Splitters!  : A few notes on ideology and what I mean when I say “the left”

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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149 Responses

  1. NewDealer says:

    I think you are correct that a left-right description of politics is not very useful and often limits debate.

    That being said, I don’t think the school and teacher union issue is a good choice of one. As far as I can tell, the issue over education is one of the strongest debates on the left these days.

    On one side you have people like Michelle Rhee, Rahm Emmanuel, and Matt Y who are highly antagonistic to the teacher’s unions, very supportive of the common core, and charter schools, frequent and Teach for America type programs.

    On the other side, you have people who are anti-Charter School and think that the alleged gains they get are inflated or falsely reported, are suspicious of standardized testing and rote memorization as being educations.

    Ideology might be the enemy but it also seems hardwired into our brains. It is a good survival mechanism. The brain is hardwired to truths and these truths probably manifest themselves as ideologies.Report

  2. Damon says:

    This is why I stopped usings the terms described or caveat them. They are tools of “the system” to pigenhole people into blocks. Blocks that can be used to divide people and create an “us” vs “them” mentality. And really, don’t you think this was intentional? Ofc it was. It limits “competition” to preapproved parties already inside the system.Report

  3. Michael Drew says:

    I would much rather we looked at political options as a three dimensional web that had a greater diversity in allies and opponents. But that’s just not the way our country’s politics are done, regardless of how much I wish it otherwise.

    Are you 100% sure that this is true?

    If when you talk about the left and right, you really are flat-out referring to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, then in that sense I understand what you’re talking about, and can easily go from there. I think that might be a smart direction to take this is. Electoral politics are pretty much that binary.

    But if you’re talking about broader alignments and affinities in the population, then, no I think this view might actually be on you, not on the reality of how people align. It is, after all, convenient that it makes the analysis you are undertaking here so much cleaner and easier to advance.

    And in terms of various entities going down the paths other entities have, for that, don’t you need to… identify some entities? The fact that you think that people broadly identify politically bipolarly in this country to me doesn’t establish what entities it is you are saying are poised to go down the same road some other entities have. Diffuse political tendencies aren’t entities that can go down roads.Report

    • North in reply to Michael Drew says:

      I agree that taking this in a party/political direction would be more clear (though potentially also will weaken the arguement). We’ll have to see what the next installations say.Report

  4. Will Truman says:

    I would want to pick a nit with this:

    But that’s just not the way our country’s politics are done, regardless of how much I wish it otherwise.

    Our country? It’s a pretty firmly established norm. I’d argue that our system (for all of its various faults) is less so than most. We elect people independently. At least on a theoretical level. In the parliamentary system, it isn’t even theoretical. You’re voting for this party or that party and political careers (except at the top) tend to exist at the pleasure of your camp.

    Now in other systems you do get two lefty parties here or two righty parties there. So there is that. But you’re still dealing with left and right along a general axis. The differences between the NLP and Labour are real, but both are considered to be on the left part of the axis. Before the merger, you had the PC and Reform/Alliance and though one was placed further to the right of the spectrum than the other, generally speaking, the axis was still there. If our current two-party system falters, it will still falter in a way that will have a “left” and a “right”… not because America, but because that’s how these things tend to work.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Will Truman says:

      FTR, my point was not that other countries do it differently. But I’m well aware how little I know about the political workings of countries other than the US, so I generally like acknowledging that when I’m taking about general politics, I’m talking about what happens here.Report

    • A quibble with your quibble – in a multi-party parliamentary system, while you still certainly have an identifiable left and right, the make up of governing (and by extension, opposition) coalitions becomes significantly more fluid. There is – in theory at least – thus far less pressure to insist upon the existence of a comprehensive agenda that defines “us” and “them,” and by extension more freedom to focus on ways to advance the priorities and worldview of your particular segment of the “left” or the “right.”

      Your side of the spectrum doesn’t need to win a majority of votes to get into a position for a given segment of your side to advance its agenda – the segment itself need only find a way of getting into the governing coalition. Because of this, a group nominally on the other side of the left-right spectrum has the potential to be every bit as helpful at advancing the segment’s agenda as a group on the same side of the spectrum. Similarly, a group nominally on the segment’s own side of the spectrum thus also has the potential to be every bit as harmful to the segment’s particular agenda as a group on the opposite side of the spectrum.

      In a two party system, your “team” is indistinguishable from your entire half of the spectrum, and whatever benefits or harms a given segment of your half of the spectrum winds up benefiting or harming you as well. Anytime someone on your side of the spectrum is shown to be wrong on anything, you are harmed, no matter how little you actually care about the subject of that wrong; and anytime someone on your side of the spectrum is shown to be right on anything, you benefit, no matter how little you actually care about the subject of that right.

