Political labels don’t tell the whole story

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Are you a Democrat or Republican? Are you liberal or conservative?

These are common questions asked of people who engage in politics. Our political system encourages us to label ourselves. Identifying as a Democrat or Republican when we register to vote, for example, helps us join with others to have greater influence.

Having “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” beliefs sets people up to not agree with the entire platform of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. This photo was taken at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in Washington, D.C. in 2010.

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Having “fiscally conservative and socially liberal” beliefs sets people up to not agree with the entire platform of the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. This photo was taken at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in Washington, D.C. in 2010.

Even when we resist labels, many in the media, political campaigns and others often put us in boxes. Sometimes it’s to identify trends and patterns. Sometimes it’s to build a team.

Other times it to vilify opponents:

Don’t support her. She’s a socialist. A communist.

He’s just a teabagger. A fascist. Don’t vote for him.

Recent conversations NMPolitics.net facilitated on Facebook reveal that political labels may at times be accurate, but they’re often incomplete — at best.

Bev Courtney of Las Cruces, for example, is a Republican. But when asked how to identify her, Courtney requested a nuanced description. She didn’t want to be associated with the “greed” of Republicans who “go along with cheap labor.”

Courtney, who is involved in the local tea party, says she agrees with the GOP platform that includes “pro-life and traditional marriage.” But she takes issue with “upper-elite Republicans” who ignore the party platform “when it interferes with their agenda.”

She cited Republicans who support “amnesty” for people she labels “illegals” as an example.

(NMPolitics.net chooses to identify those Courtney calls “illegals” as “people as living in the United States without legal status” to avoid editorializing.)

Mike Johnson of Santa Fe identifies as a conservative Democrat. Here’s how he elaborated on Facebook: “fiscal conservative, anti-big government, pro-business, anti-war, socially very liberal, some ideas would scare most liberals I suspect.”

“I vote for and support more Democrats than GOP, but feel I am not very welcome in most Democratic Party circles since I tend to speak out about how elected Democrats are operating,” Johnson said. “I am critical of creating more rules, regulations and taxes on businesses and individual freedoms.”

If understood, labels can help

While some use political labels to divide, Johnson embraces their use, calling labels time-savers that help people with differing beliefs communicate.

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“I don’t believe you can change or alter anyone’s deeply, long-held beliefs by debating or discussing issues,” Johnson wrote on Facebook. “And so I would prefer not to waste time on trying. Therefore, knowing where you are coming from to begin with is useful.”

Perhaps labels can be a useful starting point as long as those having a conversation understand what they mean. Often people do: A 2005 Harris poll found that the majority of Americans “understand these labels in pretty much the same way political pundits do.”

“Large majorities believe that conservatives favor moral values, cutting taxes, and oppose same-sex marriage, gay rights, and abortion rights,” Harris wrote in a memo about the decade-old poll. “Majorities believe liberals favor abortion rights, gay rights, same-sex marriages, and affirmative action.”

But many didn’t understand. The Harris poll found that “substantial numbers of people don’t know where conservatives and liberals stand on those and other issues. … And some people seem to completely misunderstand these labels.”

In those instances, labels can be barriers to communication because they don’t help us understand each other.

We’re complicated

Labeling is complicated. Just look at the dozens of political ideologies people have attempted to list and describe on Wikipedia. Pew Research Center in 2014 attempted to make sense of Americans by sorting us into eight ideological groups: Steadfast conservatives, business conservatives, solid liberals, young outsiders, hard-pressed skeptics, next generation left, faith-and-family left, and bystanders.

But you’ll have to spend some time studying to understand those groupings. And while they’re nuanced, those labels sometimes fall short, just like our system that encourages people to register as Democrats or Republicans.

Take Lucas Herndon of Las Cruces, who described himself on Facebook as a “Humanist observant progressive worldly non-absolutist.” He recently decided to register as a Democrat, he says, because “New Mexico is a dumb two-party state.”

Only people registered to vote with a certain political party can vote in that party’s primary in our state’s closed primary system.

Similarly, Michael Swickard of Las Cruces described himself this way: “Aggravates both Democrats and Republicans, but since he had to have one card to vote in June, he is now an R. Neither political party wants him.”

Steve Grocki of Taos, a city where Republicans are scarce, says he’s a registered Democrat because Democratic primaries often decide elections. Grocki wants his vote to count. “It’s a tactical thing,” he said.

Las Cruces City Councilor Gregory Z. Smith recently abandoned the two-party system, switching his registration from Democrat to declined-to-state (which we informally call “independent”). He penned a letter calling New Mexico’s closed-primary system a “de facto form of voter suppression.”

Smith joined NMPolitics.net’s Facebook discussion to express his dislike of labels, saying “sooner or later they either confine or misleadingly define (or, of course, do both).”

Disagreements within a party

Others have less resistance to labels. Claudia Anderson of Farmington, a Democrat, calls herself a “liberal” and described that label this way (referencing a quote from former President John F. Kennedy): “someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties, someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad.”

Violet Cauthon of Las Cruces identifies as a “liberal Democrat” who believes in the principles laid out in the Democratic Party’s platform. Like Courtney, Cauthon noted that the platform of her party isn’t always followed.

There’s clearly disagreement within both major political parties that labels like Democrat and Republican don’t adequately capture. There’s also debate over use of the term “progressive.”

Two people who participated in the Facebook conversations — Tito Meyer of Las Cruces and Jim O’Donnell of Taos — identified as progressives with libertarian streaks. Cindy Madrid of Socorro identified as “liberal and libertarian, environmentalist, feminist, socialist,” and said “liberalism or progressivism both consist of a high standard of moral tenants based on The Golden Rule, empirical science and sustainability.”

Meanwhile, Carlos Castañeda of Las Cruces said he “can’t stand ‘progressive’ because half the people who claim to be have no idea what it means, and it’s killing the movement.”

Castañeda labeled himself a “moderate Democrat” who is “levelheaded in my political beliefs.”

The effect of circumstance

It’s also important to note that how people identify can shift over time. And it depends in part on circumstance.

Pew Research Center explained in 2012 that identification as Democrat, Republican or independent is fickle. In the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example, polls found “a substantial increase” in the percentage of people calling themselves Republicans. That doesn’t mean everyone who identified as Republican was a registered member of the GOP.

“Public opinion researchers generally consider party affiliation to be a psychological identification with one of the two major political parties,” the Pew post states. “It is not the same thing as party registration.”

Brandi McAlexander of Farmington was a Democrat when she was young. In her 20s she became a Republican.

“Now I consider myself an independent because I think both parties are wrong,” she said. “No one is focusing on what matters or what the real issues are.”

“I don’t think I am an independent in the traditional sense of the word,”McAlexander said, “but I don’t have anything else to call myself.”

A prior version of this posting failed to make clear that Claudia Anderson was referencing a quote from Kennedy.

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