Right Hooks

Political Labels Aren't Always What They Seem

Jordan Candler · Mar. 16, 2017

We all know people who describe themselves as centrists, yet their ideals skew toward one end of the political spectrum. Or maybe your left-wing family member is a pro-life Catholic and your right-wing acquaintance promotes expanded entitlement programs. While not all-inclusive, most people fall into one of two categories: Republican/conservative or Democrat/liberal. But you’re right if you think this delineation doesn’t always put you at odds with a superficial political rival.

The Washington Post dissects this phenomenon. Using two studies as a foundation, the Post found, “Political identity does not mean the same thing from place to place.” It continues: “Not surprisingly, people who call themselves ‘conservatives’ tend to have more conservative issue positions. Similarly, self-described liberals tend to have left-leaning views. And moderates tend to be somewhere in the middle. As is well documented, ideology and issue positions are highly correlated. But it turns out that the strength of that relationship depends on where people live.”

Of course, we already, perhaps subconsciously, know this. A hardcore liberal from California or New York is most assuredly on the extreme end of the spectrum when compared to most Mississippi or Louisiana liberals. Yet a Mississippian or Louisianan who considers himself a liberal is probably much more akin than they think to Republicans in California or New York. The Post attributes this to “what we call ‘the political reference point.’ The basic idea is that where we live, and the people around us dictate what’s seen as politically ‘normal.’”

The authors conclude by saying “the complex social geography of the U.S. makes it difficult to accurately reduce Americans' political views down to positions on a scale, or binary labels of ‘liberal’ vs. ‘conservative.’” But maybe that’s the problem. Elitists have been playing this game for a long time. Politics has devolved to the point where friendships and even emotional behaviors are based entirely on how people label themselves. This form of identity politics has done more than anything in recent times to divide the nation over ideological differences — even when those differences are often conceptual. Yes, Americans do have fundamental disagreements. But cynicism doesn’t have to be included, especially when labels aren’t always so clear-cut and often depend on personal environments.

That’s why this statement from Donald Trump’s inaugural speech is so powerful: “It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American flag.” What matters is the truth. And the truth is that we live in a nation afforded unparalleled Liberty. And millions of Americans defied their political labels and voted for Trump because they don’t take it for granted.

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