Some political labels are, at best, chameleons. It’s not their fault. They are complex constructs that inspire different responses in the minds of different people, involving innumerable stories that persist over decades. Their adaptive coloring matches the conceptual background provided by the observer, a background that either existed prior to their arrival or one that was freshly constructed according to political prejudices. Definitions and connotations vary widely and shift with the partisan currents, drifting in and out of favor among the majority of voters even as those who use a particular label to define themselves don’t alter their preferences or policies.
In the last half of the twentieth century the term “liberal” started as a highly popular label, associated with such efforts as the New Deal and Civil Rights legislation and such Great Society reforms as Medicare and the War on Poverty. The decline of liberalism may have begun with the War in Vietnam and the failed presidential campaign of the consummate liberal politician Hubert Humphrey. It further lost favor on the left with the rise of corporate centrism and the confusingly mis-titled neoliberal philosophy. But the lowest point in terms of public esteem followed not long after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was regarded as an anti-government ideologue, but he was actually only opposed to liberal government. His infamous quote was “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” But if that “help” was to be in the form of policing efforts or military power he was more than happy to expand the governmental role and any related deficit expenditures. His attacks on big government were limited to liberal policies that were intended to improve the lives of individual people and to promote equitable treatment. In that effort he repeatedly denigrated the term liberal and those who professed liberal values, and demonization of liberals has been a strong feature of conservative thought ever since. The right-wing’s oddly and extremely oversimplified framing has for decades even conflated liberalism with socialism and communism and, through them, with totalitarian control.
At least the term “liberal” has fairly consistently been associated with policies to the left side of the political spectrum, even among most of its detractors. An older term, “populist”, has been used to describe such varied individuals as Huey Long, George Wallace, Ross Perot, and, in this most recent decade, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The original Populist movement of the late nineteenth century provides minimal guidance here, given that it was an extremely broad and diverse campaign. It began primarily as a rural farm-based revolt against corporate malfeasance and monopoly power, and it has retained a strong anti-oligarchic bent, but it soon expanded to incorporate such diverse and often contradictory issues as industrial worker rights, race equality, exclusion of minorities, eugenics, dominion theology, and anti-communism. The mix of policy preferences often depended on the location of the local sub-group. As the movement consolidated and as populist politicians gained nation-wide recognition, the dominant policies have become dependent on the specific leader of the moment. As a result, anyone who now considers themselves a populist must specify which individual populist leader they support, and people tend to skip the label and go directly to that individual. That often gives it the appearance of a cult of personality. The only consistent characteristic of populism seems to be that it is an ideological movement supported by a large collection of ordinary people—it is, in short, popular.
The problem with using populism as a label can effectively be illustrated by looking at who the media has most often referred to as populist in the decade leading up to 2020. On one hand we have Bernie Sanders, who is, indeed, the charismatic leader of a movement that strongly opposes oligarchic control of government and promotes specific reforms that would reduce corporate political contributions and lobbying, expand voter opportunities, and improve the lives of average people by reducing individual debt, guaranteeing health care, and expanding union power, infrastructure and the social safety net.
The other current politician referred to as populist is Donald Trump, an oligarch who has made broad claims about improving the economy and increasing employment and reducing corruption, but who forwarded almost no detailed programs, other than cutting taxes, to achieve those goals. The contrast between these two “populists” is extreme. The Sanders effort is closer in spirit to the original grassroots populist vision of the late 19th century. The Trump campaign is, if anything, closer to the vague populist leadership of George Wallace, even to its inclusion of, and support for, an energized coalition of white supremacists. During the 2020 election season many media reports have used “populism” as a derogatory or dismissive term, whether they were referring to Sanders or Trump. This is a tendency that tells the reader or listener more about media preferences than about the characteristics of the specific populist leader in question. As for the candidates, neither one has applied the term to himself or to his followers.
The Sanders campaign leads us to another political term that has widely divergent connotations. That is the term “socialist”. Whereas, in recent years, “populist” has been applied without modification (or definition) to two strikingly different individuals, “socialist” has been used to apply two strikingly different representations to one single individual. It is the true observer-defined chameleon. Among progressives, and in general among younger voters, “socialism” is now viewed as a positive concept, connected to thoughts of the stable social democracies of Europe and of popular social institutions such as Medicare and Social Security and public education. Although some pundits have expressed concerns about how the word would play among older voters and independents, in many ways support for Bernie Sanders has been enhanced by his embrace of the self-applied socialist label.
The leadership of the Republican Party, at the same time, sensed an opportunity in having a prominent Democratic candidate self-identify as a socialist. Since then they have done their best to promote two questionable concepts. First, they have worked to strengthen and exploit any and all existing negative biases against socialism, including associating it with extremes such as totalitarian communism and with the struggles of countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. Second, they took that perversely skewed popular interpretation and applied it not only to Sanders but to the entire Democratic Party, including, of course, former Vice President and candidate Joe Biden. The Republican strategy has been effective on the right, raising the fear level among those who still view the entire spectrum of leftists as bogeymen, and undoubtedly in that way have provided strong motivation for GOP base voters.
Much of what passed for political discourse in the 2020 election cycle demonstrated that labels can be used to influence voters without any reference to specific policies or issue preferences. Especially in campaign ads, political labels and associated vague inferences and exaggerations were commonly used to obscure issues, often replacing accurate description with hyperbolic misrepresentations of policy, in effect bypassing any real discussions of candidate plans and platforms. The avoidance of issues and solutions is one result of the failure, or often the refusal, to agree on meaningful definitions for common political labels, just as those definitions continue to be one result of the desire to avoid real issues. As long as people and their leaders are willing to promote and believe oversimplified distortions of such labels, such problems will continue.