09.30.10

America's Political Parties Need New Names

In the heat of the election year, America’s political parties could help themselves by changing their names to one’s that actually differentiate them. Andrew Roberts on what’s in a name.

In the heat of the election year, America’s political parties could help themselves by changing their names to ones that actually differentiate them. Andrew Roberts on what’s in a name.

As the midterm elections approach, Americans ought to consider how much longer their two major political parties can continue having such pusillanimous, uninformative, and downright condescending names. What modern American does not believe both in the democratic and the republican systems of government? Even if one party fought for the principles of “Motherhood” and the other under the banner of “Apple Pie,” the fraud on the public could not be much more obvious. The time has come for a simultaneous rebranding of Republican and Democrat nomenclature, in the name of clarity, honesty, and modernity.

Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren at least can't be accused of cowardice when they kept on the Democratic Party name in the 1820s, because they had inherited it, and anyway there were a few reactionaries who still questioned the efficacy of one (white) man, one vote. Yet when the Republican Party was founded in 1854, its choice of name was frankly a cop-out, as by then no Americans favored a return of monarchy to the United States. For the past century and a half, therefore, the terms “Republican” and “Democrat” have therefore meant nothing intelligible to the average American voter. This mutual waste of a Unique Selling Point—an opportunity to convey a message to the electors at the very moment they are voting—needs to be stopped.

So how to replace Republican versus Democrat in today's world? Makers vs. Takers? Private-Sector Solutions vs. Public-Sector Salvation? Hard Power vs. Soft Power?

Since the Clinton presidency, Democrats have tried hard to ditch the word “liberal” in favor of “progressive,” because it has fewer negative connotations, while at the same time attempting to saddle the word “conservative” with all sort of pejorative references. Since etymology is epicentral to politics, the new titles that the Republican and Democratic parties choose must be right. Tony Blair managed to decontaminate the losing Labour brand in 1994 by rechristening his party “ New Labour.” This name-change proved a game-change, forcing the public to look afresh at the post-socialist party that Blair led, and it liked what it saw. After three successive general election victories and one defeat, the sobriquet has only just been finally discarded at this week's Labour Party Conference.

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Of course sometimes political parties aren't in control of what they're called because their names are chosen for them by their enemies. “Whigs” got their name from the Whiggamore Raid, a violent march against the royalists in Edinburgh launched by Covenanters in 1648, while “Tory” was the word given to dispossessed Irishmen who resorted to banditry after the invasion of Oliver Cromwell and the suppression of the royalist cause there after 1649. So the great British political battles of the 17th, 18th, and much of the 19th centuries were fought between people who characterized each other as traitors and crooks. How very different from our present-day politics.

So how to replace Republican vs. Democrat in today's world? Makers vs. Takers? Private-Sector Solutions vs. Public-Sector Salvation? Hard Power vs. Soft Power? Hayekians vs. Keynesians? Fox and The Wall Street Journal vs. NPR and The New York Times? Red vs. Blue? What won't do is “Conservative” vs. “Liberal,” because, as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have shown, Conservatives can be deeply, radically un-conservative, while, with their health-fascism and political correctness, Liberals can be profoundly illiberal.

There has long been a tradition of counterintuitive nomenclature in politics, which the Republicans and Democrats might like to adopt. Countries which have the words “People's Republic,” “Socialist Republic,” or “Democratic Republic” in their official titles are invariably totalitarian hellholes. The full title of Libya is nothing less than “The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya,” with Jamahiriya defined by Colonel Gadaffi as “a state of the masses governed through local councils.”

Similarly the neo-Fascist party set up by Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Russia was entitled “Liberal Democrats.” By much the same token, Turkey's Felicity Party wants higher defense spending to repel an anti-Islamist invasion from the West; the Liberal Party of Hong Kong opposes the minimum wage, collective bargaining, and welfare; Russia's National Bolshevik Party is on the lunatic right, Portugal's Social Democrats are center-right, and Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army is decidedly not doing God's work. Euphemism is sadly underused in American politics, but seized upon abroad. Josef Cserny's torture battalion in 1919 Hungary was called “the Lenin Boys’ Squad,” Winnie Mandela's murderous bodyguard was nicknamed her “Football Team,” and Josef Goebbels chose the title Minister for Public Enlightenment.

In Saudi Arabia, the much-feared Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Elimination of Sin, which administers some of the most vicious punishments for un-Islamic practices, recently changed its name to the hardly much less sinister-sounding Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Ever since George Orwell's Ministry of Truth and the innocuous-sounding Room 101, which was a torture chamber, we have been used to looking behind the banal in nomenclature for the reality lurking beyond.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the Tea Party. To a Briton, the phrase summons up interminable polite conversation with a mild-mannered vicar over cucumber sandwiches and cream scones, sitting on a well-cut lawn. What we can't envisage is an angry uprising of over-taxed, underappreciated budget-balancing Americans who for some reason hold the Boston rebels of 1775—who never paid more than 5 percent income tax in their lives—as their ultimate heroes, to the extent that some of them dress up in tricorn hats and frock-coats. Perhaps American politics does indulge in euphemism after all, but that's not to say it makes much sense.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.