Political Labels

By Mike Koetting May 16, 2019

Political labels are shortcuts designating a more complex set of thoughts. But when there is no agreement on what the terms mean, discourse is difficult.

Exhibit One:  Socialism

Socialism has a specific definition:  where the means of production are owned by the people as a whole, which is to say, the state. Today there are a number of people who proudly accept the label, ranging from Bernie Sanders through Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the six Chicago City Council members who call themselves “democratic socialists”. However, it doesn’t take a fine reading of the policies they are actually advocating to realize their policies differ fundamentally from this formal definition of socialism. They are not advocating literal ownership of the means of production; rather they are arguing that the economy should be regulated with a much greater eye to the common good. Their policy proposals, while clearly “liberal”, are in fact well within the mainstream context of American political thought.

While it may be reasonable to redefine a term to reflect evolving views, the question of its impact on discourse remains. There are reasons they may seek to distinguish themselves from other elements in the Democratic Party who they believe are too beholden to the current ownership of the means of production. Whether this label is politically effective or causes more confusion is an empirical question that will get settled in elections over the next 18 months.

What is relatively certain is that in the short run, embrace of that term by material elements within the Democratic party creates major opportunities for those on the right to use the term as shorthand for yet a different meaning of the term, namely socialism as fundamentally opposed to an American concept of human rights and democracy. The basis of this use of the term is the conflation of socialism with Stalin’s Communism. Russian Communism was in fact a nightmare, but, as Kurt Vonnegut puts it, Stalin is to socialism as the Inquisition is to Christianity.

Exhibit Two: Capitalism

Prior to the Cold War, the term “capitalism” was used almost entirely as a pejorative political term, shorthand  for “Bosses exploiting workers.” Then language changed, particularly when looking for the antonym for “socialism”. And thus capitalism came to be seen as the only “correct” form of organizing society. The collapse of the Communist states in the 80’s cemented that notion.

Until, of course, rising income inequality caused the old, pejorative nature of the term to creep back into use. Pankrai Mishra in a Bloomburg Opinion post reviews two new books on capitalism under the headline:

Ideas once dismissed as the ravings of the loony left are breaking into the mainstream of economic and intellectual debate. 

If this weren’t confusing enough, Joseph Stiglitz’ new book promotes itself as “Progressive Capitalism” with a set of policy ideas that are virtually identical to what the so-called Democratic Socialists are proposing.

Now we have a situation where a meaningful percent of the country say they prefer socialism to capitalism, but it’s hard to know what the heck they actually mean because the important ideas in each of these terms has become total mud. (Indeed, a recent Gallup poll shows that most Americans don’t know what either socialism or capitalism means.)

Exhibit Three:  Inalienable Rights

This term is interesting because, while there tends to be some agreement on the basic words that define “inalienable rights”, the conclusions people draw from those are so different as to make one wonder how people understand these words.

For instance, a post in The Library of Economics and Liberty argues that socialism is a contradiction of the idea of inalienable rights because it vests ultimate decision rights in the state rather than individuals. But others argue that inalienable rights mean that everyone has the right to a fair shake in society and that an economy that puts the most important economic decisions in the hands of individual capitalists without concern for the broader social welfare is inherently undemocratic.

And so….

What does one make of this sematic marsh?

First, the terms “socialism” and “capitalism” cause more trouble than they shed light. Sure, it’s true that all societies feel tension between individual freedom and collective goals. And differences among societies are frequently reflected in the way they construct their economic markets. But given the porousness of the terms “capitalism” and “socialism”, it seems to me that these terms get used as much as a matter of political expediency as a useful description of what’s going on

The qualitative differences in societies are not around the label they give their economies but how they arrange themselves around other values—respect for the fundamental equality of humans, individual freedoms, and a democratic rule of law. It is not easy to agree on policies around each of these, individually and collectively. But discussions framed around these issues have a better chance of being useful than using the mush-labels of “capitalism” and “socialism”.

If one must have some label to dichotomize, looking at these three values suggests something like “democratic” versus “authoritarian”. That is the distinction that Robert Kagan makes in his extremely important article “The Strongmen Strike Back”. (He actually uses the term “liberal democratic”—liberal in its historical meaning—to distinguish from countries that have the form of democracy but are underneath authoritarian.)

Kagan also raises the question of why there should be so many non-liberal regimes now. Some argue this is largely a reaction to growing world inequality. While there is a well-documented connection between liberal orientations and good economic times, I don’t find growing economic inequality a fully persuasive explanation. If the problem is perceived as simply economic inequality, why don’t people use the democratic alternatives available to change the economic order? In fact, they often seem willing to vote against their own economic interests. Kagan suggests it is because there are values that that the individualism of liberal democracy not only does not address, but actually attenuates. He describes these as family, tribe, race and culture. In my words, fear of the outsider, a trait that one easily imagines is buried deep in the communal psyche of mankind as it has evolved over the millennia.

This is one of the conundrums of democracy. While all humans might be endowed with certain rights, they also carry a recessive political gene that is intrinsically anti-democratic. It potentially elevates fear of the outsider over other impulses and lead people to believe the outsider is less human, their rights less justified and the rule of law less applicable because the outsider threatens something intrinsic to their own identify. In well-functioning democracies, this gene fades into the background. But when things start to go south, this gene gains potency, particularly when there is an individual with some talent at stoking that fear.

We should not get too focused on the individual authoritarian figure and fail to recognize the challenge is fundamental to democracy. Democracy requires us to give “the outsider” the same rights as our family, our tribe, our culture–to treat the outsider as we ourselves want to be treated. Some members of the democracy are not up to that challenge, particularly people who find life otherwise challenging.

We would like to think that democracy is universally desired by people and if autocrats are removed, democracy will replace them. But we also recognize that the people of Russia seem to prefer Putin, that the population of the Philippines actually supports Duarte, and that even in countries with strong democratic traditions, there is a substantial portion of the population who are anti-democratic and for whom the values of liberal democracy are threatening. Jefferson notwithstanding, democracy is not the natural state of things. It is something achieved relatively recently and tenuously protected over time.

All of this suggests the right label to get behind  is “democracy.” It is at the heart of the crisis facing America today. But, at least in regard to this country, I fear it so overused, it would simply become another confusing label with fuzzy antecedents.

Maybe the moral is that political labels just aren’t that helpful.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

2 thoughts on “Political Labels”

  1. I agree with your premise that words matter, and with your proposal to abandon terms when they become too “muddy.” But, if we’re fantasizing that we can shape better language, let’s try to create language that reduces extremism and polarization and tries to implicitly establish that most good policy is an optimization problem — balancing between undesirable extremes. You note that “all societies feel tension between individual freedom and collective goals.” There is some value to balancing between seeking diversity and maintaining some degree of shared cultural identity. There is value to balancing between motivating hard work and assuring economic security. There is value to balancing between setting a good example in the international community and avoiding getting taken advantage of. There is value in balancing between strong decisive centralized leadership and local control and freedom. Leaders that understand these balancing values don’t want to travel under a milk-toast banner like “moderate.” And too many people think moderate just means “being politically correct” and lacking real conviction. So they invent terms like “compassionate conservatism”, “democratic socialism” or in Canada “progressive conservatism.” Although one might think such terms are too muddy to use, I like the goal those terms are trying to achieve — making the balancing values seem like a thing to believe in.


    1. This is an interesting thought. It illustrates the difference between what seems to work best politically and what we should want out of our politics. Maybe at some level that is what we want, but our collective choices seem to undercut that notion. But the thought is well taken….


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