On conservatism and such

There have been a number of reactions lately to my decision to no longer consider myself a ‘conservative’. Few have been exactly favorable. Perhaps that is because I have not been clear enough or because I have been perceived as saying things I did not mean to say exactly. Perhaps not.

Here’s Larison:

I’m sorry to say that I find Erik’s post to be very close to the flip side of the argument that mainstream conservatives have deployed against dissident conservatives for years, which is that we associate with the wrong kinds of people, tolerate “liberal” arguments, and generally fail to be good team players when it comes to organizing for electoral politics and reinforcing absurd ideological claims. In other words, we are too close or insufficiently hostile to the other “side.” From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”

I had to grimace a little when I read Erik talking about his cultural affinities. The point is not that I object to most of his cultural affinities. When I’m in my car on long road trips, I listen to NPR, too, and I have several friends to the left of Russ Feingold (as well as friends who are dyed-in-the-wool Republicans). I’m sure I could rattle off a list of other such “heterodox” behaviors, but I had thought that Erik agreed that these affinities have or ought to have no bearing on political coalitions. All of this reminds me of the ridiculous political categorizing that people wanted to impose on everyday habits during the debate over “crunchy” conservatism, as if eating organic vegetables or shopping at a co-op were proof of left-wing convictions.

A few points before I tackle this head-on.

First of all, I consider Daniel to be absolutely conservative in the best and most meaningful sense of the word – as conservative as they come, in a way that is at once consistent and admirable. If I were a conservative, I would want to emulate Daniel’s brand of that ideology – both in his clarity, consistency, and in his grounding of politics in his deeply held religious beliefs. And indeed I have learned a great deal from him especially on foreign policy matters (not to mention rhetorically and stylistically, as he has few peers in the blogosphere in that regard). There was a time when I very much began to think of myself as in the mold of the paleoconservatives over at The American Conservative.

But I am simply not conservative in the way that Daniel is, and I don’t think it’s a very accurate description of my politics even if the entire conservative movement were Daniel Larison clones rather than the hawks and liars that run the Republican Party (and no, I’m not trying to conflate conservatism and the Republican Party here). I’m not a paleocon, however much I enjoy writers like Larison or McCarthy.

I am probably 100% in agreement with Daniel’s foreign policy views – or very near that – and I do consider these views quite conservative; a dovish, pragmatic, and ultimately “America first” foreign policy is essentially conservative even if the modern conservative movement holds no such views. But I am not socially conservative enough to describe my social politics as such, and I’m tired of thinking of things in terms of “the conservative case for gay marriage” etc.

Furthermore, I find that I am essentially unconvinced by conservative arguments against the welfare state (though I am more convinced by many arguments about how to improve upon it). Even among dissident conservative circles this is, as far as I can tell, fundamental to calling oneself a conservative. But if that can be overlooked, then something has to define a person as a conservative. For instance, a number of writers at The American Conservative have stated their basic acceptance of government run healthcare or at least their resignation to it or their empathy with it – for them, perhaps, their religious conservatism trumps concerns about state-backed healthcare; a number of dissident conservatives I’ve read have stated their support for things like public transit and other stances not widely viewed as conservative; amidst the dissident circles there is support for a whole assortment of varying beliefs, but something about each of them defines them as conservative specifically – not Republican, in many cases, but certainly conservative. Either a deep social conservatism or a foundation in paleolibertarian thought – something. Something that, when I stare hard into the mirror, I don’t see in my reflection. What defines me in this way?

Perhaps Daniel is right that views about decentralized power structures in politics are not all that acceptable on the left, and maybe I’ve just come to a place where I think reconciling liberalism with its less-statist roots, rather than trying to reform conservatism, is a more worthwhile task and one I’m better suited for and more comfortable with. The liberal-tarian project looms large for me these days; conservatism, not so much.

