‘Liberal rhetoric can dress up an illiberal position to obtain wider appeal’
The right branding in politics can be everything. Politics is an art of persuasion; the side which is most able to spin reality in their favour is the side that is most likely to remain popular. So, it is vital to assess and decode this spin to realign our sense of reality. In a period when society has seen great social progress and liberalisation, there’s been an inevitable backlash where conservatives have sought to solidify their position by rebranding core values in liberal packaging. Indeed, the emphasis on family and human rights by anti-choice groups and displays of compassion towards homosexuals by Pope Francis have been used to skirt around enacting real change. Some institutions’ continued commitment to conservative policies suggests that liberal rhetoric can dress up an illiberal position to obtain wider appeal. Perhaps in some cases a liberal viewpoint can be used to present a genuine and valid argument for more traditionally conservative ideas. Subsequently, we need to explore whether this liberal rebranding is an effective presentation of reality or simply a disguise hiding serious conservative ambitions.
The Catholic church is an institution which upholds traditionally conservative values, but recent intervention by Pope Francis would suggest that a process of liberalisation is taking place. In 2016, the Catholic church released a papal document which suggested a greater acceptance of modern family life. In the Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), Pope Francis promised to take a more flexible stance, acknowledging modern culture rather than blindly relying on traditional church teachings. It was implied that the Catholic church would treat homosexuality with more compassion, which encouraged members of the Catholic LGBTQ+ community. However, despite an apparent liberalisation of church policy, the document did not push for structural change. Notably, it maintained that marriage must still be reserved for heterosexual couples. Therefore, in the absence of policy change, this liberal rhetoric seems to act as a façade, and a form of political window dressing.
In May 2018, Pope Francis preached acceptance to a gay man by advising him that God had made him and loved him as he was. Such a liberal and explicit acceptance of homosexuality had rarely been seen in the Catholic church and, again, this fostered hope that a new perspective was being welcomed. Pope Francis’ liberal language effectively rebranded him and his time of leadership as more progressive, accepting and loving than previous periods where the Catholic church had been firmly committed to upholding conservative teachings. This act would starkly contrast with the Bishop of Rome’s comments only seven months later, in which he referred to homosexuality as a fashion which worried him and was therefore something that should not be part of the clergy. This was not a new position, but it did contradict his earlier utterances of tolerance and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community.
The lack of coherence evidenced in Pope Francis’ public utterances undermined individual’s hope that his earlier sentiments would be matched with hard change. However, how can we assess whether the language adopted by the Pope was simply a distraction from a conservative position that has not changed at all? With an institution as large, entrenched, and politically diverse as the Catholic church, we may have to accept that gradual, if not faltering change is more likely than anything deemed radical. Essentially, we have to decide whether it is insincere to use liberal rhetoric whilst still upholding conservative views, or if this approach could establish the foundation for future positive change.
Another issue which has experienced a case of liberal rebranding is the anti-choice campaign in Northern Ireland, with the Both Lives Matter group framing their views in a liberal manner. The Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont, has not sat since January 2017 due to a collapse in power sharing, and the absence of a sitting government allowed for reform on abortion and same-sex marriage to pass in July 2019. If Stormont is not reinstated by 21 October, access to abortion will be implemented. However, this issue is far from being solved, with much contention from both sides of the debate. One of the anti-abortion groups, Both Lives Matter, frames their position in a liberal manner as a compassionate, family-focused stance that is “pro-women and pro-life“.
Both Lives Matter’s campaign advocates an anti-choice stance, by arguing that an unborn child is equal to a living human being and therefore deserves the same human rights. This approach seems to prioritise the foetus over the woman by ignoring the potential implications and personal conflicts of having a child, and so does not fulfil its promise to advocate for women. Despite the group’s claim as a campaign of “radical social justice“, their anti-abortion stance is fundamentally conservative in that it restricts a woman’s freedom of choice.
Moreover, there is an attempt to draw on the advocacy of the Black Lives Matter movement with a name that implies a connection or parallel between the two campaigns. In doing so, Both Lives Matter have overemphasised the liberalism of its movement. A comparison of this nature is bold and seems in bad taste, as it is often poor women of colour who are most affected by anti-abortion laws and are at a heightened risk of maternal death relative to white women. Both Lives Matter is an example of an anti-choice perspective which has tried to rebrand itself as a liberal outlook by referencing human rights, yet this could be deemed hypocritical, owing to the campaigns inevitable suppression of a woman’s freedom of choice. Again, liberal rhetoric is being used to present conservative views as more palatable, to try and extend their support base and make their views the morally superior choice.
These issues are highly complex and emotive, so it seems unfair to brand them dishonestly, yet a liberal redressing of conservative issues does just that. By framing issues with liberal rhetoric through compassionate words, expression of family values and evocation of human rights, conservatives seek to alter their reputation and gain support. Liberal branding is often agreeable, but the core of the issue beneath fails to match the exterior. In this way, such rebranding is simply window dressing for positions which have no fundamental or genuine liberalisation. The disguising of conservative ambitions and policy decisions within liberal language serves only to confuse the debate and conceal an unwillingness to enact real social change.