Towards a Useful Taxonomy of American Politics

A brief guide to having more useful observations of, and conversations about, politics.

Hey it was the best I could find, okay?
Hey it was the best I could find, okay?

Normally, when I write about politics, I choose to translate my views into the language that most folks use. I do this because I figure it makes my writing more accessible and because I haven’t bothered to sit down and write out an alternative guide to understanding and describing the myriad ways that the intersection of politics and psychology creates each person’s political views. With the recent, shocking resolution of the 2016 election, I think that the time is right to go ahead and write this out. With any luck a few folks may be persuaded to describe politics – their own and others’ – in terms that have more to do with reality and less to do with an utterly contrived duality that does no good for nobody no how.

The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ have become useless

One of my many informal life teachers once said “I don’t know if I believe anything is literally true anymore, but I know there are more and less useful ways of thinking about things.” In my own little social bubble, I know at least two people who proudly identify as ‘conservative’ and agree on almost nothing. Certainly I know dozens of folks who would identify as ‘liberal’ – or be identified by others as ‘liberal’ – and spent most of the last election cycle arguing vigorously with each other. So why does anybody use these terms?

The human psyche always offers the temptation to think of some folks as The Other, dehumanize them with a simple label, and then blame and demonize them for whatever we don’t like. Humans also seem to be especially susceptible to contrived dualities – Thing A versus Thing B – even if the duality doesn’t really exist. This is especially tempting to do in American politics because of our two-party dominated system. While parliamentary democracies offer voters many different parties to vote for – and thus many different labels to choose from – the American system really just gives you two choices. Even if you support a third party, most folks look at that as “would-be Democrat votes Green” or “would-be Republican votes Libertarian” with the former still being considered liberal and the latter still being considered conservative. Even if you try to escape the two-party system with your vote, your viewpoint is still subsumed by the liberal/conservative duality. Bummer.

It is this false duality, more so than the two-party system, that causes a lot of the frustration that voters feel when they try to grapple with American politics. Politicians who call themselves ‘conservative’ currently tend to have a radical approach to both policy and conduct in office, e.g. the Senate GOP blatantly violating the constitution (Article II, section 2, paragraph 2) by failing to advise and consent on a Supreme Court nominee. Whereas liberals get into office and tend to be cautious about the pace of change, e.g. Obamacare being constructed in a way that balanced getting people new health insurance against not messing with the health insurance most folks already have. Plenty of GOP voters were appalled at the party’s obstruction in the Senate, but more GOP voters seem to have liked it (certainly the donors did). Many Democrat voters were glad to have healthcare reform pass in 2009, but many felt that Obamacare went neither far enough nor fast enough (some of us felt both).

The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ then don’t really seem to consistently describe anyone or anything in American politics. Instead they lead to thinking in false dualities, encourage tribalism, and produce a lot of disappointment. Worse still, these labels have become an obstacle to American citizens understanding each other and working towards common purpose because folks are voting based on these labels and not based on public policy. So let’s find something better.

How TLP think about politics in America (and other places)

Remembering that we are not trying to achieve a political taxonomy that is literally true, but instead we are trying to find one that is very useful, we can get there by asking two questions, each of which has three possible answers:

What is this person’s general attitude toward the future? (reactionary, liberal, progressive)

At what pace does this person want that attitude to be implemented as policy? (conservative, moderate, radical)

You can also just think of this as a matter of course and speed, but I think the bit about the future is important. Being alive and participating in civilization is terrifying. As much as we love to argue about the past and future, the present is an uncomfortable and unknowable thing in which we all watch what we’re doing become both immediate past and future. We don’t know how things are going to work out, but we have to make decisions, and those decisions are largely shaped by forces beyond our control. America’s past has always been a violent white supremacist patriarchy, and America’s future has always been a peaceful, liberated, pluralistic society.

It’s not entirely that simple, but for now let’s say it is, and move on to answering the first question: What is this person’s general attitude toward the future?

If the person in question has an attitude of “I want the past back” or even just “fuck that future I don’t like it,” then they are a reactionary. If their attitude is more along the lines of “well the future is coming along on its own, let’s just try to get along with each other while it gets here,” then they are liberal. If their attitude is something like “we see the future and we want to make it happen,” then they are progressive.

