Throwing around political labels


October 8, 2020

There’s a feisty feminist bumper-sticker that reads “You say ‘b…’ like it’s a bad thing,” and it seems to carry paradoxical attitudes similar to those conveyed by the word “liberal” in Montana politics. To Republicans, “liberal” must mean really bad things because it accompanies images of riots and dark money and socialism. I assume there are Democrats who disagree with those images and might claim liberal credentials, but you don’t hear them saying so during campaign season.

I’m not sure why Democrats haven’t turned around and demonized the word “conservative” so that it can be used in negative ways as “liberal” is used by Republicans. Too polite? I doubt it. Missed an opportunity? Possibly. No Democrats left in the state? Also possible.

But if anybody is interested in what these two words actually mean, two things become obvious. One is that (like the bumper sticker hints) there might actually be reasons to be proud of either label, yet conversely, there might also be reasons to want neither attached to one’s good name. Two, there is no set definition of either term. They’ve changed continuously throughout their time in our vocabulary. Consequently, they are essentially meaningless.

Sanders County Ledger canvas prints

From the historical context, it is useful to remember, for instance, that liberalism gave us the free-market economic system, while European conservatives, back in the day, were happy with their king-granted monopolies and wanted no competition from laissez-faire capitalism. In Russia, it was conservatism that held that nation in the Dark Ages so long that it still today can’t come to grips with the idea of individual liberty. In America, conservatives – then called ‘Tories’ -- fought to remain under King George III and even formed militias which promised to help the British fight against American revolutionaries. (These militias pretty much fizzled when the bullets started flying.)

Nineteenth-century conservatism wanted to maintain the slave system which, as a moral transgression, still haunts America’s reputation and still rattles our social stability. Liberalism advocated emancipation. Conservatives for centuries fought equal rights for women. It was liberalism that finally made it possible not only for women to vote, but to represent such places as Sanders County in elected offices. Conservatism felt the entire working class was so much chattel for the elite to command, while liberalism insisted workers had the right to participate in deciding working conditions and wages, and shouldn’t be held to involuntary workplaces with guns and clubs. Conservatism has a lousy record on environmental action, both by ignoring big messes and by protecting those who make them, while liberalism has insisted upon cleaning up air and water pollution.

For those whose knickers become knotted by my previous two paragraphs, let me add here that liberalism has a few errors to answer for also. Recently, “de-funding” police, providing free college tuition for all citizens, swallowing every whimpering claim of victimhood, and pretending the environment can be put back to some imagined pure state, come easily to mind as examples.

Neither end of the left/right spectrum is blameless, but my point here goes back to how the two terms are used in political campaigns. Why is it effective to use the term “liberal” with negative connotations against Bullock, Cooney, Williams, etc., while the term “conservative” is not used negatively, or at all, against Daines, Gianforte and Rosendale?

Since the terms themselves are so slippery and so nearly meaningless, the only reason I can come up with is that some voters want it easy, and thus are willing to ignore the fact that opinions derived from slogans and name-calling are delusions, not truths.

Ron Rude,



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