      Divide a given side of the spectrum up, though, and suddenly the number of positions and politicians you have to worry about defending is cut dramatically; what’s more, the positions you have to worry about defending will more closely align with the positions you actually care enough to know something about.Report

      • You’re right that things in a multiparty parliamentary system can be fluid. That’s actually one of the concerns I have about such systems. Others see it as a benefit. I’m mostly interested in the fact that it often doesn’t seem to provide that much of a deviation from the left-right axis. It’s a different way of dealing with that axis. Whether it’s a superior or inferior way is up for debate, of course.

        (I’m personally partial to a variation of the Australia model, where you have reliable coalitions but nonetheless different parties you can vote for within that coalition to give your own coalition more power or less power.)Report

      • @will-truman I’m not arguing (at least not here) that on net that kind of fluidity is necessarily a positive, just that it has the effect of creating a somewhat more three-dimensional politics. “Left” and “right” still exist as a relatively linear formulation, but their relevance is reduced.

        That doesn’t mean that additional parties make for healthier politics on the whole (it may or may not) – for instance, the reduction in issues that need to be defended may well result in those defenses being even more vociferous and less open to self-examination.Report

  5. Kim says:

    *snort* Tod, if you’re going to say: “The left is ALL the left” and “The Right is ALL the right”
    … you realize you now need to say where you’re putting the Center?

    This is not an idle question. Pew has a category called: Conservadems for a reason, and they are a substantial portion of our electorate, at last polling.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Kim says:

      Certainly true. There are also nominal Republicans who pick and choose a variety of so-called “liberal” or “moderate” policy positions from those palettes of political preference and do not adhere to the “conservative” constellation and for whom adherence to any particular doctrine is not a matter of great importance. They are called “moderates” by more ideologically-driven Republicans, and because of common party identification lumped in with the Other by folks in the group that we calling The Left with an unavoidable level of imprecision.

      I think folks ought to cut Tod a bit of slack precisely because The Left and The Right are necessarily imprecise terms to refer to a broad coalition of people and the leaders of those coalitions — coalitions are, as noted above and elsewhere, not the sorts of things that can be dissected with precision for analysis, at least not in a format like an essay here.Report

  6. Stillwater says:

    When I talk about the American left or right, I’m talking in general about those that fall on the appropriate side of the commonly referenced U.S. political spectrum. Period.

    The truth is I don’t particularly care for the whole Right-Left spectrum thing. As I’ve already discussed here, I believe it’s an artificial and limiting way of looking at things. Worse, it actually re-creates reality in a way it wouldn’t exist otherwise.

    I would much rather we looked at political options as a three dimensional web that had a greater diversity in allies and opponents. But that’s just not the way our country’s politics are done, regardless of how much I wish it otherwise. And the way I see it, frankly, that’s on all y’all. You want to view the world through an overly simplistic linear spectrum, then I get to identify you as being on one.

    This is an amazingly incoherent set of claims, Tod.

    Regardless. I’m ready to move on to the next installment!Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Stillwater says:

      Incoherent? Or a conflict between how he wishes things were and approaching things how they actually are.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

        “I believe it’s an artificial and limiting way of looking at things. ”

        To me, that says that the problem is that it doesn’t describe reality.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Will Truman says:

        “To me, that says that the problem is that it doesn’t describe reality.”

        Meh. In politics, reality tends to be what people agree that it is. In any case, Will is correct here.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Will Truman says:

        Hell, I wish things were different too.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Will Truman says:

        @stillwater Yeah. I actually think most people do.

        One of the things that gets lost in discussions with those of us that are political junkies is that we’re all really much closer to one another than we like to think of ourselves; there’s far more that connects us than separates us.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Will Truman says:

        In politics, reality tends to be what people agree that it is.

        Well, onward ho, then!Report

      • Shocking that you think the guy who defends your analyses from a charge of incoherence is right.Report

      • As long as the conversation on such things tend to be predicated on the existence of a left and a right, no matter how much you wish they were not so predicated, if you want to talk about a lot of things you will have to approach it from the same angle.

        I accept liberal premises I am unsure about regularly because, among other things, it makes more conversations with liberals possible. (Or conservatives, or libertarians.) Otherwise, we have to limit ourselves to discussing the premises. Which is a good conversation, but not the only conversation.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Will Truman says:

        @michael-drew “Shocking that you think the guy who defends your analyses from a charge of incoherence is right.”


        I was saying that Will’s reading of what I was trying to say was accurate. So it’s not even a question of me “thinking” anything. I know, because I was the one trying to say it.

        Will does not, to my knowledge, endorse or agree with what I say on this whole topic. In fact, I’m pretty sure we disagree.Report

      • That last line was meant in humor.