Nor am I trying to say that we should not associate with conservatives or not tolerate them or any of that. Daniel writes, “From what I can gather, Erik is telling everyone that he isn’t a conservative so as not to be mistaken for “one of them,” which is almost as depressing to watch as it is when a thoughtful person feels compelled to jump through a series of ideological hoops to prove that he is “one of us.”” I can see how I might come across this way, but it was not my intent. My intent was simply to say, look – this isn’t me. It isn’t honest of me anymore to call myself this. It doesn’t sit right with me. I’m sorry if this is how I came across. I can be careless at times, and perhaps this is one such time.

In any case, this is also why I bothered to explain my cultural affinities – not to suggest that all conservatives must hate NPR or the Daily Show, but to further explain myself (to myself perhaps) and to try to better understand why it is that I have felt so uncomfortable with the conservative label lately. If I don’t feel at home voting in a political coalition, don’t share enough ideas in common even with dissident conservatives that could be identified as uniquely “conservative” and generally don’t share many cultural affinities with conservatives, what business do I have calling myself one? Even if my belief in a more social-democratic society (free trade, healthy safety nets) can be framed as conservative to me – and I think it is, actually, because I think conservatism is more about a stable society than about low taxes – I still don’t see the conservative label as very fitting. It seems inaccurate regardless of whether I am speaking of Republicans or of conservatism as a philosophy.

As Daniel notes earlier in his post,

I understand what Erik wants to do here, but it seems to me that it has been quite clear where he has stood and what side he has picked in all the many debates over the years. It was no secret that he was basically sympathetic to the health care legislation, to which I was opposed, and he was furiously hostile to the Arizona immigration law, which I find basically unobjectionable. The label he chose for himself was essentially irrelevant in both of those debates, and there was no danger that he would be confused with the people aligned on the other side of the argument.

But I’m not sure Daniel does understand what I want to do here, and perhaps that is my fault. I’m not trying to join up with one of the major parties. He writes:

As far as the major parties are concerned, a “pox on both your houses” attitude is generally a very healthy one, and it is frankly one that we need more people to embrace. The last thing we need is more people accepting the two major parties as the inevitable political coalitions that must always exist. There are already too many people who give in to the idea that you have to become a reliable team player for one side or the other.

I’m not signing on, carte blanche, to the Democratic party here or to its platform though I am choosing to align myself with that party and with liberalism more broadly. I’m sure I will still find plenty of things the Democrats do that deserve a pox or two. But I did feel as though I was boxing myself in by calling myself a conservative and then finding every way under the sun to undermine that description. My “switch” is not about adopting a brand new pre-packaged ideology. No, I’m much more interested in creating new ways, third ways maybe, alternatives to the accepted left/right divide. But I found myself more and more interested and compelled by the liberal-tarian project. But I’m not a libertarian either, and so perhaps the term ‘liberal’ fits me better. In fact, I’m quite sure it does.

Perhaps I am still a rather conservative liberal (I’m not really sure), but at a certain point I just have to stop trying to come up with new contortionist tricks and taxonomical experiments to make my politics fit inside that particular label. If I were more conservative – if my beliefs on immigration or marriage were more to the right, or if my religious beliefs were very traditional in the ways that Daniel’s are, or if I distrusted government more – if any of these things were the case, I wouldn’t give a damn about the inclusiveness of the conservative movement, or the Republican party, or any of that – I would still call myself a conservative. But I am simply not all that conservative. And if the left is too statist, if liberals really do have a deep distrust of free markets or competitive federalism, or any of those other things that I think are important and good for society, well then perhaps they can be convinced otherwise (and, for that matter, perhaps I am becoming more convinced that I put too much stock in these things to begin with). Perhaps in the end, only the ideas matter. Hopefully Daniel’s ideas about American exceptionalism and the limits of our nation’s power will be accepted by all political stripes. Hopefully good ideas will rise to the top of whatever ideological coalitions exist, and we will all evolve for the better.

As Conor notes in his post on the matter, there are many, many admirable, smart, honest people out there working to reform conservatism. And perhaps they will. One thing I noticed about myself was that I followed the British elections very closely, and was quite enamored with David Cameron’s Toryism – a rather liberal, modernized conservatism. I thought to myself, I could be a conservative like that. But then the coalition with the Liberal Democrats made me think even harder – would I fit in even better with that group? And the answer was yes, I probably would. I’m probably more the liberaltarian Lib-Dem than the modernized Tory. And even still, I’m probably leaning even further toward social-democrat than the current Lib-Dems, so…I have to follow what I think is right, even though it can be hard to shake older ideas, beliefs I’ve held for a long time.

