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This primary season, peel off political labels

It's primary season, so America is into political labels. Which is the real conservative, Romney or Santorum? Is Obama a European socialist? The more important question may be, 'What are you?' Surprisingly, the answer is probably 'all of the above.'

By Jim Sollisch / February 24, 2012

Republican presidential candidates, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, left, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney talk following a GOP presidential debate on Feb. 22 in Mesa, Ariz. Which is the true conservative?

AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Nick Oza



Because it’s an election year, our propensity to label every candidate and every proposal is on full display. Is Mitt Romney conservative enough? Is Obama a progressive, a liberal, or a European-style socialist as many of his critics try to portray him? And what exactly is a libertarian?

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Maybe a more important question to ask is, “What are you?” The answer may not be as cut and dried as you think.

According to polls, 30 percent of people identify themselves as Republicans, 32 percent as Democrats, and 38 percent as independent; then there’s the broader conservative, liberal, moderate labels, which come in at 42 percent, 20 percent, and 38 percent, respectively.

So a sizable portion of Americans are moderate and independent. (Though not necessarily the same people).

But what does it mean to be moderate? Certainly not that you’re in the middle on every issue. Most likely you’re passionately conservative on some issues and passionately liberal on others. You share points of view with Rick Santorum and President Obama and Ron Paul. But because we push every candidate into an ideological box, it’s hard to see this, especially during a primary season.

During the Reagan years, when I was young, I thought of myself as a flaming liberal. Reagan seemed to represent everything that was wrong with conservatives. He funded the Pentagon while cutting human services budgets. He tried to break up unions. He believed in trickle-down economics. He was against funding Planned Parenthood. But mostly he was just the symbol of the other side to me. 

I grew up in a liberal Democratic family. My parents campaigned for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. They voted Democrat, they supported unions, they believed in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

For years, the labels stopped me from considering anything but the party line. Then in my late 20s, I wrote a novel about an 18-year-old girl who was pregnant and chose to keep her baby. I got blasted from the left as if I were an unthinking pro-lifer. I was, in fact, passionately pro-choice. I had even spent time working in an abortion clinic, counseling the men who accompanied their girlfriends, sisters, daughters, wives to their appointments.

But the character in my novel took a very conservative position. She contradicted my black-and-white world view, and soon I was able to admit and recognize more contradictions in my thinking.

I was an outspoken supporter of public education in my community and yet two of my Jewish children when to private Catholic schools. Then I wrote an essay that The Wall Street Journal accepted. Apparently, conservatives and liberals could agree with my premise that the practices of insurance companies could be exploitative. I found that I had other views that readers of the Journal liked. And fiercely disagreed with. Just like the readers of The Christian Science Monitor.


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