Warning: Labels

Fashion week may be long over, but people are still talking about labels – specifically, whether its time we stop applying them, at least when it comes to politics. "…the right/left view of American politics is slowly going the way of Betamax, the 8-track, and "Cheney '08" bumper stickers," writes Arianna Huffington. "It's well past time that right vs left gave way to right vs wrong." Her evidence: The fact that people like Tom Coburn and Barack Obama are pushing the same issue – earmarks.

During his first term, George W. Bush's Republican party was largely on the same page as the president, but as Bush has lost political capital in his second term, more and more Republicans have gone off the reservation on issues ranging from Iraq to wiretapping to immigration to whether an Arab company should take over major U.S. ports. As a result, the traditional labels, such as "conservative" and "liberal," have seemed less and less meaningful. And Bush himself has pushed the definition of these words – after all, one doesn't associate the word conservative with nation building and high government spending. Many Democrats have also pushed their labels: If you think of Democrats as liberals and liberals as pro-choice, have a gander at Senate minority leader Harry Reid.

But is it possible to have a political discussion without labels, imprecise as they are? Is there a point at which they become essentially meaningless? To call someone a "liberal" is linguistic shorthand for a series of values, although one's interpretation of those values often depends on his or her political perspective. Some people, after all, take the term "liberal" as a compliment, while others consider it an insult. (The latter may have won out – see the decision of many people to self-identify not as liberal but "progressive.")

One of the most striking distillations of this issue came not from someone labeled not a political commentator but a comedian: Chris Rock. This is a family Web site, so I can't give you Rock's routine in all its four-letter glory, but I did want to include as much of it as I could. (For the whole shebang, go here, but don't say I didn't warn you.) It's safe to say Rock's not a label guy:

The whole country's…got a gang mentality. Republicans are…idiots. Democrats are…idiots. Conservatives are idiots and liberals are idiots. Anyone who makes up their mind before they hear the issue is a…fool. Everybody, nah, nah, nah, everybody is so busy wanting to be down with a gang! I'm a conservative! I'm a liberal! I'm a conservative!...Listen. Let it swirl around your head. Then form your opinion. No normal decent person is one thing. OK!?! I got some [stuff] I'm conservative about, I got some [stuff] I'm liberal about.
Vodkapundit suggests a "two-part political labeling system" to address the problem – one in which DailyKos, for example, is a "liberal-conservative." "Our terms don't work," he writes. "I'd call them outdated, but that might get me labeled a reactionary. Or a radical. Or something. Also, I'm not sure our lingo was ever, ah, indated."

Alas, the two-part system has the potential for plenty of confusion. And while it may be somewhat less of an oversimplification than the simpler labels, it doesn't entirely solve the problem. There's a case to be made for labels as a way of quickly identifying someone' s ideology, especially since certain beliefs tend to go hand in hand. But they can also be frustrating, and not just when it comes to politics. Just ask "comedian" Chris Rock, who above offered something I'm not sure any of us would be quick to label a joke.

The issue came up last week, in fact, in the debate over the Media Matters study that applied labels to politicians for the purposes of identifying the slant of Sunday talk show guests. One can understand Media Matters' desire to categorize peoples' opinions for the purposes of making its claim, but the broader and fewer the categories the more problematic such categories become. After all, Harry Reid is a "Democrat/progressive," in the terms of Media Matters, but if he's talking to Bob Schieffer about abortion, does it make sense to count him as one? The alternative would be for Media Matters to break down the labels so that they reflect a more accurate picture of each individual. But too much detail can render any study so complex that it essentially becomes worthless.

Is Huffington right that the time has come to abandon traditional labels? Is it even possible to more effectively balance the linguistic convenience of general identifiers with the inaccuracies that come with them? Tell us what you think in comments. And, please, try to keep all commendations of the "liberal" or "corporate" media – as embodied by, ahem, little old me – to a minimum.