The old political labels don't quite fit, but new ones have not yet evolved
Political Labels: The accepted political terms defining the overall cast of people's political persuasions have lost most of their longtime meanings. The reason I continually lump together liberal/progressive/Democrat or conservative/right-wing/Republican is that it's a way of getting at a stronger suggestion of the political identity of the group being described. But not only are the specifics of any of those terms increasingly lost, but many all too nonchalantly now add "Marxist/communist/anti-American" to the former and "reactionary/fascist" to the latter. There are times, though very few, where all those labels fit. Usually, however, lumping whole ranges of views together, from the most moderate to the most radical, is designed to discredit political philosophies rather than describe them.
There are those who voted Republican and usually do and those that voted Democrat and usually do, but once you get beyond that activity, it gets very murky. The true ideological divisions are by no means so clear-cut or radically opposed as is often asserted. So, rather than stack terms, this time I'm mostly going to delineate between left and right, pointing out that most Americans are actually ranged within the moderate middle. So rather than a capital "L" Left or a capital "R" Right, we should think of the terms as more general than specific directional signs.
For example, the left has long been considered more internationalist, and the right, especially conservatives, more isolationist yet the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were driven by the right and opposed by the left. Not to open too big a can of worms here, but Vietnam, by contrast, was initially driven by the right under Eisenhower but continued and masterminded by the East Coast intellectual establishment under Kennedy. Similarly, the left has been accused of tax-and-spend policies, but currently the right has embraced tax-cut-and-spend ... and spend. Fiscal responsibility used to be a core right-wing foundation idea, but now it has been re-imagined.
Shifting demographics and economic evolution have dramatically changed the country, simultaneously altering the traditional constructs of each group. Without entering the swamp of historical connotation, the long-term one-party, Democratic South evolved (in the wake of federal civil rights legislation) into the current almost-one-party Republican South. Ideologically, however, the South has always been conservative party loyalties changed, but not underlying beliefs.
The shift from an industrial and manufacturing economy to a service economy has significantly weakened unions, historically a crucial Democratic constituency. Without beginning to suggest any kind of substantial society-changing success, still the limited achievements of social engineering have affected some of the most obvious problems they addressed, thus diminishing their need and accomplishments.
The terms applied to these changes themselves lack meaning. Self-definitions are self-serving, and opposition-offered definitions intentionally demeaning, frequently demonizing. Almost no one now wants to be called "liberal"; nominal "conservatives" should be going nuts over the budget and the deficit, but they're not.
The core differences might still be broadly defined.
Those aimed more to the left, while distrusting government as much as anyone, still believe that it is an awkward yet functioning method for the population to interact and cooperate in addressing issues, dealing with problems, and planning for the future. Shared social responsibility is a crucial assumption, with governmental responsibility for the social safety net, education, reasonable health care, safety, construction, labor restrictions and regulations, environmental controls, and so on.
Those aimed more to the right often view government as an almost inherently corrupt, unnatural, and aggressive construct, intruding in areas better addressed by the free market and individual initiative. They believe it's creating far more problems then it's solving, as generally things function more effectively the less they are artificially restricted and controlled. The current government, they would say, aimed at communization and misguided social, religious, and familial interference, has far exceeded any legitimate role and must be curtailed.
Internationally, the differences are clearly accentuated by the war on terror and invasion of Iraq. Those backing the administration see the need for pre-eminent American dominance as a way of both protecting this country and making the world a better place. This country, by rights of our moral authority, military power, spiritual blessing, and overall cultural and economic superiority, should lead the world by prioritizing our own national self-interest.
The opposition believes this approach is more wishful than realistic, demonstrating vision impaired by self-imposed blinders rather than acceptance of reality. Instead, international understanding and cooperation are needed and must be considered long-, long-term goals. This perception is made in full recognition of the dangerous world in which we live, but lacking the naïveté with which it is usually imbued. The people of the world must face the future together as awkward, nearly impossible, and unlikely as that seems instead of this country leading by sheer force and overwhelming power.
