Local politicians debate political labels at University forum

Andrew Pritchard

Plato’s “Republic,” which many regard as the founding document of Western political thinking, describes a government by philosopher-kings.

And while the United States decided against governance by kings more than 200 years ago, politicians seem to have also abandoned formal political philosophies.

“It seems that what gets debated in the public are ideologies, not full-blown political philosophies,” University political science professor Lisa Disch said. “I don’t know that there’s any evidence that people make decisions based on political philosophies.”

At a forum Monday at Metropolitan State University, three Minnesota politicians discussed what it means to them to have their ideas labeled liberal, conservative or moderate.

“I do not consider myself a doctrinaire conservative,” University Regent Peter Bell said, although he said he is right-of-center on issues most important to him because he believes in personal responsibility for individual behavior.

Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ senior fellow Tim Penny, who drew 16 percent of the vote in his recent bid for governor, said he has a philosophy rather than an ideology, which allows him to see a variety of solutions to problems and not preclude options.

“That is a political philosophy, and it’s different from Democrats and Republicans, but that is how I approach issues,” he said.

State Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said she is a liberal and progressive, which she said means she views government as a “ladder out of problems” but is critical of “big-government bureaucracy.”

Disch said labels such as liberal or conservative include a range of political views.

“These labels don’t really do justice to the range of beliefs that can fall under them,” she said.

The Republican Party, for example, has brought people who believe conservatism means restrained government spending together with those who see conservatism as moral social policies, Disch said.

“(Politicians) want to be as vague as possible so many people say, ‘Oh, I’m that too,’ ” she said. “We’ve got our labels all mixed up.”

The three politicians described their political philosophies as a result of their experiences.

Pappas said she became politically active during the decades of the civil rights movement, Vietnam War and early environmentalism. Penny talked about growing up on a small farm, and Bell said he “saw up close the failure of government to live up to its promise” while he ran the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse in Minneapolis.

“I would not consider myself an ideologue in any sense, but I do have principles that inform my positions on a variety of issues,” Bell said.

Disch said the public would gain little by being told to change its use of political labels to reflect a political theorist’s understanding of those terms.

“Should we look to the history of political thought to correct people’s use of those terms? Probably not,” she said. “Words mean what people use them to mean.”

Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]