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Left or Right?
Progressive or Conservative?
Political Terms Used in Media

By Bob Seay

When interacting with political media, a basic understanding of terms like "Progressive" and "Conservative", "Left" and "Right", and other phrases can be helpful. Unfortunately, these labels are often used but are rarely defined. To make matters worse, political labels are often intentionally misused as part of media bias to create anger and confusion. Understanding the vocabulary reduces confusion and helps the reader to detect bias. Media outlets tend to "spin" news stories to fit their respective bias, Left or Right.

The origins of Left v. Right

The idea of using Left and Right as political labels began during the French Revolution in 1791. Like most things, this idea came from a basic necessity; in this case, the necessity to prevent fist fights - or worse - from breaking out between different factions representated at the French National Assembly. Emotions were running high, so members of the Assembly were seated according to their political beliefs. Supporters of the King sat on the right side of the room. Those who opposed the King - the Revolutionaries were seated on the left. Thus, the Left became associated with the party of change and the Right with the party of maintaining the established order.

In a broad sense, these distinctions still apply to modern American politics. The Right's goal is to protect and conserve existing values and institutions; hence the terms, "Conservative" and "Conservatism". Extremely conservative groups may identify themselves as part of The Tea Party movement, a relatively new political group which considers traditional Conservatives to be not conservative enough. Conservatives are most likely to say they value personal responsibility, hard work, patriotism, loyalty, and a respect for what they considered sacred. Politicians on the Right tend to resist change, especially if a new law or policy might lead to changes in the existing social order or prevailing power structures. In the United States, prominent Conservative politicians include Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and others. Policies associated with Conservatism include lower taxes, a strong military, and an emphasis on what they consider to be traditional religious values. Conservative media outlets include The Washington Times, Fox News, National Review, and other media outlets located on the Right side of the NewsPrism V.

Liberal or Leftist politicians tend to push for progressive social change; hence the term, "Progressives." Liberals tend to value justice, including their concept of social justic; compassion; and equal opportunities for all people. The American Progressive Movement began in the 1890s. Progressive politicians include Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and others. Laws that began as part of the progressive movement include laws intended to break up business monopolies, the Social Security Act, and Medicare. Today, "Progressive" is often used as a synonym for "Liberal". Liberal or Progressive media outlets include The New York Times, MSNBC, and Huffington Post. Liberal media outlets are located on the Left side of the NewsPrism V.

Libertarians and Independents

The term "Libertarian", as it is used today, typically refers to someone who is fiscally conservative (which means that they agree with Conservative economic policies) but socially liberal. Although Libertarians in theory may be somewhat leftish, today's Libertarians in the United States tend have more in common with Republicans and the Right than they do with Democrats and the Left.

Independent voters, unaffiliated voters, or simply "Independents" are terms that refer to voters who choose not to identify with either political party. There is, however, no specific Independent party. Consequently, Independent voters are pursued by Liberals and Conservatives and often have the ability to determine the outcome of elections.

What's the Difference?

Differences between Conservatives and Liberals are found in their respective ideas about the role of government, ideas about taxes and budget priorities, social issues, and in other areas. In reality, very few people are extremely Right or extremely Left. Most people find themselves somewhere along a continuum from Right to Left. A voter may have liberal attitudes about some ideas and more conservative views about others. Pew Research has identified eight political typologies to illustrate this continuum.

There is a general perception among Americans that Republicans are the Party of Big Business while Democrats are the party of the Middle Class and the poor. Republicans are also perceived as the Party of Traditional Values, although research indicates that there may be differences in what Republican voters and Democrat voters consider to be "moral" behavior.

The Red for Republicans and Blue for Democrats came from televised media coverage of the 2000 Presidential Elections. As results came in on election night, news programs needed a way to show which states had voted for Republican candidates and which had voted for Democrats. The color Red was chosen to represent George W. Bush (the Republican candidate) and Blue was chosen for Al Gore (the Democratic candidate). A third color, Green, was chosen for candidate Ralph Nader. The colors stuck. It is interesting to note that this use of color is different than in other countries. In other countries, the color Red is often associated with the political Left.

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2014 by Bob Seay