Quiz: Do you know your political labels?

Much has been written about the alt-right movement and what it stands for. Bottom line, it’s a label for a range of people whose beliefs fall to the far right of the political spectrum, with an emphasis on white nationalism or racism.

As is true of all labels, its meaning is refracted by the eye of the beholder. But it’s not the only label being thrown casually about in these politically fraught times.

Let’s test your knowledge of some of them. Match the political philosophy with the label:

If you did well, congratulations: You are a politics wonk. If you had trouble, congratulations: You are like many citizens.

Let us stipulate that the definitions given here are theoretical, not practical. Few people adhere strictly to one ideology; most mix and match to fit their own beliefs. After all, how can Donald Trump be both a “populist,” believing in the will of the common person and wanting major changes in society and government, and a “conservative,” opposing radical changes?

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Yet journalists toss these terms around, often without enough context for someone who doesn’t know what they mean. Calling someone a “liberal” has become almost an epithet when wielded by people at the other end of the spectrum; similarly, “populist” has taken on negative connotations from its being almost spit out by people worried that it means open war on social issues dear to their hearts.

In other words, labels can quickly devolve into name-calling.

The label is meaningless without some definition, and, while the definition itself might come under some criticism, it’s better than nothing. In fact, the philosophies can overlap as much as they disagree. Progressivism and populism, for example, have historically had much the same goals and contempt for government, but populism arose from the middle class and progressivism from the agrarian class. Populists wanted more taxes on the wealthy; so do a lot of liberals.

When labels are applied without context or definition, the danger is that people will interpret them the way they want: One person’s “political correctness” is another person’s “pandering.” The labels can become facades and “dog whistles,” which only feeds distrust and misunderstanding.

As we have said frequently, the difference between a label and description can be the difference between presenting information with and without spin: To say, “he is an alt-right Republican” labels him, letting readers apply whatever qualities they assign to an “alt-right Republican.” To say instead that “he is a Republican who believes too many immigrants have taken American jobs” may not only be more accurate, it may also be more relevant to the context.

Since journalists’ jobs are to convey information, and since much information is already suspect to so many people, being as descriptive as possible without feeding polarization may help restore credibility.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.