I have nothing against conservatism the way I understand it, the way I wish it were represented and practiced in this country. I just don’t think that label belongs to me anymore.

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34 thoughts on “On conservatism and such

  1. Nice to have you on our team. ha

    But anyway, not labeling yourself is fine and more often then not, a good idea. Most people have views/ideas/drives at least somewhat all over the map. Its the people who feel they must have one guiding idea that must not be varied from that i worry about. You’re a liberal conservative or conservative liberal or just a heterodox think ( that sounds a lot sexier). This post and its sister post over at BJ are good stuff.

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  2. In your case, I don’t care that much about the label one way or the other. Like Larison says, it’s obvious you’re not a mainstream conservative anyway, so the label we put in its place is tenuous anyway. As you pointed out at Balloon Juice, it’s more important who we’re associating with and why. Here’s my beef (and forgive me for quoting myself),

    “In any case, here’s a useful thought experiment. Do you have any ground-up idea for what the welfare state is supposed to do, and how much it should cost (ie, a priori of our various social welfare programs and their historical path)?

    I doubt it, in fact I’ve never heard of such thing myself. I think it’s fair to say that any analysis of our safety net programs occurs within the context of the panoply of programs that we have, and for liberals the answer is always more.

    In any case, it seems a little naive or disingenuous to bank the supposed benefits of safety nets/the welfare state when we have no real idea how much they cost or if it’s feasible to spend enough money to get them.”

    And, if you don’t have particular solutions for this (which is entirely forgivable), it’d be nice if you could at least see the problem.

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  3. This isn’t a question I’m unfamiliar with — and sometimes I doubt the extent to which the label “conservative” applies to me. I know that I went through a period where my views gradually shifted from liberal to “liberaltarian-ish” to something I called conservative — but then again, I’ve always been rather cautious about admitting the shift to the latter to friends. I’m often embarrassed of it. I know that, tempermentally, I’m a conservative; when it comes to culture/the arts (not culture/society), I’ve somehow got, like T.S. Eliot and Guy Davenport, simultaneously radical and conservative sympathies; on culture/society, yes, I prefer the traditional — but I’m also persuaded by one of the many “conservative cases for gay marriage. Yet, while I know I’m theoretically aligned with a number of ideas about government size that could be called conservative, in practical terms I am, like you and others, much more concerned with actual governance: which leaves me skeptical at best of most proposed legislation, but tolerant of it once it has been passed.

    So anyway, it’s complicated. But I figure (and this is a thought that has honestly crossed my mind, weird though it may be), so long as Conor can keep calling himself a conservative (in more ways than just temperament), then I probably can too.

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    • @JL Wall, I forgot the whole point of that comment: the first bulky paragraph was supposed to lead to my conclusion that it’s complicated — and that’s why I just typically eschew thinking about labels. It really doesn’t matter whether one is a “conservative” or “liberaltarian” or “progressive” so long as they keep thinking honestly — and then questioning themselves. Which is to say, E.D., no matter what you call yourself you’re still probably going to wind up helping conservatives figure out who they are.

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      • @JL Wall, It really doesn’t matter whether one is a “conservative” or “liberaltarian” or “progressive” so long as they keep thinking honestly — and then questioning themselves.

        This is the important insight.

        Be a reactionary conservative. Be a pinko commie. The important thing is to be honest. Think about things, come to one conclusion, think about them some more, come to another, think about them some more, another yet.

        Never stop thinking and never marry a conclusion. You may yet get more information.

        But reach conclusions in the meantime, just reach them honestly.

        I’m pretty sure you’ll come out fine… and you’ll probably be a conservative again before this is all said and done.

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  4. Erik, I find myself deeply moved and touched by both of your posts. Oddly, they I found myself comparing them to Douthat’s posts on marriage – and my reaction to them. (I know, I know, it seems like I’m reaching.) A typical quote from Douthat’s posts:

    “If you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rule.”

