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Labels not always necessary
On trade barriers, stupid tweets, and the reality that most people aren't actually committed ideologues
Most people are generally more heterodox in their opinions than one might expect. Fully-formed, rational, and consistent philosophies of government are few and far between, and the people who have the time and incentive to form them -- think-tank fellows, advocacy journalists, and syndicated columnists, for example -- are the exceptions. The rule, even for career politicians, tends to be a lot messier.
■ It's much more common to find that people have opinions on a small subset of things and then subscribe to what appear to be the prevailing opinions on adjacent things among those who go along with them. This is a fairly natural impulse; most of us care strongly about a handful of things, but in order to get what we want democratically, we need to find coalitions. Thus, some horse-trading invariably takes place, whether in the open or by default.
■ For this reason, we should beware the seductive impulse to label every opinion as belonging to a broad political character. This is especially the case today, when long-established definitions no longer apply even to such commonly-used adjectives as "liberal" and "conservative".
■ When observers take their labels too far, they risk unintentionally creating a negative feedback loop among people who identify more with a tribe than with a philosophy. If someone with a big audience says something remarkably dumb, then it should be enough to treat that dumb idea to a rational, factual response. That's the case even if the person attempts to align themselves with a perceived "side" in politics.
■ Trade protectionism, for instance, is a bad idea, whether it's conducted by people who call themselves "democratic socialists" or by people who call themselves "common-good conservatives". Critiquing individual opinions and policies away from hazy labels (like "conservative" or "progressive") helps to break the feedback loops that can cause people to rise to the defense of bad ideas they really don't believe, but which they think are admission requirements to remain in good standing with their tribes.
■ Using caution with broad labels can help to nudge people away from that instinct to surrender their critical thought to the identity of a team. And that's a good thing, because the world is too complex to be easily satisfied with one-size-fits-all ideologies.
■ When people consider issues on their own, shifts of historic proportions can happen in relatively short order. Using restraint rather than blandly applying broad labels to individuals and specific opinions can help to implicitly encourage people to embrace nuance and complexity in their own views of things.