Reducing ideology to shorthand is tricky business. Such labels rarely capture the complexity (or nuance, if you prefer) of the views of a person or group. Here are two examples.
The liberal watchdogs* at Media Matters have been taking note of references to presidential candidate John McCain as a "maverick." The organization says The New York Times and USA Today are among the newspapers labeling McCain this way, with the Times going as far as calling him a "maverick flyboy" at the top of this story.
Media Matters complains that "maverick" is not an accurate description of McCain. The definition of maverick does seem to fit the senator, however. "A person who refuses to conform to a particular party or group" is loose enough to fit McCain's positions on the Bush tax cuts and immigration. And it's apparent that many Republicans, including Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh, do not like McCain "maverickism."
Instead of focusing on accuracy, Media Matters would have a more compelling case against this usage by stressing how "maverick" has become a McCain cliche. The word, as noun or adjective, has diminished in effectiveness through overuse. Most readers are probably skipping past it at this point. And yet this USA Today story uses it repeatedly.
Barack Obama won a big endorsement this week from Sen. Edward Kennedy — or the "liberal lion," as he's often called in news stories and commentaries. It's a label used by friends and foes alike.
To be sure, Kennedy is a liberal. He's even been identified as the most liberal member of the Senate. But why is he a lion? Is it his mighty mane of gray?
Besides the obvious definition, "lion" can also a "celebrated or influential person." Kennedy may be at that level in the Senate thanks to his long service there, but how meaningful is the "liberal lion" label to readers? A few may be amused by the alliteration, but many are probably treating this like "maverick" and ignoring the reference.
Beware of any labels, especially those used frequently. When possible, give examples of the viewpoints of the individual or organization. Such details are better than vague descriptions.
* Yes, I am aware that this is a shorthand description of this organization.