I suppose that I might be described as a “leftist.” However, after more than a century of abusive propaganda that has been dumped on “the left,” I can’t say that I am comfortable with that label.
Some time ago, I heard an anonymous caller to a talk show remark that it is no mere coincidence that the word “right” refers both to the political “right” (self-described “conservatives”) and to the moral right. In point of fact, it is exactly that: a mere historical coincidence, and nothing more.. The terms “right” and “left” are derived from the seating of the various parties in the French Assembly during the nineteenth century,.
Since then, due to the unceasing attacks by its establishment critics on the right, “the left” has come to be associated with “big government,” “subversive,” “un-American,” and “sinister” (from the old French “sinistre,” left-handed). Among the right-wing bloviators on AM radio and cable TV, “the left,” and in particular the Obama administration, is accused of “elitism,” "communism" and even “treason,” "communism," and “fascism.” “Leftists,” thus identified, are definitely not the sort of folks that one would include in polite company.
Ask the ordinary man-in-the-street-American to define “the left,” and that citizen will more than likely name “leftist” individuals (Jesse Jackson, Edward Kennedy, Bernie Sanders) and organizations (the ACLU, the NAACP, Move On, People for the American Way). Rarely will you hear a citation of a coherent set of political/economic doctrines. But that’s OK. I doubt that many professors of political science could provide a concise definition of “the left” as it is used in popular discourse or in the media, simply because a concise definition is not possible. The best that we might do, perhaps, is to examine the convictions and proposals of these paradigm “leftist” individuals and organizations, as I shall attempt later in this essay.
Given the disrepute that the mainstream media and politicians have heaped upon “the left,” and conversely the disrepute that the radical right has brought upon itself, the “sensible” citizen steers toward the “center” between these perceived extremes. Apparently, that is how most of our fellow citizens think, and, accordingly, how most politicians wish to appear to their constituents.
The tendency to steer toward the center –” “moderation in all things,” “the truth must lie somewhere in between” –” has a long and honorable history. Aristotle taught that moral virtue is to be found in a “golden mean” between extreme vices. Thus courage is the mean between cowardice and rashness. Thrift is the mean between miserliness and self–indulgence. Pride is the mean between humility and vanity. And so on.
Aristotle’s moral advice is appealing to common sense. But “the golden mean” must itself be examined critically, for it may not apply in all cases. Bertrand Russell, with his characteristic wit, explains:
There was once a mayor who had adopted Aristotle’s doctrine; at the end of his term of office he made a speech saying that he had endeavored to steer the narrow line between partiality on the one hand and impartiality on the other. The view of truthfulness as a mean seems scarcely less absurd. (History of Western Philosophy)
Other “unipolar” virtues come to mind. Can a judge be excessively just? Can a witness who has sworn to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” be excessively honest? Can a physician be too competent, or a philosopher too wise?
Implicit in the appeal of political centrism is the notion that political theories can be conveniently classified along a continuum, like hot and cold, high and low, young and old. This notion of a “political spectrum” is a cognitive “frame,” rarely examined much less questioned, within which most public political and economic discourse takes place.
If so, then might not the right/left continuum distort that discourse more than enhance it? Where, for example, would one locate the libertarian along that continuum? Regarding economic policy and minimalist government, the libertarian is on the far right. Regarding personal liberties (e.g., abortion rights, gay rights, drug laws), the libertarian is decidedly on the left. And what of those on the right who call themselves “conservatives,” yet clamor for the overthrow of established and proven political institutions, and are untroubled by the official violation of rights enshrined in the founding documents of our republic?
The continuum is especially conspicuous in the familiar rightist warning that favorite “leftist” programs such as collective bargaining, social security, universal health care, and the progressive income tax place the government on a “slippery slope” toward socialism and, eventually communism. The myth of the leftward slippery slope is conclusively refuted by history. The communists in Russia and China overthrew autocratic right-wing regimes, and the communist governments in eastern Europe were imposed through military occupation by the Soviet army. Moreover, the spread of communism in Europe was steadfastly resisted and successfully halted by “leftist” social democratic governments in western Europe. At no time in history has a socialist government ever morphed into communism.
These reflections suggest that political theories do not fit along a continuum, but are more like separate religious traditions or competing scientific theories. If so, they are best examined individually, on their own merits, rather than embraced because they reject an abhorrent “opposite” doctrine, or because they steer between some supposed “extremes” to the right and the left.
