December 16, 2012

By any other name...

I just heard an NPR announcer mention Japan's "conservative Liberal Democratic" party.  I confess I don't know what makes a Japanese political party more or less conservative; but at least in Britain they do you a favor and call their right-of-center party "Conservatives" and their left-of-center party "Liberal" (the Lib-Dems; I haven't forgotten Labor, for most of the 20th century the leftist party).  Canada and Australia also have self-evidently named parties, which is nice for us less-informed foreign observers.  The Germans have "Christian Democrats" and "Social Democrats," which at least hint at the party's ideological bases.

I suppose that having a name paradoxically opposed to one's place on the ideological spectrum allows Japan's Liberal Democratic political party to hedge its bets and change its points of view.  Why else do America's mainstream parties have names that are content-free (like much of our political debate); "Democratic" and "Republican?"  Parties in the United States have often had empty names.  Surely some party names hinted at their members' beliefs, as with the Federalists and the Populists.  (The Wikipedia pages concern themselves with terminology.)  But who can tell from the name what a "Democratic-Republican" stood for?

Having empty names like Democratic and Republican and the Japanese "Liberal Democratic" makes it much easier to attach ideologies to a specific name.  I think Americans often, in very casual discussion, call left-wing ideas generally "Democratic" and right-wing ones "Republican"; since the 1960s this is where both parties have fallen along the ideological spectrum, and these positions are now pretty ossified.  For instance--even I find it jarring to think of people named  "Democrats" (in Japan) being called "conservative"; it's just not how my political terminology works.  

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