Either before or after we assess their attitude, we can also ask about speed: At what pace does this person want their attitude implemented as policy?

If you’re listening to someone talk policy and you notice they tend to see social change as needing to happen slowly, then they are conservative. If they believe in making change through policy at a steady speed, stopping just short of triggering a backlash, then they are moderate. If they believe in making change as fast as the law allows, regardless of the ability of individuals, groups, and institutions to adapt, then they are radical. (Remember that ‘change’ here is a relative term, it could mean changing society to be more liberated or changing society to be less liberated.)

Let’s apply these questions to some examples:

Mike Pence believes in electrocuting gay youths if it will make them not gay (it won’t), criminalizing reproductive health decisions made by women, and only giving police officers body cameras on the condition that nobody ever be able to see the video. Mike Pence wants to see all these things accomplished ASAP via signing laws like RFRA in Indiana and appointing activist judges to the courts. Mike Pence is a radical reactionary – he is decidedly against the future and is utterly unconcerned with the consequences of using institutions to force his views on people immediately.

President Barack Obama believes that cops should be held accountable with body cameras that the public can see footage from, that everybody should have access to affordable healthcare, and that we need to change our personal and professional lifestyles in a way that will help us keep the planet habitable for human life in the long-term. President Obama wants to see these things happen in accordance with social norms and institutional prerogatives, for example he let Congress write the Affordable Care Act with input from a wide array of think tanks and past policy proposals from both Democrats and Republicans, and made not disrupting folks’ current healthcare a priority in those efforts. President Obama is a conservative progressive.

Hillary Clinton believes most of the same things as President Obama, but had a more aggressive plan for pushing all kinds of policies through Congress and/or using Executive powers to implement those policies in a way that would bend, but not break, some political norms. Hillary Clinton is a moderate progressive.

Many Democrats in the Senate from purple or red states – e.g. Joe Donnelly – only support policies that move us towards a more liberated society if they are among those that already have broad public support and little risk of producing a cultural or political backlash. Senator Donnelly et al. are liberals, either conservative or moderate depending on just how cautious they tend to be.

Many Republicans in the House of Representatives want to move America backwards on social justice and economic mobility, but they don’t want to get into any trouble with swing voters while they do it. They try to frame things as being about “tradition” or “values” or “freedom” in order to avoid talking about the actual impacts their policies will have on actual people. These folks are reactionaries, either conservative or moderate depending on the speed at which they try to get policy implemented.

The folks in my Facebook feed who vote for the same liberal/progressive politicians that I do, but then after a loss are all saying “hey we gotta be able to get along with people we disagree with” are liberals (and also, almost certainly, white).

Folks who are Libertarians because they want everybody to be left alone are radical liberals, whereas the folks who are Libertarians because they recognize that if the government stops redistributing resources while folks like them have the most resources, then they win, are radical reactionaries.

Some of the folks who vote for the Green party, based on social and economic justice issues, are radical progressives, but folks who vote Green (or Trump) because they are opposed to free trade and want an immediate return to economic nationalism are radical reactionaries. Yes, that’s right – there are radical reactionaries on the left-wing of American politics. Pretty much anybody who looks at the world through an ideology is stuck being a reactionary as a result; a sorry fate, but not an untreatable one. But I digress.

To put it all another way: Reactionaries want to drive to the past whether you like it or not, liberals want to drive to the future as long as everybody likes it, and progressives want to drive to the future whether you like it or not. Conservatives drive by using the brake peddle or idling, moderates alternate between using the brakes and the accelerator, and radicals are pushing the gas pedal into the floorboard.

