The Porous Politics of Branding

Liberalism and conservatism are two terms that are often heard during political discourse. However, while presidential candidates talk about all kinds of policy initiatives and philosophical viewpoints, it is rare to hear them refer to themselves, their proposals or their ideas as conservative or liberal. Yet, these terms are applied daily to the candidates. Presidential elections are partly about fighting the negative perceptions observers associate with these terms.
Liberalism and conservatism amount to a collection of policy positions. However, these terms have been given different definitions over time. From the 1930s to the late 1960s, the focus of disagreement among liberals and conservatives was over economic issues. For instance, liberalism referred to greater union rights, promoting social justice and higher tax rates. There was also more of a national consensus on social issues and foreign policy since the left was largely made up of economically disadvantaged people who tended to be more socially conservative and had a more accepting attitude about entering the military if asked to by the government.
In those days, the main negative traits ascribed to liberalism were irresponsibility and recklessness, as the political philosophy led to large amounts of spending on social programs, which created large budget deficits. However, an economic consensus gradually formed in favor of “right to work” laws, which permitted workers to decide whether or not to belong to a union. These laws also assured lower taxes and less government intervention. Meanwhile, fault lines formed around social issues and foreign policy as the general consensus began to disappear.
In 1964, Republican Barry Goldwater’s brand of conservatism emphasized the concept of smaller government, in which programs for the economically disadvantaged were not a responsibility, due to Goldwater’s feeling that the government was inherently inefficient. In contrast, today’s national level of conservatism emphasizes social issues like abortion, immigration and gay rights. Some claim that these positions exclude the socially disadvantaged and violators of various social norms. Remember compassionate conservatism? First used by a Bush family political adviser in a 1979 speech, it only entered the political mainstream during George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000. It was designed to argue that conservative policies cared for and helped others, including the disadvantaged.
Compassionate conservatism was an attempt to take the word most negatively associated with the conservative philosophy, find its antonym and then attach it to conservatism to make its philosophy more acceptable. The negative word most widely associated with conservatism from the 1930s thereon was “uncaring.” John McCain has tried to address this negative perception by emphasizing how he would have taken a far more active and direct role after Hurricane Katrina, compared to President Bush’s response.
The precursor to Compassionate Conservatism was coined by Edmund G. Brown’s 1958 California gubernatorial campaign. It was called Responsible Liberalism. This term was meant to denote a liberalism that was fiscally responsible and considerate of whether benefits of social programs outweigh the costs and whether they were feasible without heavy borrowing.
However, unlike conservatism the biggest negatives associated with liberalism have changed over the years from irresponsible to unpatriotic. The reason for this is that liberal foreign policy stances over the years have been viewed as timid and elitist. Barack Obama has addressed this recently as he has begun to wear a U.S. flag pin after encountering media questions about not wearing it during town hall meetings. Why? It was not just concerns that he lacked sufficient patriotism, but also the negative associations attached to liberalism that far predate his campaign. The same goes for him having to avoid appearing elitist.
Obviously, other things will be more important in this election. For example, the economy will probably be heavily discussed, perhaps even more than Iraq and Afghanistan, due to increased stability in the regions. Also, unlike these foreign lands the economy affects people directly. In contrast, the wars have been conducted in such a way as to minimize their direct costs, in terms of the number of people affected by concentrating on the sacrifice of few.
Still, the negative associations involved with liberalism and conservatism and how well the candidates can challenge these negatives will continue to play a major role.

Wesley Oliphant is a third-year economics graduate student. He can be reached at