        Clearly left and right are strong tendencies that are very real in the country/world. The issue that we may differ on (though I really am not taking a position, just saying that I need to understand how this is going to work if this is the basis we are going to move forward on), is whether they are sufficiently coherent and real in the world to serve as the analytical vehicles for the analysis that Tod is attempting here. My sense is that his analysis might benefit by sharpening up its institutional focus a bit, but I’m happy to take it in whatever basis it move forward on. I’m curious how it’s going to work if its institutional foundation is not developed beyond the point of “I’m talking about the left and I’m not interested in it if you think you’re not exactly sure what that means operationally – in fact I don’t even necessarily believe you that you’re not clear.”Report

      • @tod-kelly

        Yes, I understood that that was the sense in which you were saying that Will was right. It remains the case that in offering that interpretation he was also defending you against a charge of incoherence.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Will Truman says:


        You agreed with Stillwater that Todd just needed to stipulate a definition for the sake of argument, not make one that would be agreed with. Meanwhile I predicted that if he did define, that definition would be criticized.

        Looks like I’m having a thick slice of validation with a scoop of irony for dinner tonight.Report

      • I also said it would be better if it attempted some reflection of the complexity of what he’s treating, and here I’m also saying that I’m happy to go forward on the basis he’s laying forth, just not clear how it’s going to work. So I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about. I don’t know where I guaranteed it wouldn’t be criticized; I just said what was necessary to even be able to proceed coherently in my view. He’s done that. As @stillwater says, Onward ho!

        Nice try, though. Whatever you do have for dinner, I hope it’s tasty.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Will Truman says:

        Yes, let’s carry on with the discussion now that you’re successfully prepared the grounds by demonstrating your not-actual-acceptance of the definition with which he’s going to proceed.

        This is the kind of pre-emptive rebuttal I’m talking about. You wanted an example, there’s an example. Thanks for making it easy.Report

      • James, did you know that what you just described is exactly what stipulation is?

        If it’s a problem according to you if people in this discussion note their own separate views about definitions of terms they are nevertheless happily willing to stipulate to, then I am officially no longer interested in your ongoing meta-critique of this discussion. I’m just going to go ahead and have the discussion with those who are actually more interested in having it than in scoring points in a meta-conversation about it.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Will Truman says:

        No, Michael, it’s not. Stipulation is saying, “OK, I have my reservations, but I’ll keep quiet about them until I’ve heard your argument” not, “Here are my reservations, now that I’ve got them out there ahead of your argument, go ahead with your argument.”Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Will Truman says:

        You’re wrong and I’m right.Report

  7. Mad Rocket Scientist says:


    I swear the next time we are in Portland, we need to have a beer.Report

  8. NewDealer says:

    This seems like a good place for this article:


    It seems that the GOP are still the masters of internal party discipline. Democratic congress people in conservative districts or Republican leaning districts tend to vote more conservatively. Republican congress people in Democratic leaning districts tend to vote in lock step with their most conservative counterparts. Joe Walsh in Illinois was a good example of this.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      In other words, Linz was right. Parliamentary discipline in a presidential system is deadly.Report

    • It’s infinitely easier to maintain internal party discipline when you don’t try to advance an affirmative agenda. It’s also almost impossible to try to advance an affirmative agenda when you can’t get a substantial majority of your own party members to agree on any significant elements of an affirmative agenda.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        In other words, the source of Republican discipline is the fact that they basically have nothing that they really want to implement besides maybe lowering taxes more. Since there is nothing they really want or can agree on but a lot that they oppose than they can stonewall things more easily. If the Republicans have no actual vision for the country but just a desire to achieve power for its own sake and to stymie liberals as they see it than we are doomed.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        Lowering taxes:
        School Choice
        Decrease Veterans Benefits
        Remove Obamacare
        Reduce/Privatize Social Security
        Restrict Welfare
        End Food Stamps

        awful lot of stuff there, isnt’ it?Report

      • Lee, actually it’s more like they have multiple agendas, but those agendas conflict with one another and they can’t find a consensus, and so they default to blanket opposition.

        The GOP has a electoral coalition, but not a governing one. (The status of the electoral coalition is a bit spotty, at the moment, though, owed in part to the governing problem. At the national level, anyway.)Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Mark Thompson says:

        I would say that the Democratic Party does have a lot of things they more or less agree upon. I think it would be a poison pill in the Democratic Party to be completely anti-gay marriage, anti-EDNA, anti-Social Security and other welfare state issues, and anti-choice.

        The issue in the Democratic Party is that we can’t agree on how much diversion is okay and solutions. Everyone wants schools to be better but you have the split I mentioned above.

        Affordable housing is also fought as an issue. Everyone is for it but the arguments are for deregulation, upzoning, and generally pro-developer and those skeptical that this will produce anything more than luxury condos.

        Democratic fights tend towards disagreement over how more than what. Gay Marriage and EDNA might be rare exceptions here.

