Pubdate: Sun, 23 Apr 2000
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2000 Houston Chronicle
Contact:  Viewpoints Editor, P.O. Box 4260 Houston, Texas 77210-4260
Fax: (713) 220-3575

Sticks and stones may break your bones but how much does it hurt if someone
calls you a liberal?

Reason I'm asking is because this has happened to me several times lately in
responses to discussions here regarding the state's criminal justice system.

One fellow e-mailed that he considers me a "prime example ... of the
workings of the ultra-liberal mind."

Another fellow I mentioned a couple of weeks ago wrote: "teary-eyed,
panty-wearing liberals like you make me sick." And there have been some

Like everyone else, I've heard political terms and labels bandied about all
my life. But I've never completely understood many of them. The meanings
seem to vary depending upon the agendas of the people doing the defining,
and depending upon the issues involved, and depending upon the time.

Liberal moniker

Consider the prison topic, for example. Does a person fit into the
conservative box or the liberal box if he is concerned about the boom in
building new pens? And if he is concerned about how quickly they have been
filled beyond capacity because there are so many prisoners of the drug war,
and other nonviolent offenders, and many who are mentally ill?

Looks like if someone favors the government reducing its investment in
something, like prisons, that would be a conservative position.

And same goes for someone who favors less expensive alternatives to prison
for people with drug problems and those suffering from mental illness.

I called Richard Murray, professor of political science at University of
Houston, in search of some expert help in figuring out what it means for
someone who thinks he is being conservative to be called a liberal.

Murray said that people who consider themselves conservatives outnumber
people who consider themselves to be liberals by a ratio of 3-to-2,

However, in the South, Murray said, there are two conservatives for every
liberal. And among white Southerners, he said the ratio is three or four
conservatives to one liberal. Therefore, if someone calls you a liberal,
Murray said that person likely is "trying to marginalize you by giving you
an unpopular label."

A matter of time

He said meanings of political terms change over time. For instance, in the
19th century, the term liberal was associated with reformers in England who
favored introducing free-market economics, who wanted to break the power of
the landed gentry, who were for opening up systems and reducing government
regulations and control.

Now, Murray said, the same liberal term is widely used in this country to
describe someone who is considered to be pro-government.

But there are exceptions. On the issue of abortion, he said, a person who
believes it is a personal matter and the government should butt out is
considered to hold a liberal view, while a conservative position is that the
government should intervene.

When I asked him whether the view of prisons I described sounded more
conservative or liberal, he said that it sounded to him it would fit better
in the libertarian box.

I mentioned that my personal political philosophy was pretty well defined by
a cabdriver the family had on vacation a few years ago. The road, from a
mountain lodge down to the seaside, was in terrible shape, with almost as
much area taken up by huge, deep potholes as was still covered with
pavement. The sharp-eyed driver didn't stay on the left or the right or in
the middle but drove all over the road, going where he must to avoid the

Murray said basing political views on that puts me "in the very large part
of humanity. ... Most of us pick and choose." We might go in the
conservative box on one issue but then like the looks of the liberal box
better on the next.

The folks who put together the framework for the U.S. government didn't fit
neatly into any of the boxes, either, Murray said. They knew that no matter
who was in charge there needed to be others in a position to challenge them.
Checks and balances.

"In a big diverse country, you don't want anyone to have too much power," he

Liberals or conservatives or anyone else.

Thom Marshall's e-mail address is  ---
MAP posted-by: Don Beck