    What struck me about that argument – and all of Ross’s posts on the subject – was that they didn’t seem in any way organic. What I mean is this: It didn’t seem the kind of argument that one is considering, which causes a light to go off in their head that makes them say “Hey! I’ve been wrong in my support of gay marriage! I should change my opinion.” Rather, it seems the type of argument you arrive at when you start from the position of: “I don’t like gay marriage, but can’t just object to it on person religious grounds. How can I get to a place where I can argue against it while sounding smart and secular?”

    It seems to me more an more that so many of the political thinkers – and maybe bloggers in particular – that I read fall into this trap. Except, of course, that it probably isn’t a trap at all; it’s quite obviously the purpose. It’s like politics (and governing) as being a sports fan of a particular team.

    All of this is a way of saying that both your revelation and our decision to write about it seem to me to be refreshingly honest thinking. Not in a “How can I help get my team take the next election” kind of way, but actually honest thought for it’s own sake.

    Count me among those deeply inspired.

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  5. As a relative newcomer to your writing – which I enjoy quite a bit, by the way – it never really occurred to me to try to label you as a conservative, or as a liberal, or even as a “centrist” or whatever. Which is unusual – I generally try to peg someone’s political biases within about two minutes of encountering them.

    And as regards this:

    And if the left is too statist, if liberals really do have a deep distrust of free markets or competitive federalism, or any of those other things that I think are important and good for society, well then perhaps they can be convinced otherwise.

    all I can say is amen. Liberals have accepted and even come to love entrepreneurship in the fields of high-tech, microfinance, and fair trade coffee. I work with a lot of people in the “social entrepreneurship” field, 80% of whom are definitely liberal but have a strong respect for market forces. There is definitely a market for a pro-market liberalism; it just needs to be found, watered and cared for.

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  6. Eric- FWIW there is a thread on Obsidian Wings where they are talking about adding a “conservative” voice and you are being discussed at length. I’m not pimping you for that site, but you might be interested or like having your ego fed.

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  7. There is nothing wrong with saying, “On the whole, I’m a conservative [or a liberal], but….” Or, recognizing that you’re liberal in some areas, conservative in others, libertarian in others…. Really, isn’t it much more problematic that people embrace the party labels (“I’m a Republican”) than the ideological labels (“I’m a conservative”), or confuse one with the other?

    I can’t recall when I first started reading Eunomia, but I recognized immediately that I should follow Dan Larison’s blog. Not because I always agree with him, but because he’s a good thinker. If you feel constrained by a label, by all means distance yourself from it. Because at the end of the day it shouldn’t be the label that matters.

    I sometimes get labeled, but I generally don’t try to label myself.

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  8. Erik,
    I believe you have made your point, even to the densest of us. What we need now is a little more meat on the bone, so to speak. If liberaltarians or conlibs or circ humanists or centrists, whatever pleonastic term is ultimately used, are to have an impact, we must begin broad brush philosophical conversations. I think the obvious first question is “How do we level the political playing field to accommodate the coalition type idea liberaltarianism creates?”

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  9. Erik,

    Know I truly mean this when I say Godspeed on your new journey. We may not always agree (heck, we didn’t when you did consider yourself a conservative), but I do respect your decision.

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  10. Thanks, everyone. I know this whole “What does Erik believe, what should he label himself, how should he do it” bit is getting a bit tired at this point, but I JUST CAN’T HELP MYSELF! :)

    Cheers

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  11. I used to spend a lot of time trying to figure out where I fit on the ideological spectrum. If you don’t fit, you don’t fit. I’ve mostly decided to simply be. I disclose my party identification, but also that I only vote that way about 2/3 of the time. The key for me, though, is simply to roll with it if someone thinks I am a right-wing fascist or left-wing heretic. “Maybe I am… but am I wrong?”

