“Labels are devices for saving talkative persons the trouble of thinking.” — John Morley
Labels provide order to a chaotic world. They’re used to categorize everything from music, books, and movies to hurricanes and hotels. While it is generally agreed that labeling is a necessary part of life, it is also recognized that it affects our perception, judgment, and behavior. Applying labels to people and their politics affects personal interactions, often inhibiting conversations. In 2016, the world repeatedly witnessed the futility in labeling people’s politics. This is because people are complex; so too, are their politics. As such, political labels tend to be more restrictive than descriptive and, ultimately, they miss a key point — people aren’t defined by politics; people define politics. Labels are no substitute for experience. Allowing them to become so has rendered possible many of our most divisive political issues — from identity politics and partisanship to fake news and echo chambers.
Content Matters: The People Behind the Labels
People have an innate desire to belong. Labels provide a way to identify oneself as belonging (or not) to a group. They are an integral part of how people define themselves for the outside world. Despite their usefulness, though, they are little more than useful linguistic tools designed to manage expectations. Like any tool, labels have limitations and cause damage when misused. Intended as descriptors, they fall short when used to explain people. Designed as introductions, they become restrictive when used to understand people. As snapshots in time, they’re poor predictors of behavior. Too often, labels become an attempt to turn the complicated into the simple. And people and politics aren’t simple.
Despite these shortfalls, political labels are an ingrained part of society. Politics relies on association; stripped of all the rhetoric politics is about organizing. People assume political labels to associate with others presumably working towards a shared goal. But, it’s rarely that straightforward. Like a good book or movie, people defy easy categorization. Individuals are incredibly diverse and often hold a wide-range of political views depending on the subject or circumstances. It’s why political labels need so many caveats and hyphens — Alt-right, Far Left (or Right), Progressive Liberal, Moderate Republican, etc. It’s also why political labels are rife for exploitation.
However, unlike the study of biology, political science defies such rigid categorization. This is primarily because people define politics — and people are complex and dynamic. This complexity and dynamism means that social issues rarely fit neatly into political categories. For example, during the primaries Sanders and Trump both opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and railed against a corrupt Washington elite. Yet, despite addressing similar issues the politics of their supporters differed considerably. The hollowness of political labels was evident throughout the extended debate over whether Sander’s supporters would vote for Clinton on Trump. Ultimately, judging a book by its cover proves ineffective because the content matters.
Intent Matters: The Politicization of Labels
For many, the complexity and gravity of political issues leaves them perplexed and frustrated. Understandably, people assume labels to align with political ideologies in the hope of having their views represented; however, labels divide just as easily as they associate. People’s innate desire to define themselves leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. By donning a political label, an element of one’s public persona is handed over to others. Consequently, the problem with political labels is who’s defining the label — the people or politicians. While the former is empowering, the latter is limiting and exploitative. Once political labels start being applied to rather than by someone it’s not long before opinions start being ascribed to them.
During this transition political labels become politicized. Outwardly these labels may appear the same, but the intent changes. Politicizing labels subordinate the individual to the cause. In this world labels are used to explain people and words and phrases like the Black vote, Rust-Belt workers, Red State/Blue State, and Millenials treat entire swaths of the population as monoliths. Treating people as a faceless mass hinders recognition of individual differences. Anticipating a person’s interaction with the world based on a label cheats that person of their voice. After all, people are more than the sum total of the adjectives used to describe them.
Besides these abstract limitations, political labels impose practical limitations on voters. A prime example of these practical limitations are closed state primaries where avoiding labels prevents voters from participating in a key element of the national election. A less obvious limitation is the ability of people to capitalize on labels. During the 2016 election, both the Republican and Democratic labels were co-opted. Trump and Sanders each ran campaigns under political labels that didn’t represent their independent views. They were both capitalizing on political labels. In the end, Trump was more successful. Since Trump’s beginning, many have charged that Trump is not a real Republican. While this may be true, it’s a moot point — real Republicans voted for him (as real Democrats would have voted for Sanders). This scenario illustrates the limitations of political labels and the power those labels wield when unchecked.
The Slippery Slope: From Defining to Refining
Political labels are powerful; so powerful they’ve created their own political geography where vague lines on a map are drawn by ideology rather than any concrete analysis — Red State or Blue State? They are powerful enough that they often determine people’s media input — Fox News or MSNBC, Wall Street Journal or New York Times? They exert an undue influence over people’s opinions of one another, underpinning an entire industry of fake news. And they are powerful enough to sustain an either/or political landscape in an increasingly dynamic country like the United States, where alternative voices are marginalized and partisanship is widely despised. These are examples of how politicizing labels has led to them being used to refine rather than define peoples politics.
Considering that the purpose of refining is to develop a better product through the removal of impurities, it’s plain to see how this process is not compatible with politics. In politics removing impurities equates to silencing voices and stifling critical thinking. Most concerning is how refining assigns subjective qualities to people’s politics, prioritizing strong opinions over weak opinions. This process of prioritization threatens democracy by elevating some and subordinating others. This stratification alters people’s interactions with one another, allowing feelings of elitism and marginalization to seep into everyday communications.
The Space Between: Where the Real Work Happens
The process of classifying people into political categories has created a byzantine environment where politicians repeatedly try, and fail, to define people. In response, political labels, hardened by these years of rhetoric, have become trademarks. And trademarks rely on brand recognition. Subsequently, the branding has led to continued refinement where the dogmatic views oversee the amenable views. Instead of providing order to a chaotic world labels are adding to the chaos by polarizing views and limiting understanding. Labels, as they’ve moved beyond describing to defining and refining, have become a burden on the people.
The ability to use language to name our world is important. While eschewing all labels is impractical, ignoring their practical limitations is irresponsible. Granting them unchecked power is dangerous. The space between the labels is where the real work occurs. This is the area where ideas flourish unencumbered by the limitations of labels; an area where people assess ideas based on their merit, not their political affiliation. Expanding the area between the labels will help reverse the negative impact that those labels had on the political climate. And instead of labels limiting people, people will limit labels.