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Labels don't mean much

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Some readers have asked recently why the St. Petersburg Times seldom refers to anyone as a liberal anymore. The answer is simple. Here in the nation's capital, few -- if any -- politicians will allow themselves to be described as liberal.

In the current political climate, there are many self-proclaimed conservatives and a few moderates -- but almost no liberals.

Newspapers have stopped describing people as liberals because they usually use whatever term their subjects prefer. And most politicians -- be they Republicans or Democrats -- would object if we called them anything but conservative or moderate.

As a result, these terms have become virtually meaningless. Like an old T-shirt, conservatism has been stretched into a shapeless form as more and more people have tried to wear it.

If you doubt what I'm saying, consider that both Reps. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and Jim Davis, D-Tampa, call themselves conservative, even though they would agree on almost nothing. DeLay, for example, despises labor unions; Davis has the support of unions in his district.

And so for this reason, I think we should simply stop using the terms conservative, moderate and liberal until there is some general agreement on what they mean.

My thinking on this matter has been influenced most recently by an intriguing family memoir written by New York journalist George Packer, Blood of the Liberals. Packer traces the history of modern liberalism in the United States through the last three generations of his family.

Packer's grandfather was George Huddleston, a Democratic congressman from Alabama, whose Jeffersonian populism eventually put him at odds with what he saw as a concentration of government power that resulted from the New Deal.

"It is not my fault if . . . principles which one time were considered liberal should now be considered as conservative," Huddleston said in a career-ending speech on the House floor. "My principles and myself remain unchanged -- it is the definition of 'liberalism' which has been changed."

Packer's father was a liberal professor who taught at Stanford University. His New Deal liberalism was sorely tested by the student radicals of the 1960s. After retiring from Stanford, he committed suicide.

As the author of this book entered adulthood, he dabbled in socialist politics in an effort to honor the political tradition of his family. This is where he discovered, as he puts it, "the end of the socialist idea."

President Clinton, Packer contends, supplanted the traditional liberalism of the Democratic Party with middle-class self-centeredness.

"An ad I saw in the New York Times a couple of years ago sums up the hybrid political thinking that has prevailed under Clinton," he wrote. "It was a full-page spread for Dewar's scotch and it said: 'When you realize you're still a liberal, in a conservative-lower-my-taxes sort of way.' "

But just when Packer was lamenting the demise of any organization capable of defending the ideas of human brotherhood and a just society in the liberal tradition, he made a discovery.

He stumbled upon a racially integrated evangelical church in Alabama that appeared to be caring for inner-city poor people in a way he viewed as a model of liberalism, as he understood it. But the members of this church did not consider themselves liberals, nor did they believe that government should play an important role in helping people.

Traditional liberals do not often get involved in such volunteer efforts, according to Packer, because they would prefer to write checks to fund programs.

I am reminded of Packer's observation every time I hear conservatives in Washington touting President Bush's faith-based initiative to support churches that are helping poor, homeless or addicted people. I suspect Packer might see the faith-based initiative as consistent with liberalism in America.

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