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  12. I have very little knowledge of Tim Kowal but the piece you link seems to provide more evidence of why you find the right distasteful. Kowal defines the left as pushing for hip organic snakes and equates the poor to some couple living in a motel in OC California for the princely sum of $800 per month. He says, but I doubt, those same dollars could get them an apartment. So what? Does the fact that their rent money goes to a motel or some landlord really make any difference? Kowal does not even bother to link the Youtube clip that bothers him. We know nothing of the couple but the supposed fact they pay $800 for rent.

    If this represents the caliber of Kowal’s thinking I haven’t missed a lot.

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  13. I’m going to just echo many of the comments here: You really don’t need a label Erik. I mean, it’s a fun exercise and in the sense that politics is a team sport it’s important to some people, but to the folks at The League and elsewhere that you write (except maybe Balloon Juice) I think people’s attitudes are pretty much…who gives a shit? Just keep writing good stuff. I’ve read thousands of words from you about wrestling with ideological labels and even after this latest jag I wouldn’t be surprised to read another post in the spring where you declare yourself a Paleo-Eisenhower Conservative with a Socially-Liberal Twist.

    Maybe you approach blogging as an observer more than a mover and that’s cool, but for me, it’s all about the policy. What ideas do you think are good for us as a country? I don’t care where they originate and within what political taxonomy somewhat might label them – a good idea is a good idea. I’m sure you have them – let them rip and screw the labels.

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  14. I just want to thank you for your articulation these past few months as to your political beliefs. I, too, have struggled to define myself, having gone from high school communism to backlash center-right to what I’ve alternatively called “LBJ Democrat” and “muscular liberal.”

    But more and more I find myself concerned with civil liberties, state intrusion, and other symptoms of a decreasingly libertarian society, and coupled with what in America is my ‘extreme’ social liberalism, I think ‘liberaltarian’ is the single best way to define it.

    And yet, as with any label, it can be somewhat confining. Regardless, thank you for just trying to feel your way out of the preexisting pigeon-holes and to determine for yourself what you really do stand for. It’s always refreshing to read.

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  15. I think you’re right on this, E.D. I don’t see a lot in your views that fits in with conservatives, or that’s inconsistent with liberalism. You’re okay with the welfare state, you’re all right with higher taxes, and that just doesn’t fit with conservatism – whereas supporting less regulation and government intervention in some areas would be good is perfectly consistent with liberalism.

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  16. “If I were a conservative, I would want to emulate Daniel’s brand of that ideology – both in his clarity, consistency, and in his grounding of politics in his deeply held religious beliefs. ”

    E.D.,

    I agree. The problem is that one finds so little clarity or consistency in the current Conservative movement – much less the Tea Party. Even worse, I find a complete lack of adherence to accuracy and responsibility.

    Chris Christie’s foolish tantrum and decision to axe his Education boss after his administration’s failure to correctly fill out an application for Race to the Top funds is only the latest example of this. Christie, himself, took over the application process earlier this year and then screwed it up, costing Jersey $400 million. In response, Christie blamed Obama and the lengthy application for the fact that Jersey finished 11th in a process that saw the Top 10 states land federal bucks for education.

    Did anyone think to ask Christie how the other 10 states managed to correctly fill out the application? Or how the other 10 states’ ability to correctly do so somehow represented the Obama Administration’s and/or federal government’s opposition to freedom and/or entrepreneurialism in Jersey?

    Christie failed to take personal responsibility and turned an embarrassing story into an ongoing saga. Christie calls his behavior and defense Conservatism. I call it pathetic.

    Like you, I find David Cameron worth watching. I appreciate Cameron’s even-tempered nature thus far and, more important, his apparent desire to lead in a cohesive, rather than confrontational, manner. It is this lack of leadership and over-reliance on the endless political race, who’s up and who’s down, that is sophomoric in nature and detrimental to our nation as a whole. We will never agree on anything. Get four people together and you’ll most likely have six opinions on an issue.

    We need leaders. And we’re not getting leaders from the GOP. We’re not getting people who want to get things done and who realize that doing so means giving a little and getting a little. That’s not appeasement. That’s damn common sense.

    Wish you the best.

