There was a time not long ago where those who talk politics had easy terms to ascribe to certain dominating political philosophies along the ideological spectrum. Yet through the ebb and flow of time, just as things were getting more complicated, humankind reduced their lexicon. Terms that once had clear political meanings somehow achieved political meaninglessness or outright disuse.
It is possible one may think I might be referring to a political term as common as Liberal. I am not, though I do not mind a slight digression at the top of this post on this term, as it is illustrative. The word liberal, in colloquial use, can be in reference to a person who prefers a liberal helping of sugar in their coffee, rather than defining a political philosophy. The root of the word is found in liberty, and darn it, I like a little coffee in my sugar! However, the political term liberal is still very much in use. Everywhere liberty is invoked, liberal will be there, such as in the term libertarian. In spite of this, contemporary polemics in the United States have done a fine job of turning the political term into a four-letter word, and this is unfortunate. Most people in the West are liberals, whether realized or not. Some simple examples are that most prefer democracy to tyranny, or perhaps equality of opportunity with everyone getting a fair chance. In contemporary use, the love/hate on liberal can get confusing.
Let us not forget the term conservative, for it too can get confusing. That term has, at its root, the word conserve. Another word with that root is the term conservation. It is, if you think about it, consistent for a conservative to be a conservationist. With this usage, an environmental conservative seeks to protect the environment in part to pass on the status quo to their posterity – a fundamentally conservative point of view. The environmental liberal might prefer absolute liberty in how they choose to use the environment (illustrated well during the 2008 U.S. presidential election season with the "Drill Baby Drill" slogan). Given the actual use of these terms, politically, in the real world, these curiosities can be enough to make you heave. That noted, going forward, I will capitalize the first letter of political terms in an effort to distinguish the political from the colloquial.
Thus, with this in mind, most people tend to be both Liberal and Conservative in many ways. So much so that I will reiterate my frustration with the usage of the term Liberal, being it so often treated as a political insult. Regardless, humans have learned, albeit imprecisely, to navigate the contradictions in your usage of these terms. The current political definition, in a generalized form, is as follows: a Liberal is someone with progressive politics, whatever they may be on a given issue, and a Conservative is someone who may seek to slow that progress down, allowing society to catch up. Neither being an outright negative nor positive. On almost any issue, one can make plausible and persuasive arguments for either approach. From there you are free to engage in rational political debate.
A problem on the margins
There begins a problem once you move further outside the so-called Center. Most humans understand the spectrum as Liberal (Left), Center (Moderate, if you will), and Conservative (Right). Fairly easy. As I stated, many if not most people, in a technical sense, are some combination of these; though where they place their political emphasis, their passions, will often lead them more toward one side than the other. Additionally, those with more clearly defined political philosophies find them rooted in one or the other. To help distinguish, humans often now apply a prefix to one of those further from the Center, such as "Very" Liberal or "Very" Conservative. I suppose you can do that, but a point comes when this gets increasingly vague, and ultimately becomes a worthless declaration. This also, in our discourse and political reporting, eventually allows for a certain amount of cover for the political extremes.
There was a time when humankind had terms – good terms – to define the extremes. Once upon a time, you had the good ol' Radical! This person was always on the far Left. A common phrase now, the "radical Right" is, in this context, a contradiction. It is the colloquial use of the word "radical", with it meaning "extreme", similar to how a stereotypical surfer might use the term, which helps to screw this up. Far out, dude! Part of the reason this may have happened, where you allowed the political term Radical to become the non-political term radical, could be from political parties simply not changing their names as their ideology moved rightward, leading the political term Radical to cease clearly meaning something distinct in politics. For example, the now center-right Radical Party of France began as a leftwing party. Over many years, their ideology and emphasis shifted, but the party name did not. Another example is the far-right Serbian Radical Party, which formed from a merger with another rightwing party: the National Radical Party. That party formed from disgruntled former members of an extreme Left party of a similar name – the People's Radical Party. Therefore, they just inherited the name over the course of time, but not the political meaning. There are countless examples of this. Interestingly, many parties around this world include the term Liberal in their names, but are not Center-Left or Left. Yet, for some reason, where the term Liberal remains in use to indicate the Left, the political term Radical has just come to mean just anything extreme.
