Food For Thought

Conservative vs. Liberal: Looking Beyond The Label

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

The wife of a retired Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative employee said to me at a recent gathering, “I enjoy reading your articles in the magazine every month.” She added, “I didn’t think you’d be so conservative, being that you’re an educator.” It’s not the first time I’ve had someone tell me that conservative thinking and educators don’t mix. She did say my articles seem to make common sense, which in my opinion is far more important than whether they are labeled conservative or liberal. Living a life that’s based on common sense is one key to happiness.

In our society we are obsessed with trying to categorize or label people. When people look at me and hear my name they’ll say, “Aren’t you Italian?” Once they have identified my ethnic background they assume a lot of things such as, I like pizza, spaghetti, hot spices, wine, and talk loudly. Some will say, “I know the first part of your name means good, what is the translation of the last part?” I usually respond by saying, “Good For Nothing.” Knowing just my ethnicity, some people will infer both positive and negative things. I’m proud of both my heritage and my occupation, but many factors have contributed to the makeup of this complex thing we call a human being named John Bonfadini. In a section of the magazine entitled “WHATZIT?” we show an enlarged snapshot of a small part of an object and ask our readers to identity the object. Many readers are unable to correctly identify the item from the small amount of information provided. If shown the whole photo, the great majority would, no doubt, correctly identify the item with ease. I believe we would be a much better society if we took the time to understand the whole picture before making decisions about an individual or groups of people.

In college I had an educational psychology professor by the name of Bontrager. During one of his lectures he asked the following question: “Two kids are arguing outside the window about an object that’s planted in the ground. One is calling it a tree and the other is calling it a bush. How would you help them solve their argument?” Many students began to give their answer based on what they had read in the textbook. I raised my hand and said, “I’d just call it a bushy tree and make them both happy.” My answer got a big laugh, but Professor Bontrager wasn’t looking for a laugh or creativity. I guess that’s why I didn’t get an A in the class. What he was trying to show the class was that things are often called by many different names. The same piece of meat can be called a hot dog, wiener, or frankfurter. It all depends where you live. To argue over what something is called may be to argue over nothing. Understanding requires getting beyond the name and actually eating the hot dog.

Politicians abuse the terms conservative and liberal more than any other segment of our society. It seems to be the goal of every politician to get voters to argue over what a hot dog is called. I guess politicians don’t think the general voting populace can understand the difference between a hot dog, sausage, kielbasa, salami or other meat in a casing. Just keep them arguing over the name and they’ll eat it without investigating its contents. I can remember when I ran for public office a few decades ago. I was portrayed as a liberal simply because I was an educator. Seldom did the dialogue get to the level of discussing if either of us had the intelligence required for the office. Many people just voted for the person based on identifiers such as republican or democrat, liberal or conservative.

Often, labels are modified, giving us “moderate republican” or “conservative democrat.”  I guess we could have a scale for all candidates that would look something like this: Very Republican, Strongly Republican, Republican, Somewhat Republican, and Occasionally Republican.  We could also use a scale that would look like the following:

Republican: 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 


The candidate could circle the number, which would tell the voters to what degree they are either democratic or republican. An independent would choose 0. We could also have a scale for conservative or liberal leanings. By now I hope you’re seeing my point: Just naming or labeling something doesn’t do much toward helping to understand it.

On my way back home from Richmond once, I happened to hear talk-show host Rush Limbaugh discussing “conservative versus moderate” politics with a caller. He contended there is no such animal as a political moderate. You’re either conservative or liberal and his callers during this show despised liberals. In fact, many of the callers were talking about their fellow Americans like they were some foreign terrorists. 

This is sort of like saying that if I’m a Washington Redskins fan, then I hate Dallas. If we keep the conversation at this level, it might be easy to say you hate the Dallas football team, but do you really hate the players? Obviously, the answer is no. At one point in my life I disliked spinach; now it’s my favorite vegetable. Early in my life, on a family vacation trip from Pennsylvania to Florida, we stayed at the Best Western in Winchester, Virginia. I was served grits for the first time and my immediate response was, how could anyone eat this stuff? It tasted like sandpaper. Today I frequently order them with my breakfast.

It’s a dangerous thing to get beyond labeling something. We may find we like some or all the substance beyond the name. 

What’s Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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