        There are often times I view Democratic/Left fighting as an example of a person never being able to win. Maria Shiver did a documentary about a woman living in poverty and trying to raise her children. She got criticized for picking someone so saintly seeming because it allows people to talk about the deserving poor v. undeserving poor. Meanwhile there are those who think we need to focus more on happy people who also happen to be extremely poor because:

        “Articles about poverty that are just a catalog of hard times are so prevalent that Dwight Macdonald, writing in The New Yorker in 1963, thought it was inherent to the exercise: “There is a monotony about the injustices suffered by the poor that perhaps accounts for the lack of interest the rest of society shows in them. Everything seems to go wrong with them. They never win. It’s just boring.” But it doesn’t need to be so. Instead of a litany of miseries, reporting on the poor could offer deeply textured portraits that instead revealed them to be humans just like the rest of us—an approach that should build a sense of commonality and make readers question their own assumptions about the country they live in. We shouldn’t feel pity but a sense of citizenship, of kinship, that leads to empathy. Even Americans who don’t identify themselves as poor know how it feels to be broke, to need or want something they can’t afford, or to be underpaid or lose a job. If not, they can imagine these feelings without too much of a stretch. The grind of facing such disappointments day after day is what needs to be communicated through writing, and readers should begin to recognize the people they’re meeting on the page, even if they don’t necessarily like them”-Monica Potts

        This would seemingly support Shiver’s decision to focus on a relatively happy and striving woman for her documentary.

        In short, it seems that whenever someone who identifies as left or liberal tries to make a point, he or she is likely to be damned as a traitor by half the tribe and supported by the other half.

        I don’t if the same dynamic exists on the right.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

      “Masters” as long as they are out of power. When they were in power, it was a different story. They had quite a few defections when it came to immigration reform, stimulus, and other issues. Some Republicans voting for, and others against.

      That said, when out of power Democrats do more consistently say “vote your district” than Republicans do when they’re out of power. The same is probably true for being in power. Contra the Economist article, I think it has actually served the Dems well in the broader picture.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to NewDealer says:

      ND, I think the same dynamic exists on the right in culture it just expresses itself differently because fewer self-declared rightists see themselves or the right in general as being independent from the GOP. There lots of leftists that do not identify with the Democratic Party or in fact see the Democratic Party as being the enemy to. However, cries of RINO suggest that such a dynamic exists on the right.Report

  9. North says:

    It’s an interesting distinction my Tod, I’m looking forward to the next installments with great anticipation. I’ll save my criticisms untill then when I see if you preemptively knock some of them out.Report

  10. j r says:

    But we consider absolutely none of those, because the right/left spectrum has recreated an artificial right/left reality where the only options are…

    There is almost an infinite number of issues that you can insert. The thing to remember is that this is a feature and not a bug.Report

  11. Vikram Bath says:

    I don’t know that I am totally on board, Tod.

    It seems that there are few domains in which we could use the right and left labels. When it comes to actually expressing a political opinion, you can only vote “yes” or “no”, so “right” and “left” are totally appropriate.

    If, on the other hand, you are trying to characterize a person’s beliefs, it might not be totally appropriate. There are people who actually have opinions that aren’t easily categorized up until they have to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, at which point all the subtlety of their positions collapses. But up until their point, maybe they can lay a true claim to not being one or the other.

    On the other hand, I actually don’t have a problem with you using a label as long as you are consistent with it and respect the limitations a broad definition imposes on you later. For example, with this definition, you could not categorically say “people on the left hate Goldman Sachs” because it includes people who hate them and people who indebted to them.Report

  12. LeeEsq says:

    Tod, if your defining the left as the American left than you still have a definition problem. In common culture, the Democratic Party is seen as being on the left but they have never described themselves as being a leftist party. The GOP actively describes itself as a conservative or rightist party. Some Democratic politicians refer to themselves as liberal, progressive, or even left but many more see themselves as moderate or even conservative.

    Even assuming that the Democratic Party is the American left for the sake of argument, your thesis is wrong. There are very few positions that a Democratic politician is required to believe in as a matter of faith to get a victory in the primary. There are Democratic politicians that are criticizing all aspects of Obama’s Presidency in order to secure re-elelction. There are even anti-choice Democratic politicians. In contrast, winning a GOP primary requires ideological adherence to a certain doctrinal code. A rightist Apostle’s Creed if you will. There is no evidence that a leftist Apostle’s creed is taking over the Democratic Party.Report

    • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I’d just like to know: does 33% (or so) of the Left believe in Torture or not?????
      (Yes, this is a serious question — and I’m hoping Tod answers it. Either way, it will be clarifying)Report

    • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I disagree. Yes “The Left” here means something significantly different than “The Left” elsewhere, but it is still to the left of the right. It’s the left side of the American political spectrum, even if it would be the center-right in Canada.

      Another term may be more appropriate, but we don’t have another term.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “In contrast, winning a GOP primary requires ideological adherence to a certain doctrinal code.”

      I guess Meg Whitman never existed.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Kolohe says:

        Is she still in office? It was a very long and gradual process, albeit one that has accelerated in recent years, but expressing heterodox views does lead to a primary challenge more GOP circles than Democratic circles.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Kolohe says:

        She got the nomination. And while it’s true that Republicans have more to fear from primaries than Democrats, it’s not true that ideological adherence is required. The Tea Party successfully knocked off some unprepared incumbents and establishment figures. It was big news in large part because of its rarity.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Kolohe says:


        I think you were thinking of Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey.