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  17. Re: the ‘plague on both your houses’ stance that is (somewhat) advocated explicitly and implicitly in Mr Kain’s and Mr Larison’s posts and in numerous of the comments. It seems to me that as satisfying as this posture is, eventually one has to decide. As in the ancient song by the Lovin’ Spoonful: “You got to go home, boy, and make up your mind”.

    I considered myself a loyal Republican. Then I helped elect Nixon. I distained liberals. Then I needed food stamps to feed my daughter. I drifted about politically for years. Then witnessed the Clinton impeachment. Realized that there was an entire political class devoted to overturning the result of an honest election and that my self-indulgent ‘plague on both your houses’ non-voting had made the ascent of that serpentine party possible. From then on I’ve been at the polls whenever they open and voted the straight Democratic ticket. For the very conservative reason that politics should be one institution that protects the stability of our society. Self-righteous feelings of ‘I’m better than either of them’ only lead to the elevation of the lowest scumbags in politics. If one side is deficient but the other is (much) worse, a patriot puts a clothespin on his nose and does what has to be done.

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  18. Re: Decentralization and Federalism

    As a young, hispanic male who is moreover the owner of a JD, I have seen, again and again, the usage of decentralized power and federalized structures to oppress and discriminate against people who have done nothing but have the teremity to be born in certain circumstances. I’m not blind to the dangers of pure centralization, but as it stands now in America it’s about as dangerous as decentralized local power structures.

    That is, I’m not a fan of the execution on a whim of Americans that the Obama administration asserts, nor am I a fan of the Arpaio reign of terror. Right now I think the balance on most issues needs to tilt to the federal government to limit oppression but that isn’t always the case.

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    • @MNPundit, Yes to everything you said. For me federalism easily morphs into states rights and the code behind that usage is easy to discern.

      There seems a tendency toward balkanize in much of the right wing, certainly a tendency toward sectionalism. I’m much more in favor of the commonweal concept.

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  20. My original comment on this post was apparently eaten by WordPress and/or Chrome, so I’ll try to recreate it.

    It’s funny and a little weird for me to hear this, because I think that in the three or so years that I’ve followed your various blogventures, we’ve basically ended up in a very similar place from opposite directions. While I still see myself as being broadly on the left, certainly moreso than many Democrats or even someone like North, I’ve definitely shifted in my views in more libertarian and/or conservative directions. Obama and especially the Democratic congress, in continuing so many of the policies that horrified me when first implemented by Bush, have disappointed me so much. I’m still a Democrat, true, but for entirely local reasons.

    But here’s the thing – I don’t feel like I’ve had to change teams, to the extent I ever had one. I still agree with Matt Yglesias more often than not. But while I really really enjoy the actual practical side of partisan politics (by which I mostly mean electioneering – and yes I know this makes me kind of nuts in most people’s eyes), I’ve always resisted ideological labels, because they seem like a trap. I apply them to arguments, not people.

    But I fear that the real reason why we agonize over labels (or resist them instinctively as the case may be)…is that they really are what matters. That the point that ideas are all that matters has it backwards, and it’s really all about which tribe has power, not even necessarily state power but merely cultural power. That all this ideological stuff really is meaningless and is really just another curtain thrown over the culture war. And that’s when I want to just give up.

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  21. Pingback: Balloon Juice » Blog Archive » One more time into the breech

  22. Erik,

    It feels like we are avoiding the big pink elephant in the room. Everyone is saying “labels don’t matter” and up to a point they are right, but the real issue (as I see it) is that you can’t call yourself a conservative any more because that implies you vote Republican and support the current Republican agenda.

    It’s a bit like what John Cole and Charles Johnson went through: as they heard more and more rhetoric from the people who were supposed to be leading and speaking for their idealogy they began to measure their beliefs against what these leaders were saying and found a wide chasm.

    Nobody cares about labels. That’s true. But today, labels of conservative and liberal/progressive are used a a shorthand for support of either Republican and Democratic policies, and if you find the leaders of the party that is supposed to speak for you untenable then you simply have to rethink your label.

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  23. Pingback: On Political Affiliations and the Importance of Choosing Sides « Notes From Babel

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