With six months to go till the presidential election, the Republicans have finally resigned themselves to a nominee (a Rominee?). The ugliness unleashed by the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision (the court’s most infamous since Dred Scott) is about to begin, with SuperPac mudslinging in earnest.

But before it does, I have a question. How do you identify yourself politically?

I’m curious. Recently I had a discussion with friends about this, which broadened my notions of the political spectrum.

Most people, in my experience, don’t identify themselves any longer by party. I don’t hear many voters say, “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a Republican.” Nowadays, if they identify at all, they choose liberal, conservative, libertarian, progressive, green, independent, moderate, or centrist. There is also disengaged, disenfranchised, disinterested, dispirited and disappointed, though mostly they are too disengaged, disenfranchised, disinterested, dispirited and disappointed to identify themselves. Those who don’t vote don’t usually boast about it.

I dislike “liberal” because the right has effectively taken the word hostage. It now suffers from so many negative connotations that it’s meaningless. If you tell a conservative you’re a “liberal,” he or she is going to define you in a way that turns your understanding of the term on its head.

Besides, liberal and conservative are mutually exclusive. You can be either/or, not both/and. You can’t be a liberal-conservative or a conservative-liberal. Libertarian comes closer to a hybrid. They have some things in common with liberals (government should stay out of our bedrooms) and some things in common with conservatives (government should stay out of everything else). In other words, as little government as possible. It’s an interesting philosophy, but not one that translates well to the real world. Besides, libertarians, I’m guessing, tend to vote Republican (if they vote), which effectively renders them conservative. The Tea Party, for instance, started out, ostensibly, criticizing both Democrats and Republicans. But they all vote Republican.

I prefer the term “progressive” because it can, at least in theory, include both sides of the spectrum. You can be a liberal progressive or a conservative progressive or an independent progressive. What unifies them is a commitment to making “progress” — for the common good and the good of the country.

Progressives are pragmatic. Whatever works. And whatever moves us forward works. It is fundamentally opposed to government gridlock and paralysis.

A lot of people say they’re independent, but I have my doubts. Many “independents” strike me as looking for a way to avoid any other label. It takes more than having voted for both parties in various elections. You have to be thoughtful and free of the straitjacket of ideology. A lot of “independents” strike me as free of both ideology and thoughtfulness. If you’re easily swayed one way or the other, you’re not independent. You’re just malleable.

Moderates seem equally mushy. Often it sounds like a dodge by those who don’t have enough conviction to take a stand. It seems as if they lick their finger, hold it up and vote based on the prevailing winds. If you voted for Obama in 2008 and for the Republicans in 2010, I have to question the depth of your convictions.

Centrists, on the other hand, too often just split the difference, using their inner GPS to position themselves halfway between the two sides and identifying both as “the extremes.” They congratulate themselves on being “nonpartisan” because they occupy the “reasonable” middle.

If the Republicans are at one extreme (and they are), then centrists assume Democrats must represent the “other extreme.” But that’s not always the case and it’s certainly not the case now. The Republicans have moved to the extreme right while the Democrats are squarely in the middle. In fact, they’re so middle-of-the-road, many liberals are disgusted with them. A true centrist, then, should be voting Democratic. But the “new centrists,” having split the difference, end up squarely in the middle of the right half of the political spectrum, which effectively makes them conservatives.

Recently, I was in L.A. visiting friends and while we hiked in the Hollywood hills, I asked them to identify themselves politically. One said “liberal.” Another said “independent.” These are thoughtful people of substance, so I believe them. The third companion, who I’ve always considered a conservative, surprised me by calling himself a “free-market socialist.” (Watch online how the commentariat freak out over the use of the word “socialist.”)

Mind you, this guy is encyclopedic in his knowledge, much of it very practical and grounded. This is the guy whose phone number you would want as your lifeline in a trivia contest. He has an advanced degree in economics and a formidable intellect. This is no ideologue and he’s certainly not a flake.

He said we need the free market to be the economic engine and create wealth. Then we need to create effective social structures to make sure there’s enough fair distribution of that wealth to prevent the kind of lopsided inequity that has weakened this country.

I thought his description showed remarkable open-mindedness. It redefines “moderate” for me, embracing the two extremes and connecting them with a bar so those of us in the muddled middle can do the heavy lifting that will create a stronger country.

Free-market socialism. Maybe that’s how this country can finally make progress.

We already have a pragmatic, independent/conservative/liberal progressive in the White House. Maybe those of us in the middle should start helping him do the heavy lifting.

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