Thursday, October 23, 2008

Defining your terms

The blogosphere moves too fast. A while ago something caught my eye, a statement that was being excerpted for purposes of snark. It was talking about how all the polls are wrong because pollsters are

Never mind. I found it:

...As I wrote then, it needs noting that all of the major polling organizations are based in locations where liberals are strongest and conservatives weakest, where 'democrat' and 'republican' take on meanings wildly different from the rest of the country. The people making the executive decisions at these polls, most likely including the wording and order of polling questions, whether to focus on urban or suburban areas, the weighting of political affiliation, and the definition of 'likely voter', are most likely in regular contact and association with the most liberal factions of politics. It does not mean that they have deliberately skewed their decisions to support Obama, but it is obvious that there is an apparent conflict of interest in their process modality.
(From Gallup and New Coke on wizbangblog, excerpted here as "Why McCain Will Win.")

I am particularly struck by the statement about places where terms "take on meanings wildly different from the rest of the country." How does the writer define "the rest of the country"? I have no idea. Keep this map in mind when you think about that distinction:

This is the population cartogram version of Robert Vanderbei's "purple map" for the election results of 2004, where area is proportional to population (on a county-by-county basis) and color is based on voting proportion (Red = Bush, Blue = Kerry.) This shows the actual distribution of the 2004 popular vote, with number of voters represented by area and candidate preference represented by color.

Now tell me: which part is "the rest of the country?"

But I agree: political terms, like many terms, mean completely different things to different people, sometimes because they come from different parts of the country, sometimes just because of individual differences. I found this out when I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post that parodied stereotypical views of "liberals" and "conservatives" that drew reactions ranging from icy to vitriolic. (All I really wanted to do was post a picture of my lunch, and I decided that this would provide an amusing framework.)

So it's important to define our terms, for everybody to define the terms that they're using. Not so we're all working from the same definitions; that's way too much to ask. But so we at least establish a basis for communication between individuals.

I'll start. Remember, these are the definitions that I carry in my head, based on my prejudices and perceptions. I realize these probably do not conform to the definitions that you carry in your head, nor necessarily to any sort of objective reality. I present these not to invite attack, but to invite you to lay your cards on the table and define what these and/or similar terms mean to you:

Democrat: In this area the Democratic Party has been the party of the working people. The miners, the factory workers, the union laborers. Generally this is where people with lower economic status have been drawn, and the Catholic population as well, which tends to fall into the categories listed above. This is the population from which Hillary Clinton received so much support.

Republican: Generally the party of the wealthier, better-off members of society. More concerned with preserving personal wealth and the status quo than with the common good. Traditionally this was the party of the bosses, the mine owners, and businessmen, as well as Protestants, who fell into many of the above categories. In recent years, the perceived focus of the Republican party has been shifting towards anti-illegal immigrant policies, but has done so to an extent through an appeal to xenophobia.

The reality has shifted rather a lot in recent decades, and locally Republican and Democratic politicians are hard to distinguish from each other by their actions, but the old definitions tend to dominate the local way of thinking.

Liberal: One who values personal freedom over the need for the restrictions of a tightly regimented society. Chafes at those who seek to restrict personal freedom on the basis of little more than ideology. Tends to be politically Democratic or Independent. Tends towards Idealism and Egalitarianism.

Conservative: One who seeks to preserve the status quo, to keep what they've got at all costs, and values this goal above everything else. Little concerned with the common good, particularly when aiding others might result in a personal loss - the "I've got mine" attitude. Societal control is both a means to an end and an end in itself. Contemptuous of those in worse economic states. Tends to subscribe to a more Calvinistic worldview. Compare to Republican, above.

Joe Sixpack: A term I first encountered a decade or so ago in a criticism of a proposal to send a rover to the Moon which could then be steered by members of the general public in an effort to stimulate public interest in space exploration. The image for me is not of an "everyman", but of someone really dislikable: lazy, borderline alcoholic, sits at home all day drinking and watching TV, maybe on voluntary layoff or collecting workman's comp from a fake back injury, sends the kids out to the store for a pack of smokes when he runs out, smacks the wife around if dinner's not on time. Is this the image politicians are trying to evoke? Probably not. Is this image based on real people? Definitely yes. No one of them possesses all those traits, but I do know - or know of - people who possess each of them. Joe Sixpack is not the everyman representing this area. I hope he really doesn't represent any area.

So those are the definitions I carry in my head when I hear these political terms and catchphrases. What about you?


Anonymous said...

Winston Churchill once said, "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

MaryRuth said...

You must be reading my mind--I agree with your definitions 100%.
Unfortunately, that quote by Churchill does have a grain of truth to it, but I guess that is what democracy is and we have to take the good with the bad.

hedera said...

Since we're quoting Churchill, remember that democracy is the worst political arrangement there is - except for all the others.