Tried to find good pun for title and failed miserably. Anyway, I was struck by an experience I had yesterday. I interviewed a member of the Denmark's Liberal Party (Venstre is its name in Danish), and was surprised to find a bunch of bumper-stickers/posters that were Bush/Cheney and McCain/Palin (talk about dodging a bullet....).
And I realized that Liberal in the Danish context refers to the traditional Liberal definition of free trade, property rights, and so forth. So distinct from the American political context where Liberals are on the left end of the spectrum, seeking government intervention to compensate for the problems induced by market capitalism (unemployment, poverty, etc.).
And distinct from Liberal theory in IR, which focuses more or less on how the pattern of interests domestically and internationally drive events (rather than the distribution of power [realism] or the content of identities [constructivism]). I find myself more in the Liberal category of IR theory than in any other (although my students think I am a hard-core realist).
But this got me thinking about how elastic (and perhaps even intersubjective) such labels are. After all, the least conservative people these days in the American political system are folks who call themselves Conservatives. They (well, many of them) are not trying to preserve a way of life or an existing political order, but trying to destroy existing institutions and patterns of behavior (theocracy, anyone?). "Conservative" judges are as or more guilty of judicial activism and the denial of states' rights as liberal ones.
So, are these labels meaningless? No, identities do matter, but we need to take care to figure out their content--which changes over time in response to events, political entrepreneurs, and so forth.
Yes, I am practicing to get back into lecture mode, having not taught for more than eight months.