or less, because which ideas and thinkers get lumped into which label has major ramifications for the character of the tradition it describes, and such lumping is essentially contested. Moreover, most of the traditions we’re interested in are overlapping to a significant degree.
This is no less true for the three currents of liberalism described previously. I have lately seen many complaints that “neoliberal” has lost all meaning. In the tweet below, it’s clear from the context that it was simply a reproach.
It's really to show that phrase "neo-liberal" has zero analytical purchase if it's supposed to apply to Nancy Pelosi *and* Paul Ryan. https://t.co/jJTzAXa8RE
— Richard Yeselson (@yeselson) May 26, 2017
That is not the same as losing all meaning. A reproach is meaningful, and the current of liberalism that emerged in the 80s is a meaningful subject matter as well.
Where we stand in relation to these currents, and to the other people in them, is an important part of how we understand ourselves. If libertarians and high liberals see each other’s ideas as categorically incongruent, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as they reflexively associate themselves on the opposite sides of many issues. The argument advanced here is that they are closer together than both sides currently believe, and they should see themselves as being closer together, so that they may more effectively advance liberal ideals.
What’s slippery about all of this is not just the shifting nature of the labels we use, but of the traditions themselves. Asserting a particular understanding is indistinguishable from attempting to make it so. This is precisely what makes such understandings so self-fulfilling. Things are a little more established when you look at history rather than how things are playing out today. But even there, the task of corralling specific thinkers and actions under the header of a given intellectual current is about as straightforward as firmly grasping a greased eel. It is quite unlike measuring the mass of a solid object. Jason Briggeman illustrated this point in our podcast during the discussion of 20th as opposed to 21st century libertarians.
So get used to the use and abuse and drift of political labels—it is an ineradicable aspect of their nature. But here at Liberal Currents we will always do our best to be clear about the sense we are using them in, and what language games we are playing.
Featured image is Abraham Lincoln And Stephen A Douglas Debating At Charleston, by Robert Root.