        Meg Whitman was nominated to replace the Governator but lost to Jerry Brown in 2010. It is important to note that the West Coast acted as a Democratic sandbar during the Tea Party wave.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I think the notion that ideological adherence is required to win the GOP is one of the great myths of the past year or so. So pervasive a myth that even Republicans have bought into it. Last year, during the shutdown, I said repeatedly that the threat of being primaried was extremely exaggerated, that eventually the GOP would fold because enough of them would see that, and it would be exposed.

      The GOP did indeed fold. The attempts to primary incumbents were unsuccessful. The threat is, for the Republicans in the balance, more from the left than from the right.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Will Truman says:

        The attempts to primary incumbents were unsuccessful.

        Tell that to Dick Lugar. 😉Report

      • My wording was unclear (should be “so far have been unsuccessful”), but I was referring to this cycle. The problem is that everybody was looking at high-profile instances that were got a lot of attention in large part because they were unusual.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Will Truman says:

        Yes and no.

        In general elections, yes.

        In primary elections, the threat to elected Republicans can and often does come from the right. Sometimes the establishment candidate wins and other times they lose.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Will Truman says:


        I think your point about high profile cases may be well taken, but my point about Dick Lugar is that primarying him was successful.

        The as-yet-unanswered question, I think, is what lesson Republican voters take from it. Does the success of primarying in some high profile cases lead to more primarying? Or does the failure to win the general election lead to less primarying?

        There’s a group-level-rationality that would dictated the latter outcome. But the individual-level rationality of prospective Tea Party candidates is different. And if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that individual rationality can undermine the achievement of group-rational outcomes.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Will Truman says:

        I’m trying to think of anyone from either party that has ever tried to primary an incumbent from the center, unless that incumbent was under indictment (or about to be).Report

      • @newdealer I’m specifically comparing the dangers of primary versus General elections. A great many Republicans have more to fear from the latter than the former (which was why they folded). The number of them taken out in primaries was really quite small. But the myth was that they were all or almost all vulnerable. It wasn’t and isn’t true, compared to the number vulnerable in general elections.Report

      • @jm3z-aitch I would argue that for many it wasn’t rational even on an individual level. If you’re a senator from Idaho, you have more to worry about than if you’re a senator from Ohio. Yes, 2012 may have portended more primary challenges. In fact, it did. But the flipside of it is that they would be more ready for it in a way that Lugar wasn’t. Which is a reason why the primarying this time has been so unsuccessful.

        I’d argue that this was the predictable course of events. In fact, it’s sort of what I predicted.Report

      • @kolohe Hilliard, McKinney, and Bob Smith.Report

    • j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

      What @will-truman said. There is a median voter in the United States that both parties are trying to reach. The difference between the two is not where they meet; it’s where they are coming from. The Republican Party approaches the median voter from the right and the Democratic Party from the left.

      Every once in a while you get some sort of flanking maneuver where one side tries to outflank the other (examples include conservatives arguing against increased immigration on environmental grounds or out of concerns for American blacks and that whole leftist case for increasing the minimum wage as a form of cutting subsidies), but it’s rare.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to j r says:

        but it’s rare.

        And often disingenuous. Though not entirely a bad thing. If the argument has any merit, it might make the cause appealing to people who do not presently find the cause appealing.Report

    • J@m3z Aitch in reply to LeeEsq says:


      Todd gave a definition because he was asked for one. I predicted there’d be quick criticism of his definition, rather than waiting to hear his actual argument.

      I’m not happy to be right. In fact I’m a bit pissed off.

      Can you all just say, “OK, now I know what you mean when you use those words, now I look forward to hearing your argument,” instead of arguing with him on this point?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I’d be perfectly happy to comply with that request if it were to come from Tod. I’d probably respond with a request to close comments on these posts until such time as fulsome response to the actual argument was welcome, but if I didn’t get that, no problem. It’s not clear to me Tod doesn’t want discussion and response to things like these definitions and the various parts of his argument to date. He’s had a lot of opportunity to say he doesn’t, and to my knowledge, he hasn’t.

        As far as being asked for definitions, as far as I am concerned that’s a basic necessity for advancing an argument of this scale. Tod is advancing definitions because he eventually needed to in order to offer a workable argument. Some people just pointed that out. No one offered that there would be no response or criticism in return if he did (some just offered that they would accept what he offered as the basis on which we are proceeding): he still needed to. The fact that you don’t like that there’s criticism doesn’t really mean… anything.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        How about if the request came from krogerfoot?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I don’t have any idea why you would think that would be different than having it come from you. I also don’t see where that’s a request for criticism not to happen; it looks to me like a claim that what’s been happening has been questioning of Tod’s motives.Report

      • Kim in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I’d be pissed if we stopped talking because “People think we’re not letting Tod speak” — if Tod isn’t the one saying Shut Up!