Accordingly, “centrist” convictions, while conventionally “respectable,” can be the result of simple moral and intellectual laziness. In difficult and extraordinary times, “centrism” can be inappropriate and even immoral. After the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, the United States committed itself totally until unconditional surrender was achieved. Political saints and heroes such as Thomas Paine, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Andrei Sakharov are not renowned for their “moderation.” There is some enduring truth in Barry Goldwater’s pronouncement that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” (The leftist disagreement resides with Goldwater’s conceptions of “liberty” and “justice”).
We are now arguably at a time in our history when our politics and our economy has moved so far to “the right” –” toward economic exploitation, despotism, oligarchy, privatism –” that the preponderance of justice, compassion and renewal, and the most practical avenue of escape from the current crisis, are to be found in the proposals of individuals and organizations that have been conventionally labeled as “the left.”
Perhaps so. Or perhaps not. But the intelligent citizen will not be beguiled by mere labels, “right,” “left” and “center,” nor should that citizen’s thought processes be confined within a conventional linear scale between “right” and left.” Instead, that person will assess public issues on their own terms.
Earlier I suggested that in conventional discourse, “the left” is defined more through the identification of typical “leftist” individuals and organizations, and less (if at all) through an elaboration of core doctrines. If so, then any understanding of “the leftist point of view” might best be approached first by identifying these individuals and organizations, and then by examining their policy positions.
Here are a few such organizations that almost anyone would identify as “leftist.” Just what do they stand for? These are their mission statements found in their websites:
The American Civil Liberties Union. “The ACLU is our nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee everyone in this country.”
Amnesty International. "Amnesty International is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights for all. Our supporters are outraged by human rights abuses but inspired by hope for a better world – so we work to improve human rights through campaigning and international solidarity."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Our Mission: [To] Ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination."
The Center for American Progress. “As progressives we believe that America should be a country of boundless opportunity–where all people can better themselves through education, hard work, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. We believe this will only be achieved with an open and effective government that champions the common good over narrow self-interest, harnesses the strength of our diversity, and secures the rights and safety of its people.”
People for the American Way “… is dedicated to making the promise of America real for every American: Equality. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. The right to seek justice in a court of law. The right to cast a vote that counts…. Our vision is a vibrantly diverse democratic society in which everyone is treated equally under the law, given the freedom and opportunity to pursue their dreams, and encouraged to participate in our nation’s civic and political life. Our America respects diversity, nurtures creativity and combats hatred and bigotry.”
The AFL/CIO (the labor movement). “The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families–”to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation. To accomplish this mission we will build and change the American labor movement.”
The Sierra Club. "Since 1892, the Sierra Club has been working to protect communities, wild places, and the planet itself." Principle objectives: (a) "a safe and healthy community in which to live," (b) "smart energy solutions to combat global warming," and (c) "an enduring legacy for America’s wild places."
The protection and promotion of human rights, equal opportunity, an end of racial discrimination, economic justice, equal justice under law, environmental protection. All these fundamental principles of these “leftist” organizations are congruent with the founding principles of the American republic, as articulated in the Preamble to the Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
In short, far from being an “alien ideology,” “the left” embraces fundamental American political values.
How, then, has “the left” fallen into such disrepute? This has been accomplished through guilt by association with communism, and through a barrage of propaganda, devoid of objective content and super-charged with emotive and abusive language.
The attack on the word “leftist,” like the attack on the word “liberal,” has been largely successful: both words are in disrepute. Accordingly, public opinion surveys disclose that most Americans identify themselves as “conservative,” fewer still as “moderate,” with “liberals” coming in a poor third.
Regressive-right politicians and pundits take these statistics to mean that “the United States is a center-right nation.”
And they are wrong. For when the public is polled regarding the specifics of the liberal agenda –” civil liberties, economic justice, social security, universal health care, collective bargaining, government regulation of business, environmental protection, etc. –” a solid majority of the American public endorses liberalism. The country is, in fact, “leftist,” despite the persistent efforts of the corporate regressive propaganda machine.
Constrained by the myopic “left-right continuum” frame, burdened by the abusive connotations attached to the words “left” and “liberal,” and bewitched by the regressive-right’s false adoption of the word “conservative,” it is no wonder that the public is thoroughly befuddled by conventional political discourse today.
And yet, the liberals and progressives, i.e., “the left,” thoughtlessly adopt the conventional language and conceptual frames, as they engage in political and journalistic debates, failing to appreciate that by playing according to the opponent’s rules, they needlessly put themselves at an extreme disadvantage.
The progressives (i.e. the so-called “left”) would be well advised to put these abusive labels “left” and “liberal” aside and direct the public’s attention to particular issues.
The wisdom of Confucius is acutely relevant to today’s politics:
“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” (The Analects of Confucius, Book 13, Verse 3)