The old labels don’t properly capture today’s political divisions

Liberal, conservative, moderate, populist, pragmatic – are old political labels really meaningful anymore? Political reporters still use them, because they’re lazy, but I would argue that they are at least as misleading as they are helpful.

What we need instead are labels for the significant distinctions that exist along a number of different axes between political groups in this day and age. And we need to stop abusing the labels we use now.

For instance:

  • Calling Trump and today’s Republican Party leaders conservative is just plain wrong. They are radical extremists.
  • Democrats are not torn between pragmatists and progressives, but between timid pro-corporate incrementalists and uncompromising big-government idealists.
  • Racism is not populism. Racism is racism.

And among the political schisms that the old labels fail to capture:

  • The single biggest distinction is arguably between reality-based voters, who believe in such things as scientific evidence, and those who believe the stew if misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories hawked by Trump and right-wing media (both social and traditional.) “Know Nothings” is the obvious label.
  • Henry Kissinger-loving Democrats have more in common with many Republicans than they do with Henry Kissinger-hating Democrats, when it comes to foreign policy and militarism.
  • Opinions about the deficit are a better indicator of someone’s economic preferences than what party they belong to.
  • There are opponents of executive power across the political spectrum, and same goes for authoritarians.
  • Misogynists have a distinct agenda, regardless of other politics beliefs.

Populism Is Not Racism

By far the most grotesque misapplication of a political label by mainstream journalists is the way they throw around the term populist.

Populism is not the rage of white folks. Yes, it is angry, but populist rage is against institutions that pervert the will of the people —  for instance by subjugating workers and enriching the plutocracy.

Sometimes the people feeling left out are susceptible to fear, scapegoating and strongmen. But that makes them “nativist,” “white nationalist,” and “authoritarian”—not “populist”.

In a January 2019 article for The Nation, author and media critic Michael Massing (@mmassing) scolded the New York Times for its condescending caricature of populism.

Massing was triggered by a Times “explainer” by Max Fisher, who declared that all across the globe, populism’s “message has been stripped down to its most core element: opposition to liberal ideals of pluralism, multiculturalism and international cooperation.”

Massing did a little schooling:

If anything can be said to have propelled populism, it’s the loss of jobs, the decline in living standards, and the sense of alienation and marginalization caused by the global crash. The fact that no senior banking officials or other perpetrators went to jail and that financial and corporate executives continue to amass huge fortunes added to the fury that helped facilitate the election of Trump, the passage of Brexit, and the rise of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. The persistence of entrenched inequality in the world and the belief that the global capitalist system has enriched the few while causing hardship for the many have kept the embers of anger and resentment alive.

And he noted, quite devastatingly:

The online version of the January 6 article was accompanied by a photo of five newly elected women of color sitting in a row in the House of Representatives. The caption: “Among the setbacks for populists in 2018: midterm elections in the United States that brought to office women like, from left, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Jahana Hayes, Lauren Underwood and Sheila Jackson Lee.” The election of these women may have been a setback for Donald Trump’s brand of populism, but Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic firebrands (as well as Bernie Sanders) represent their own form of populist insurgency against the political establishment.

Berkeley professor and former Labor secretary Robert Reich (@RBReich) also chimed in:

Progressive writers Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) has thoroughly chronicled the media’s misuse of the term populist to describe Trumpism. In April 2017, he wrote for Media Matters:

The truth is, “populist” serves as a crutch. And when it’s still used today, the identifier represents a lazy shorthand used to describe Trump’s grab bag of often contradictory political positions.

And in a depressing indication of what’s to come, Alexander Burns wrote in the New York Times in September 2019 that Trump and Elizabeth Warren represent “competing versions of populism.”

Boehlert, writing in Daily Kos, responded bitterly:

Reminder: Populism represents a political struggle on behalf of regular people against elite economic forces. It’s an ideology that pits ordinary people against a self-serving elite, appealing to a sense that the political establishment has grown corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of everyday people. Today, Trump’s brand of pro-corporate, anti-worker politics represents the exact opposite.


Why Call It Pragmatism When It Doesn’t Work?

Robert Kuttner (@rkuttnerwrites), co-founder and co-editor of the American Prospect, took issue with a July 2019 Times article by Alexander Burns, headlined Pragmatism, not Ideology, Defines Harris.

Noting that Burns supported his theory by noting that “Harris has proposed no major policies to constrain extreme wealth and corporate power.” Kuttner responded:

Bulletin to the Times: That’s not called pragmatism. It’s called corporate Democrat. Which happens to be an ideology.

Under the headline Ahead of Debates, Pennsylvania Democrats Lean More Pragmatic Than Progressive, 25-year Timesman Trip Gabriel described his visit to Bucks County, Pa., “a swing town in a swing county in a swing state,” and cast Democrats there as “wrestling with the old tug of whether to follow their heart or their head in picking a candidate.”

But when one calls something “pragmatic”; one is presuming that it will be effective — indeed more effective than the alternative. It literally means “dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations.”

Further baked into this pragmatic vs. progressive dichotomy is the view that the candidate calling for less radical change is the pragmatic one, and therefore a safer bet when it comes to electability. But that’s not necessarily pragmatism; that’s caution, or even timidity.

True, such a candidate is safer for the status quo, safer for corporate interests, and, most importantly, safer for political journalists who idolize a possibly mythical political center. But there’s no reason to believe – and in fact there are plenty of examples to the contrary – that such a candidate is more electable.

How About These Labels?

One label that political journalists avoid, to the public’s detriment, is “authoritarian.” As political scientist Brian Klaas (@brianklaas) wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece, Trump is there:

He attacks the press, pardons political allies while calling for the jailing of political enemies, and scapegoats minorities while wrapping himself in a symbolic flag of xenophobic nationalism. His administration is plagued with blatant corruption and ethics violations and nepotism. And his rhetoric is a constant stream of Orwellian lies, punctuated by routine incitements to political violence, and endless praise for dictatorial monsters that he doesn’t just tolerate but actually loves.

As Trump goes, so goes the GOP. Maybe there’s a word for that? Vox editor Ezra Klein (@EzraKlein) had a suggestion:

New York Times opinion columnist  Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) sees some other axes at work:

But my favorite labels to describe today’s competing political philosophies come from New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik (@poniewozik), in his new book, “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television and the Fracturing of America“. He writes:

You could argue that the division in American politics isn’t so much between parties or even ideologies but between narratives. One sees diverse groups as adding to the country’s strength and talent; another sees them as competitors for limited resources. One sees cultural pluralism as enriching the country, another as diluting it. One sees life like Friday Night Lights, where the team can only be a strong as the larger community; another sees it as The Walking Dead, where you hang tight with your own kind against teeming hordes of the Other.

Yes, indeed: Friday Night Lights voters vs. Walking Dead voters is much more enlightening distinction just saying Democrat vs. Republican.


  1. The article comes on with a joid journalistic scolding, but dissolves into yet another twitterized, block-quote-y middle school cafeteria food fight. Nothing between quotation marks is journalism. Literally, cut it out.

  2. The interest of the major media – national newspapers, broadcast and cable TV and now big internet companies – and those who write for them is clearly in maintaining the status quo economically. Anything which would threaten this, from left or right, is “populism”. Characterizing Trump as “populist” is largely a way of discrediting true anti-plutocratic populism on the left.


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