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Hey NPR: bring back the word "reactionary"

Howard Berkes

NPR's Howard Berkes

National Public Radio’s ombudsman Alicia Shephard pondered an interesting conundrum this week. What do you do when you are covering elections in a state like Utah, where just about everybody can be classified as a “conservative”? How do you grade the distinctions in conservatism?

The network’s Howard Berkes decided to roll out the term “ultra-conservative” in order to describe the two candidates who vied for now deposed Republican Senator Bob Bennett’s seat. But this provoked a mildly irate listener response, quoted by Shephard.

“You called the two Republican candidates in Utah ‘ultra-conservatives,'” he wrote. “Does NPR ever call a candidate an ‘ultra-liberal’? Barbara Lee? Dennis Kucinich? Bernie Sanders? Or are only conservatives ‘ultra’ in NPR’s world?”

Not true, Shephard pushed back. In fact, NPR does apply the u-word to liberals, and  she cited various reports to back her claim.

“Given the context of this particular story, it was reasonable for Berkes to call Bennett’s opponents ‘ultra-conservatives’,” she wrote, “if only to help listeners outside Utah understand why that state’s Republicans were choosing a replacement for a veteran senator.”

But I think I’ve got a better term to use in this instance. How about we revive the word “reactionary”? The concept is defined by Wikipedia as so:

“Viewpoints that seek to return to a previous state (the status quo ante ) in a society.”

Utah Senate seat contender Tim Bridgewater fit the reactionary description perfectly (he lost the nomination to his rival Mike Lee). Bridgewater’s issues page called for what I think would be the effective dismantling of Social Security and Medicare. Bridgewater is clever; he’s willing to keep both programs around for folks 55 and older, perhaps hoping that younger voters will be dumb enough to think that privatization will actually work.

But I’m left wondering what’s “conservative” about these positions? Medicare has been around for almost half a century; Social Security for three quarters. These are long established, decade old institutions. Why on earth is turning the security of Americans over to the same financial operations that give us sub-prime loans and derivative swaps a “conservative” stance? What’s being “conserved”?

Nothing, I think. Tim Bridgewater is really a reactionary—someone who wants to go back to the Las Vegas economic policies of long past times, like around 1928, or 1907, or 1893.

The truth is that it’s the “ultra-liberals” today who are really the conservatives, who want to conserve the welfare state concepts developed over the last fifty to 75 years.

So maybe NPR should start calling guys like Bridgewater “reactionaries,” and Congressional reps like Barbara Lee “conservatives.”

If that ever happens, I’ll start calling myself the Queen of England.

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