Archived Opinion

Enough of the labels, I’ve got band practice

op frWords sometimes change meaning. It may take a few years, but it happens, and it especially happens in politics.

A comment was recently posted on in response to a column I wrote two weeks ago about the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority’s request to hike the room tax. The column covered several points, among them my support for increasing the room tax.


Within that commenter’s post was this gem of a line: “Scott McLeod, liberal publisher of The Smoky Mountain News and his band of Socialists ….”


As soon as I read it, I couldn’t help but imagine it referring to a musical group. A lifelong mediocre musician, I laughed as I imagined my “band of Socialists” on tour with the Band of Horses or the old E Street Band, for heaven’s sake.

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Over the next few days, several people who had seen the online comment brought it up in conversation. That led to a political discussion about the labels we use. 

I remember some of my history and so have read about the use of the term “liberal” as something Democrats wore like a badge of honor during the Franklin Roosevelt era and earlier. According to a recent article in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart:

In the first half of the 20th century, “liberal” enjoyed a certain prestige. When Franklin Roosevelt began using it to describe the ideology of the New Deal, for instance, small-government types accused him of linguistic theft, claiming that since the expansion of state power threatened liberty, they — and not the New Dealers — were the true liberals.

By the 1960s, though, Beinart says attitudes had changed. The policies embraced by some Democrats were leading to societal changes many Americans were not happy about. Liberals pushed for too much liberty, some argued. Again, Beinart in The Atlantic:

But by the 1960s, the American right had stopped claiming “liberal” and begun demonizing it. Over the next two decades, being a liberal came to mean letting criminals terrorize America’s cities, hippies undermine traditional morality, and communists menace the world. It meant, in other words, too much liberty for the wrong kind of people. Fearful of its negative connotations, Democratic politicians began disassociating themselves from the term ….

I remember clearly how the word was used in the 1988 presidential election. George Bush the First tagged his opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a “liberal, card-carrying member of the ACLU.” Those of us who followed that campaign also remember how Dukakis’ liberal prison furlough program and his ridiculous ride atop an army tank helped sink his campaign. 

Since Obama came along, though, using the word “liberal” derisively may have lost some of its zing. Liberals support social causes like gay marriage, voting rights and immigrations reform that are becoming mainstream. The Right, though, has used the term as a negative for so many decades it will probably be a few more years before it loses its negative connotation. 

Today, the Right seems to be honing in on a much more menacing label — “socialist.” Every time I turn on the television to listen to the talking heads, all one hears is Democrats being referred to as “socialists.” The use of the term is another reason the online comment caught my attention.

It’s fairly easy to trace the word’s bloodline to its current usage as a negative epithet: our old enemy the USSR was a communist and socialist country every American hated; recent recession forces government to take over or bail out private corporations (Bush and Obama, but let’s not split hairs); Obamacare passes; western European social democracies have universal healthcare; and so now Democrats are socialists. It’s a stretch, but labels only need a grain of truth to stick. The main task is to use the label ad nauseum until it takes on the negative connotation.

Let’s be fair. Both sides of the political spectrum love labels. These days, the word “conservative” is a badge of honor among most Republicans. It evokes a sense of strength, unwilling to change due to the whims of politics. So the Left seldom uses it unless describing a “moderate Democrat,” one that might be described as having conservative values (anti-abortion, gun rights, dislikes bureaucracy).

No, the Left’s favorite label these days is to call a Republican a “Tea Party Republican.” The attempt is to negatively label that person as totally against government in any form and somewhere to the right of the late former senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina. A “Tea Party Republican” is, according to the Left, more of an anarchist than a real Republican.

Not quite as disparaging as the “Tea Party” label is to describe someone’s policies as “right-wing.” The label conjures up a mean-spirited, no-holds-barred position. I heard one left-wing commentator refer to Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as a “right-wing manifesto.” Just sounds nasty.

It’s all fun and games to discuss these labels, but the reason they gain such notoriety is that they work. Much easier to use a simple word or phrase to gain the advantage over someone as opposed to actually debating the merits of a candidate’s position on a complex issue.

Anyway, I’ve got to run. There are problems brewing. My band of socialists has its first gig in a couple of days. Greg, one of the conservatives who works in our office, says he’s not joining the band. He’s trying to pull a Yoko and break things up before we even get going. I’ve got work to do or the band is doomed.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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