If you’ve got an example to share, or want to ask me to apply this model to classify an example you have in mind, please send an email. I will either respond directly or update this post accordingly. This system does work in other countries – in the UK, Tories tend to be conservative or moderate reactionaries, Old Labour were moderate or radical progressives (or radical reactionaries) while New Labour tended to be conservative or moderate progressives, UKIP are radical reactionaries, and the Lib Dems seem to me to be conservative and moderate liberals. This model may have even more flaws when applied to international politics than when applied to American politics. Which brings us to…

This model is useful, not flawless

Some folks, like myself, are radical progressives about any life and death political issue, but are moderate or even conservative about progress in other contexts. It seems that many Americans who voted for a conservative progressive in 2012 were nonetheless persuaded by a radical reactionary in 2016, but that is a topic to chew on in another post. Political militants – those who are willing to sidestep public policy and take up arms to force implementation of their views (e.g. the Bundy family) – aren’t really covered here, but I suppose we could just add an additional militant reactionary category and it would cover all of them, regardless of specific political views.

There are also complications on foreign policy. Non-interventionists might be progressives, or they might be reactionary isolationists, but you won’t be able to tell them apart based on their “don’t bomb people” policy alone. And then you have folks – Hillary Clinton let’s say – who are progressive on domestic issues, but seem pretty reactionary on foreign policy (alas, we’ll never really know).

This model could also be criticized for not being compatible with a number of terms already in wide use – neoliberal, neoconservative, paleoconservative, (lower-case-l) libertarian – but I consider that a feature, not a bug. Most of those terms are coined by someone not in the group, even if they are later adopted by the group, and as a result these terms tend to represent the folks they’re applied to less than they represent the view of those folks held by whoever coined the term. My favorite feature-not-a-bug of this model is that it erases so-called ‘centrists’ entirely, because those folks have no principles and just end up being handmaidens to the extremists they inevitably normalize. But I digress.

Bonus round

There is a third question that can be difficult to ask of public figures, but that is very important for successfully communicating with, or even persuading, someone you know. Call it evolution, or direction, but the question is: Where is this person’s attitude moving?

During the Democrats’ primary, the general election, and now in the aftermath of Trump’s hybrid political victory and cultural defeat, I am watching a number of folks move from moderate liberal to conservative/moderate progressive. Certainly over the last 15 years I have watched a number of Republican folks who were conservative liberals become moderate reactionaries in a somewhat subdued mirroring of the more more dramatic change to the GOP itself. You can look at Marco Rubio’s career and see he is careening to an ever more radical and ever more reactionary politics. You can look at the career of Tim Ryan, who is challenging Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the House Democrats, and see someone who is an odd mix of reactionary, liberal, and progressive and becoming ever more liberal over time.

The point of this third question is less about predicting what a politician will do and more about figuring out how to communicate with folks with whom we disagree. If I can discern one issue where a reactionary friend has a progressive inclination – police brutality/accountability for instance –  I can focus our conversations on that topic and nurture that inclination. I can learn what particular facts and presentations of those facts have persuaded this person to acknowledge that police brutality is a problem and that the lack of consequences for brutal cops is unacceptable. Then I can look for similarly presented facts about, say, healthcare or climate change or reproductive justice, to use in a future conversation with that person on those topics. Alternatively, of course, if I am watching someone become ever more reactionary over time and refuse to acknowledge or accept difficult facts from any source, I can conclude there is no chance of persuasion and not waste my time.

We need to ditch the fake duality of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’

Whether anybody adopts the model I have described here or not, it remains the case that the current conversation about politics in this country is not only useless, but harmful. The word ‘conservative’ provides a kind of veneer of prudence to whoever and whatever it is applied to, which is a big problem in a country where that word is being applied to the most radicalized and most reactionary political movement that we have seen since the backlash to Reconstruction. People seem to understand that there is nothing ‘conservative’ about Donald Trump, but he is actually considerably closer to being an actual conservative than are Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, or Mitch McConnell. With any luck, a Trump administration will give politicians and journalists a good reason to start differentiating between reactionary and conservative. Meanwhile, to their credit, folks on the left are already reckoning hard with what ‘liberal’ does and doesn’t mean and beginning to use the term ‘progressive’ accurately and often. So that’s a good start.

Certainly the policies that impact folks’ lives should be the number one focus of political conversation. That said, it is possible that changing how we talk about politics and policy will help us better persuade folks to come around on those policies. That makes how we talk about this stuff at least as important as what we’re talking about.

Have a question, comment, or request for one of these thoughts to become a whole blog post? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

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