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" "fascism" and
even “treason.” “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
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,
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
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
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
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)
Copyright 2009, by Ernest