        I’d be perfectly willing to thread all the kvetching and nitpickery into one (multifold) thread, though, for easier skipping, now that i realize that folks might want to skip it.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Actually, it was explicitly a claim that “someone” was questioning my motives. No idea who he might be referencing.

        And it would be different because it would be coming from someone whose motives you’re not so likely to question.

        There’s also the issue that it’s just a better way to have a meaningful conversation. Did you have teachers who tried to teach you that?Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        “what’s been happening has been questioning of Tod’s motives”

        Really? Huh.

        Out of curiosity, what exactly are my secret ulterior motives?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I’m kind of losing the thread of what everyone’s talking about here, tbh.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        He wants ……. a shrubbery.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Maybe someone was turned into a newt.Report

      • Shazbot11 in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Nobody get defensive. It just confirms that you are wrong when you argue for any claim X.Report

      • Shazbot11 in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        I predicted there’d be quick criticism of his definition

        I predict quick criticism of this definition: “Someone is a libertarian iff she thinks transfers of wealth from rich to poor, coerced by the government, are always unjust.”

        Those who criticize it are unfair and unjust and just being defensive….. and ad hominemememem whateverReport

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:

        Are you off your meds, dude?Report

      • Murali in reply to J@m3z Aitch says:



  13. Burt Likko says:

    [W]what exactly are my secret ulterior motives?

    I had assumed the usual: hate America, destroy democracy, corrode Western civilization, pro-slavery, anti-freedom, old white guys should own everything, FYIGM.Report

  14. KatherineMW says:

    As a member of the left I strongly object to being conflated with liberals or with the Democratic Party, but you’ve already stated in this post that you don’t care about such objections.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to KatherineMW says:

      And this is the dynamic that Lee and I were talking about.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        That sort of brings us up to the lack of an adequate term for “The left side of the contemporary political spectrum in American politics, generally speaking.”

        You might be from a different cut of the left than is, say, North, but you are both a part of the general left. Grouped together by, if nothing else, the primary enemy being the right.

        Heaven knows we have no trouble at all talking about “The right” in general terms despite the various shades and disagreements they have.Report

      • greginak in reply to NewDealer says:

        Often people do differentiate different sub-types of the right ( so cons, neo cons, libertarian right, big business).Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        Sure. And depending on what we’re talking about sometimes it’s better to speak generally and sometimes it’s better to be more specific.

        Nobody cares, nor should they, really, when Tod talks about The Right in the context of generalities.Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to NewDealer says:

        Will – Couldn’t Tod just say “the Democrats” if that’s what he means? The Left as a political entity is far to the left of the Democratic Party. It’s not represented in American elector politics. It’s Chomsky, it’s anti-imperialism, it’s single-payer health care, it’s for a much stronger social safety net (and possibly a guaranteed minimum income), it’s in favour of things that no party in American politics is willing to discuss. Tod’s classing neo-liberals and a group that has enmity towards neo-liberalism as one of its most fundamental principles as part of the same group.

        Referring to the Democrats – a party that supports the continued power of an American empire, the expansion of the surveillance state, the bank bailout, and corporate subsidies – as the left isn’t an indistinct use of terms, it’s just plain incorrect. If Tod wants to talk about the Democrats, or about liberals, then why doesn’t he just say “Democrats” or “liberals” instead of using an misleading term and complaining that people are misinterpreting it?Report

      • greginak in reply to NewDealer says:

        The specific or general points need to be directed at a specific or general point as appropriate. Saying those on the Left favor a more active government is correct and fairly general but i can’t see much argument. Saying the Left favors US imperialist/military policy is deeply inaccurate since it is one segment of the left side of spectrum that really is for that.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to NewDealer says:

        Nobody cares, nor should they, really, when Tod talks about The Right in the context of generalities.

        We all should, tho. There are probably lots of conservatives out there who’d resist being lumped with the TP/GOP/SoCon crazies and who vote R in electoral politics based on a least worst calculus. Fine-grainedness in policy – or politics – isn’t something our system caters to very well.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to NewDealer says:


        I probably have more in common with North than I do with Katherine. There are probably many things that I support that Katherine would not consider to be part of the left (I disagree) and there are things she says that I find wrong. One can be on the left and not find Chomsky to be a truth-teller. I prefer Clement Attlee or Tommy Douglas or Walter Reuther or Hubert Humphrey or Francis Perkins to Chomsky. A practical left based in the limitations of liberal democracy and real politic.

        Lee’s main point was that many people who consider themselves to be part of the Left hate hate hate the Democratic Party. I am not one of these people but there is a chance that they would not consider me an ally but an enemy. Katherine noted how she hates being compared to liberals and the Democratic Party.

        My European friends tell me that in their countries I would probably be a member of a Center or a Center-Right party. They don’t mean this in a bad way but it shows how different US politics are.