Everything politically extreme gets one term
When everything you see as extreme in politics gets the radical label, the term loses any actual political meaning. I see it as a little more than a journalist using a thesaurus in the hopes of finding an alternate or better term for the word extreme, as it just sounds political from legacy. What humans fail to see, over this long journey through time, is how hurt by this you are, in substantive ways.
If you choose to rehabilitate the term "Radical" as always meaning the extreme political Left, then a lot more of human history is suddenly easier to understand. That People's Radical Party in Serbia, at a time when ruled by a king, established a model constitution for parliamentary democracy. That is Liberal, it is Left, and it makes complete sense that a far left party would do this, and it be Radical. The Radical Republicans of the days of Lincoln also had earned that label for a reason. For the time, they were on the extreme Left. Among many things, they sought the abolition of slavery, a progressive act so radical it led to civil war. They also sought equal rights for these newly freed slaves, representation in government, reparations for their time in bondage, and expanding suffrage to these free citizens. This is all solidly on the Left and radical (extreme) for the time.
What has happened over the years is that, as humans have chosen to use the term Radical to mean anything politically extreme, you have effectively retired its political opposite: Reactionary. Where now radical is anything Up, Down, Left, Right, Whatever, there is no room for the Reactionary.
Why the Reactionary label matters
The disuse of the term Reactionary opens you up to a world of needless hurt. You do not have a widely used label to define the far right, leaving them free to refer to themselves as Conservatives. Perhaps very Conservative. Maybe extreme Conservatives. Alternatively, for fun, the "true" Conservative. Some invariably refer to them as the radical Right, or describe a Reactionary policy view as radical. People see this as fine, because everyone is using the same political labels to describe each other. In our camp, we are all Conservatives! No, no you are not. A Reactionary is not Conservative. For as long as they can hijack a respectable political philosophy, Conservatives, facing dissonance, may find themselves manipulated into adjusting their politics to align with the Reactionaries. By allowing this to occur, the entire political debate moves further and further to the Right. This is a problem; especially for Conservatives, but also for any nation caught in this trap, and your world at large. You cannot have effective and informed political debate if you cannot properly identify whom you are debating.
I understand there are exceptions and caveats. There are myriad of complications and peculiarities regarding terms when used in politics. I noted some of this when addressing terms like Liberal and Conservative. In spite of complication, humans, most not philosophers nor political theorists, have, as a society, figured out how to discuss things using these political terms that allow you to hold intelligent conversations, without going down the rabbit hole of citing every curiosity. It is my view that you have shown an ability to reference terms like Liberal and Conservative in a political discussion, and understand each other while doing so. Therefore, you can do so with Radical and Reactionary without a need for a course in Political Theory.
With simplicity in mind, here is an easy guide:
Radical Liberal Center Conservative Reactionary
- A Radical may seek extreme or even revolutionary progressive change.
- A Liberal may seek to slow regressive change, propose pragmatic alternatives, or seek some progressive change.
- A Centrist often exists in one of the camps, or could fall either direction, depending on their priorities or passions on any given issue, and may propose pragmatic alternatives.
- A Conservative may seek to slow progressive change, propose pragmatic alternatives, or seek some regressive change.
- A Reactionary may seek extreme or even revolutionary regressive change.
A Reactionary is, generally considered, one who seeks to revert things to an idealized prior state. Because this prior state tends to be an ideal, it is very likely this world never actually existed. Thus, when a Reactionary takes hold, the world they usher in may be no less a new one than a Radical might bring, just a wholly different world. The key difference is that one is progressive, where the other is regressive.
If humans chose to operate under this political spectrum as a guidepost, rather than just Liberal, Center/Moderate, Conservative, with radicals everywhere, then you can begin to make better sense of what political aims politicians may have, and make better choices about how you might align yourself. You might have some Radical views, but most often see yourself as Liberal, sticking with that label. Perhaps you might see the emphasis of your political passions as entirely Radical, and drop the Liberal label. For the Conservative, you might begin to see too much from your current camp as Reactionary, and be less inclined to stay in that camp, or perhaps go all in and drop the Conservative label.