The Politics of Blame: Given the right's dislike of affirmative action, it is surprising that a core justification used for almost any action is, "But the Democrats did the same thing ... or worse." Texas' brutal, scarring redistricting was simply giving the Democrats a taste of their own medicine. Often the explanations depend on misleading or dishonest comparisons. Misleading, such as not pointing out that recent Republican redistricting efforts were more partisan than those of the Democrats, while ignoring long-accepted protocols. Dishonest, because they bemoan Democrats in Congress delaying the confirmation of judgeships: While accurately pointing out that Democrats are holding up appointments on the floor, they neglect to acknowledge that during the Clinton administration Republicans were even more aggressive at blocking appointments, only they did so in committee.
Bias: Much of the orthodox Right accepts as gospel the liberal bias of mainstream media. For a long time I've rejected this take, arguing that mainstream media is reflective of the status quo and inherently homogenizing in its presentation. Given that most of the orthodox Left is as critical of mainstream media as the Right, the notion that media was aggressively advancing their agenda was clearly preposterous. I've come to realize that I've been wrong, but mostly because I'd accepted strident critics' mischaracterization, exaggerations, and hysteria. Being urban-based, mostly on the East and West coasts, most deeply reflecting the status quo and dominant ideology, there is, in fact, a liberal taint to mainstream news. Neither consistent nor proselytizing, this taint is more conformist than aggressive, and falls far short of advocating an extreme position or even an overly defined one. Most major urban areas in America can be placed to the liberal side of the middle: Even in the midland, where they are definitely more conservative they are still, usually, more liberal than the suburban and rural areas around them.
Now, I accept this, but reject the Right's characterization that mainstream media is overtly pushing a far-left agenda. Instead, their complaints are not with bias per se, but rather with any bias, information, reporting, or presentation that they don't like, or with which they disagree. Indeed, they love bias, spin, and ideologically dictated reporting, they just want it in sync with their beliefs. They live in a world where Fox News is regarded as fair and objective, and radio talk show hosts praised as reliable news sources.
When CNN offered comprehensive reporting on the war showing wounded and dead on both sides, as well as destroyed buildings and devastated communities, they labeled it traitorous. Partially, this is based on the assumption that most Americans, being not as tough as the far right, not willing to do what has to be done for freedom and having an unrealistically compassionate bent, will turn on the war once they actually see blood and destruction. Some of it is because they don't want to receive information they don't like, and they also don't want it made available to other people. They don't trust a free press and they don't trust free speech. Portraying the press as hopelessly corrupted far-left-agenda-pushing ideologues allows them to center their vicious attacks on this illusion, in turn allowing them to criticize media, the flow of information, and these very freedoms without being specific or explicitly questioning the Bill of Rights. It's the famous but. We believe in free press and free speech, but ...
Think of the attacks on the embedded journalist who filmed the American soldier killing an unarmed Iraqi. He was attacked as a traitor. The entire press was derided, while talk-radio hosts were even defending American war crimes and dismissing the Geneva convention as irrelevant to the U.S. and authored by foreign powers (you know, like France and Germany, who hate us, our freedom, and our basic human decency). The image was overwhelming not as an indictment of that soldier or evidence of a widespread pattern of war crimes, but in indicating the mental and behavioral toll extracted on our troops in combat. Although they knew they were sophisticated enough to handle this information, those of us weak-willed, unrealistic, humanist, bleeding-heart liberals would use it to criticize the war. We don't understand reality. We don't understand the world. We don't understand what war is really like, and we don't appreciate that all of our freedoms are because of sacrifices made by our soldiers over the centuries, fighting despite such utopian do-gooders and outright traitors as ourselves.
The best way to ensure that the course is stayed, and to counteract these staggering misapprehensions, is by limiting information, controlling the press, supporting the war, championing the administration, and not screwing up the truth with facts.