        Universal Healthcare has been a dream of many members of the Democratic Party since at least the last years of FDR’s Presidency if not before. Maybe even since the Wilson administration. That it has always been defeated shows the power of the American right. The Parties in the United States did not develop the same way as parties in Parliamentary systems and were always big tent. This has been mentioned countless times on OT.

        There is also a big debate in the American Left about whether to stay in the Democratic Party or not and I take the practical approach of staying in the Democratic Party.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        @katherinemw The left isn’t just a group. It’s an orientation. Generally, a direction from the center. Liberals and the left-lefts may have their disagreements, but liberals are nonetheless considered the Centre-Left. This isn’t something Tod came up with on the spot.

        Most people on the left-left look at the center-left and see the “center” part. The ways in which you don’t identify them. To someone in the center or on the right, though, the important things are the similarities.

        I look at your Conservative party and the thought that comes to my mind is “that’s not very conservative…” but they are nonetheless generally considered a part of the right in your country. That’s their orientation from the center. Lots of Canadians look at our Democratic Party with the opposing reaction. But they’re to the left of our center.

        Sticking to “liberals” isn’t quite right because it misses a whole lot of people who don’t consider themselves to be liberal. Saying “Democrats” isn’t quite right either because a lot of them aren’t actually Democrats even though they consider the Democratic Party to be preferable to the Republican Party in virtually every way. Which is why I think sticking with orientation (direction) is as good a way as any to approach it. None of the terms are accurate, but “left” is at least encompassing just as “right” is. (And The Right includes a lot of people who have little use for the GOP. Some moderate types, but some of the most conservative people I know refuse to vote for the Republicans until they represent what they consider to be real conservative values. But they are at least included in the directional sense.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        @stillwater I would argue that such people are still a part of “The Right” generally, and that it’s reasonable to identify them as such even if we don’t call them “conservative.” Likewise, the friends I mentioned to Katherine who we can’t call Republicans because they voted for Goode or stayed home.

        There are limits to when we should refer to The Right, or The Left, collectively. But I don’t think that it’s particularly wrong to do so. Or rather, I think any prohibition on doing so would grind a lot of conversation to a halt. As is the case with many other broad labels.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to NewDealer says:


        We’ll have time to revisit this as the series proceeds. And in fact, I think that’s the best way for me to respond to your comment here since what you’re talking about here is itself a generalization itself (that in general generalizations have some utility).

        Hold your thoughts and we’ll get back at it in a later thread.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to NewDealer says:

        There’s the Podhoretz Right (neo-cons), Dobson Right (soc-cons), Buchanan Right (paleo-cons), and Nixon Right (ex-cons.)Report

      • KatherineMW in reply to NewDealer says:

        Which people does “liberal” miss? Most of the Democratic Party and its supporters, and advocates of its policies in the media, could be encompassed by that label as it’s commonly understood in North American politics.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        The word “liberal” tends to be avoided in the US, even among people who would describe themselves as left-leaning and/or never vote anything but Democratic. There has been an effort to reclaim the word, but I still more frequently hear the word “progressive”… and then you still run into the thing where people debating various people’s progressive merits. The Left as shorthand for “Those left of center” strikes me as a better way to go.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        I would add that “conservative” is also a bit problematic even though it is embraced by people who are conservative. You still have people who don’t consider themselves particular conservative and who are not considered conservatives by conservatives but who are nonetheless a part of “The Right” by virtue of the fact that they are right-of-center. Arguably, I fit into this exact category. Though also arguably, I no longer do. Either way, I identify as “centre-right.”Report

      • Jaybird in reply to NewDealer says:

        To us us all here as a yardstick… I don’t know whether I should consider myself “fairly conservative” because, lemme tell ya, Redstate did not consider me much more than a libertine who cared about little more than marijuana and sodomy.

        But when I look around my brethren and sistren here, I’m probably in the top three or four conservatives.

        And I’m pretty sure that the liberal folks ’round here consider this a fairly centrist website with a libertarian sensibility. And the conservative folks ’round here consider this a fairly technocratic (neo)liberal group of folks with a handful of libertarians to round things out.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        Honestly, the most accurate terminology by my accounting is Team Blue and Team Red, though that makes people all sorts of mad and that would be a distraction. So I might go with leftward partisans and rightward partisans. I don’t know if that’s any better. Which all goes back to the main problem.

        @jaybird I’d mostly tag you (and most people beyond a certain point on the libertarian vector) as “off the grid.” (or “off-spectrum” though “off the grid” sounds cooler).Report

      • J@m3zAitch in reply to NewDealer says:


        If we’re talking about the left-right spectrum (continuum, really) then libertarians truly are off it. It’s a perpetual irritant for a group that’s mostly pro-SSM, anti war on drugs, and anti US interventionism to be lumped in with the right. But it’s just easier for media types than to try to explain a more complex spatial politics.