Politics has always had grey lines, especially in the United States. Most parliamentary countries have many parties, allowing people to join parties that far more define the emphasis of their politics accurately. The United States has two dominate parties that operate as Big Tents. Ideology moves – as noted earlier regarding those Radical parties that are now Center-Right or rightwing. The Democratic Party was, for many years, dominated by Reactionaries and Conservatives. The Republicans once had those leftwing Radicals. Differing ideological camps have found homes over the years in both parties. For the past thirty-plus years, the parties have gotten more ideologically "pure", implying most of those on the Left support Democrats and most of those on the Right support Republicans. Many other things have influence, notably region, gender, race, class, and so on. Additionally, there are heuristics, which help inform most people during decision-making, such as a simple "D" or "R" next to a name often being enough to decide whom to support, without ever considering political philosophy. Moreover, if a speaker identifies as a Conservative, that simple bit of identification can be enough to engender support or opposition to their views. This common approach helps make things easier, but also ensures an audience is far easier to manipulate.
Without use of Reactionary as a political term, or a more politically astute use of Radical, then, for example, a Reactionary can claim to be Conservative, and Conservatives, owing to this claimed partisan purity, and perhaps fearing branding with the Liberal label, might modify their views to align with the Reactionary, blissfully unaware they have ceased to be Conservative. With the re-introduction of the Reactionary in political discourse, these people can stay put, retain the Conservative label, and do so with dignity and without fear of being branded anything but Conservative.
Some things to consider
I recognize this can certainly get tricky. The key is to know where the motivation comes from. Let us consider an example. In the United States, many people sincerely believe their nation began specifically as a Christian nation. Unlikely a Catholic one, rather, some undefined Protestant interpretation of the faith. Some of these people express views suggesting a concern that the nation has moved or is moving away from this origin. Whether the perception is accurate is another discussion, the important part is that it is a sincerely held view. A widely cited solution is to make Christianity the official religion of the nation. This is demonstrably not part of the legal origin of the nation, as it began and has continued without an official state religion. Further to the contrary, the First Amendment of the constitution explicitly states that congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. These people, sincere as they may be, are reacting to a perception, and promoting a solution that would constitute a revolutionary change to the United States. It is regressive change, in part because it aims toward moving the nation to an idealized prior state of being. This absolutely meets the Reactionary label on the political spectrum I have outlined. Though these people refer to themselves as Conservative, they quite clearly are not. However, as they continue freely using the Conservative label, other Conservatives are then compelled to address their views, and include them and their views in Conservative public policy.
You and I may also consider an example for the Radical. Here, we can simply use the Radical Republican of old, and apply that to today's undocumented immigrants. A Radical could seek abolition of the concept of a legal, and with it illegal, status, ensure the equal rights for these newly out-of-the-shadows persons, and perhaps even reparations for their time as exploited workers, and expand suffrage to these new, free, and recognized citizens. If you are here, and you want it, you are a citizen and a voter! This would be a revolutionary change within the United States, and would be extremely progressive. It absolutely meets the Radical label on the political spectrum I have outlined. Such a view would clearly be distinct from the contemporary Liberal, and it deserves a distinct political label. However, in the current lexicon, a journalist writing about it may define this policy view as radical, to mean extreme, and not in the political sense as I intend.
The improvement process
I do hope, having read this, some thought, and possibly some isolated conversations, can develop. I fully expect many of you will disagree both with my assessment and proposed solution. It certainly would not surprise me if people chose instead to waste many words debating various historical instances where the political term Radical was used to define something rightwing. I further anticipate, if Radical and Reactionary were to find their way back in common political parlance as I have defined, that it would have only marginal influence on the extremes, with, for example, Reactionaries continuing to insist that they are Conservatives. However, I could just strike gold, and inaugurate substantive and critical thought on these matters, and with time, real change and a possible realignment. If so, then drinking this giant cup of sugar with some coffee in it may prove a fabulous decision.