Walden in Wonderland

The political climate is so distorted that some label the congressman 'liberal'

You say you need evidence that America's political rhetoric has become too heated? Evidence that hyperbole has been replaced by downright silliness?

Then look no further than Oregon's 2nd Congressional District, represented by Greg Walden, a Republican from Hood River. Geographically speaking, the sprawling 2nd District is larger than Oregon's other four congressional districts combined. It includes some of Josephine County, including Grants Pass, all of Jackson County and everything in Oregon east of the Cascades.

Walden has risen to a party leadership position in the House of Representatives, which the Republicans control by a comfortable margin. During the showdown over whether to fund the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, or let the government shut down for lack of funding, Walden managed to rile some people to his right on the political spectrum.

Now, he is the target of that most heinous of all insults: Walden is being called a liberal. If you've quit laughing and dried the tears from your eyes, we'll continue.

Barney Keller of the right-wing lobby group the Club for Growth said, "Greg Walden is a liberal with a long record of supporting bigger government." Among other things, Keller cites Walden's vote for the big-bank bailout of 2008 as evidence of Walden's liberalism, as if moving the country from recession to depression would have been preferable.

Anyone who has lived in Oregon for any length of time knows there is no need to worry about Congressman Walden's "liberal" tendencies. However, this hyperbolic name-calling offers a good lesson in how little the words "conservative" and "liberal" have come to mean in today's political lexicon. They certainly bear no resemblance to their traditional meanings.

Using its traditional definition — the one taught to political science majors in college during the mid-1970s — a conservative wants change to come slowly; the root of the word is "conserve," as in conserving the status quo. Once again, leaning on a bygone definition, a liberal is one who is tolerant of others and who values individual rights. The word liberal comes from the same root as the word liberty.

These classical definitions haven't had much to do with American politics for a long time. But today, the word "liberal" has become little more than an all-purpose insult, hurled by self-proclaimed conservatives at those with whom they disagree. In this case, Walden was the insult's intended target.

Being branded as a liberal seemed to amuse Walden more than it angered him. "I think that would be a surprise to most people," he said.

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