Political Labels

The Perils of Labels

I was once riding down an elevator and struck up a conversation. The gentleman told me that he was a ‘labeling specialist.’ I was a bit taken back, figuring that such a label on his occupation could take me in many directions.

I asked for more information and he went on to explain that in an era of specialization, he and his colleagues started a company with the specific mission of designing and producing labels for mass mailings. So now I know what a labeling specialist does.

Labels on envelopes or postcards don’t bother me, but when it comes to describing human beings, either individually or collectively, we label one another at considerable peril. Currently, I’m becoming concerned about the loose use of socialist. My apprehension is that the term, which is relative at best, is largely going to serve as a whipping post for Republicans against Democrats.

The term progressive, which once again became in vogue after Tea-Party types largely shamed the term liberal, seems to be quite descriptive and not as offensive to Republicans as other terms. [I know that some are offended by the notion that progressives should use as a barometer how Republicans respond to something, but when it comes to verbal wars, those on the left have come out on the short end more often than not over the past five decades or so.]

The term progressive actually became popularized in the United States during the campaigns and administration of Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican while he was president. Progressive does not carry an association with communism the way socialism does. It carries the connotation of the federal government caring for people and filling in the gaps for those in need; those who otherwise would slip through the safety net.

The linguist George Lakoff has written about how conservatives seem to be more effective in using language to describe their side of arguments. For instance, the term “right to work” is a complete distortion of the issue of whether workers should be obligated to pay their fair share of union dues, but it sounds good and can be deceitful. Those on the left should be careful to not use terms that get red-flagged by the right. Socialism is clearly one of those terms.

If the so-called new breed of Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is to have broad-based appeal, it may be wise to stay away from labels that are inflammatory to the right. Let’s be real; there are no true and exclusive socialists any more than there are true and exclusive capitalists. All countries have mixed economies between the two extremes. It’s all a matter of where we slide our position on that continuum. Progressive does just fine and will cause is many fewer headaches. You don’t have to be a labeling specialist to know that.