Sunday, November 06, 2005

Political terminology: a taxonomy of confusion

In a discussion about paradoxes last week, one of my students asked about the difference between paradoxes and oxymorons. That, combined with recent discussions in the media of various judicial and political ideologies has gotten me thinking about the extremely strange ways in which we use political terms in the modern United States.
"Conservative" is a term that implies that one wishes to maintain the status quo, to conserve the way in which things are done, to respect both tradition and current practice. Yet, conservatives currently wish to dismantle the government as it is and "return" to a version of government that is believed to have obtained earlier. Thus, conservatives are able to be originalists.
"Republican" implies a privileging of the republic, the res publica, the public thing, over the parts, either the people or the states. Yet Republicans now privilege states' rights and libertarian principles over the role of the federal government, at least in their rhetoric. Of course, the rhetoric and the practice don't always match up.
"Federalist" implies a privileging of the federal government over the parts. And, indeed, the original Federalists were those who defended a stronger central government against the Jeffersonians and the advocates of the Articles of Confederation. Yet, now the members of the Federalist Society are precisely those who oppose the federal government's role.
"Democrat" implies a privileging of the people and the states over the central government. And, yet, the Democratic party has become the party least associated with states' rights or libertarian principles, the party least in favor of leaving the people to themselves--except in cases of civil liberties, where the party is actually democratic.
It's not just "compassionate conservatism" that makes no sense as a political term; the American political landscape is rife with misleading and meaningless designations.

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