I spoke to a very thoughtful caller this morning about several recent stories that discuss the struggle within Kansas' GOP between what's termed in The Star and elsewhere the moderate and conservative factions in the party.
My caller said it's his impression that there are many people who would call themselves "conservative," but that their personal political views don't fall in line with those of the recent winners in Kansas, for example.
"It's my feeling that we have -- and by we I mean all of us, including the news media -- let a segment that is more extreme than most of us take over a name," he said. "And to me, that devalues or at least I guess redefines the name."
This is a topic I've thought about many times through the years, and it has a lot of merit. After all, there are no dictionary definitions of these terms. And the discussion goes beyond moderate and conservative as well. Many people who would describe themselves in various terms generally relating to the left (liberal or progressive, for example) also hold opinions that most would generally describe as conservative or at least traditional. It's very much untrue to claim that liberals disapprove of or denigrate the traditional mother/father family model, for example -- though to listen to some of the showman commentators who call themselves the arbiters of conservatism, you might get that impression.
I also think my caller has an interpretation that changes drastically from person to person. He thinks the term "conservative" as applied in the discussion of the Kansas Legislature has a more positive connotation than the term "moderate." My experience tells me that's undoubtedly true for some, but there are also many who think that term is as negative as they come.
A side note: I believe many more people proudly call themselves "conservative" than those on the left who self-describe as "liberal." I don't think those two words are equivalent antonyms, and I'm hard-pressed to come up with any pair that works better. It's been my experience than few people on the left agree on the terminology. (Though I don't buy the argument that this is because the left doesn't see anything in black and white. Trust me -- I talk to plenty of people on that side of the aisle who have no problem drawing clear battle lines.)
My caller and I ended this conversation as others have always ended in the past: We agree there's no good solution. For better or worse, people love to apply labels, to themselves and others. Many of the politicians involved in this particular instance use the terms themselves.
But do they have a concrete meaning? There are clear philosophical differences among lawmakers within the same party, and voting blocs have a direct impact on public policy. But I agree, as always, that labels of all kinds are a journalistic minefield, because they lead to misunderstanding among the many different factions that overlap beneath them.