It's been said that one should never discuss sex, politics, or religion in polite company. The reasoning behind that admonition is fairly simple. Those subjects generate such a high level of passion in most people, reason and good judgment tend to become the first casualties in a battle that no one ever wins. It's generally easy to avoid discussions about sex and religion, but a presidential election on the horizon makes it almost inevitable that there will be some political discussions in your future that will be difficult to avoid!
This became crystal clear to me one day, during a political discussion with a friend, when I described a certain politician as being a socialist. My friend immediately became incensed and, accused me of resorting to "name calling." I was dumbfounded for a moment, especially considering the fact that this politician had described himself as a socialist on more than one occasion.
Suddenly, I realized what the problem was. I asked my friend, "Do you know what a socialist is?" She went silent for a long moment, and then she stammered, "A socialist is... what you call anyone that you disagree with! Right?"
In that instant, I understood why political discourse has become so ugly in recent years. Our schools no longer teach the real meanings of the political labels that are tossed around liberally by newscasters, pundits, journalists, and yes, even couples having political discussions at the dinner table. If you don't know what socialist really means, it sounds just like any other dirty word, and if you believe your opponent has resorted to name-calling, then it makes perfect sense to get angry.
So, let's take a look at what some of those political labels really mean. That way, at least you and your friends will be speaking the same language, before you start wanting to choke each other!
Here are some things to think about, as we get started: Are you on the left, or the right? Are you a liberal, conservative, or libertarian? What's the difference between a socialist and a communist? What is a fascist, or an anarchist? And most importantly, why is it that these things are no longer taught in school?
Liberalism: Modern liberalism is the belief that society is an organic whole in which all individuals have a duty to promote the common good. If you believe that the government has not only the right, but the responsibility, to tell you what to do, as long as it is for the common good of all, then you are probably a liberal.
Conservatism: Modern conservatism is rooted in the belief that any government powerful enough to give you everything you want is also powerful enough to take away everything you have. If you believe that the Constitution was put into place by our forefathers as a way to protect us from an overreaching government, then you are probably a conservative.
Libertarianism: Libertarians believe that the government which governs least, governs best. If you believe that the government should just get the heck out of our lives, and stop trying to tell people what to do, then you are probably a libertarian.
Socialism: Socialists believe that all business and industry should be owned and directed by the government. This belief is based on the idea that profit is inherently a matter of exploitation. Karl Marx defined socialism as a necessary intermediary step on the way to communism. If you believe profits are bad, you're probably a socialist.
Communism: Communists believe in a "dictatorship of the proletariat," a utopian world where people work for purely altruistic reasons, and there is no private property at all. If you believe that private property is a bad influence on humanity, then you're probably a communist.
Fascism: Fascists believe in a highly authoritarian, nationalistic, single-party government. Fascist regimes are often seen as dictatorships, yet are sometimes admired for "getting things done." If you believe that a government should do whatever it takes to succeed, even if it means deviating from the rule of law, then you just might be a fascist.
Nazism: Sooner or later, in every political argument, someone gets called a Nazi. Curiously, few people are truly aware of who and what the Nazis really were. Nazi is actually a german acronym for Nationalsozialismus, or National Socialism. Ideologically, the Nazis were socialists who used nationalistic and fascist techniques to attain their goals.
Anarchism: Anarchists believe that government is unnecessary and inherently evil, and wish to establish a stateless society. Anarchists can be found on the left as well as the right, though anarchists are more commonly associated with a communistic philosophy.
Capitalism: Capitalists believe that when you work to produce and provide something that your fellow-man wants or needs, he will give you something in return, namely profits. Capitalists believe in the efficiencies of markets. If a need exists, someone will find a way to fill that need in order to satisfy his own self-interest. Free-market competition drives prices and supplies to the most efficient levels in a way that no directed economy can. If you're hoping to build a better mousetrap so you can get rich some day, you're probably a capitalist.
These definitions are, in truth, gross oversimplifications. However, they should help you to better understand the political labels that get applied consistently to politicians, parties, and movements which are shaping the political landscape of our nation. Perhaps the next time you hear an unfamiliar political label, you'll look up its true meaning before punching someone in the nose!