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,” 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
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
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
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
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
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
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)