        But is there a group normally called left who are similarly off the left-tight continuum? Are progressives who are, as you say, “beyond a certain point” similarly off the spectrum?

        Or is that opposite direction reserved for true opposites of libertarianism? I think the group that wants real regulation of both economic and social behavior is rare, but in fact I’ve met about three in my life, so they do exist. They’re not progressives, not socialists, but something else altogether.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        @jm3z-aitch An issue with libertarians is that while they may be off-spectrum, a lot of them none-the-less are off the spectrum leaning one direction or another if that makes sense. More frequently the right, thus the association. Even is, as you point out, it’s not fair to put libertarianism on that side, even if it’s fair to put some libertarians there.

        Some seem aligned with the left even though they generally want smaller government because they consider the real battlefield to be the social issues on which they tend to agree with the left more frequently. Others seem aligned with the right even though they disagree on a plethora of social issues because they consider economic policy to be the primary battlefield. And of course various people who are further along on the libertarian vector over here than they are over there.

        This is why if we had my preferred elections polypartisan style of elections with reliable coalitions, we might actually have two libertarian parties (a Red Libertarian and Blue Libertarian) rather than one. Along these lines, I’d expect somebody like Megan McArdle to be Red Libertarian and someone like Kerry Howley to be Blue Libertarian.Report

      • J@m3zAitch in reply to NewDealer says:

        Will, the diamond-shaped spectrum allows them to be accurately represented in their diversity. In fact it allows liberals and conservstives to be more accurately represented in their diversity, too.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to NewDealer says:

        As I say below to Zed, the weakness with adding another axis is that most people don’t approach it that way. It’s useful to people who are off spectrum, but most people aren’t as off spectrum as libertarians are. To them, it primarily matters not where McMegan differs from the right, but that she functionally aligns more with them than with the other side.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to NewDealer says:

        Team Be Ruled

        Nice. But it needs at least one more color.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to KatherineMW says:

      KatherineMW, your also Canadian so I imagine that you hate being conflated with the Democratic Party on those grounds. You might not see the Democratic Party or liberals as being particularly on the left but thats the space they occupy in American politics because of our political structure. There are leftists in the United States that would agree with you but they are politically impotent and mainly because they refuse to meaningfully participate in American politics. In the mid-20th century, a lot of Rightists in the States refused to vote for Republicans for the same reasons that many Leftists can’t bring themselves for the Democratic Party. They decided to slowly take over the GOP, it was a decades long struggle, rather than abandon electoral politics. Thats why we have the modern GOP.

      I’d also point out that lots of people on the Left are selectively anti-Imperialist. They focus on the “imperialism” committed by countries they identify as Western but ignore meddling committed by acceptable countries. The USSR and PRC was just as “imperialist” as the United States during the Cold War but the left in favor of focusing on American sin. When Nasser ruled Egypt, he meddled in the affairs of Syria, Yemen, and Jordan but nobody on the anti-imperial left protested that. More contemporaneously, you have the anti-imperialist left ignoring Iranian and Syrian imperialism in Lebanon or right now Russia’s invasion of the Crimea:


  15. I’m coming a bit late to your substantive points in these two posts, Tod, and I think it’s really premature to argue with your conclusions about where you think the “left” is headed, since you haven’t made those arguments yet.

    I also think that you get the symptoms of the problem largely correct in your first post when you wrote:

    Symbolism is more important than governance.

    Purity is more important than competence.

    Compromise is a sign of weakness.

    Who we are is less important than who the enemy is.

    Data that contradicts the Ideology is a lie; institutions that publish such data are the enemy; those individuals who consider such data are heretics.

    I think where my own disagreement comes from – and perhaps an underlying cause of some of the pushback you’re getting – is the seeming implication that these symptoms are in some manner consciously adopted by ideological groups or political coalitions.

    I don’t think that’s the case, which actually makes the problem a lot more intractable in the sense of being something that can’t consciously be solved, but less intractable in the sense that it’s probably cyclical.

    Specifically, as I’ve argued frequently, it’s my argument that the symptoms you referenced are the effect of a coalition achieving its main goals, perhaps having some of its secondary goals co-opted, and then struggling to find a way of maintaining unity.

    The problems you identify on the “right” can be directly traced to the era of Bush I, who took the reins in the aftermath of Reagan achieving the bulk of the “right’s” unified goals. The “right” then essentially was left scrambling to find new stuff to agree on (resulting in the initial rapture on the right that kept Bush I from getting re-elected). The handful of issues they did eventually find to keep them together, Clinton quickly co-opted when it turned out those issues were things that plenty of Dems were ok with.

    I have to stop here for now, but to the extent this is starting to happen on the “left,” it isn’t because of a conscious choice, but because the “left” has accomplished a lot of what has kept it unified for the last 20 years or so – most importantly with health care reform.Report

    • @mark-thompson ” is the seeming implication that these symptoms are in some manner consciously adopted by ideological groups or political coalitions.”

      Is that the impression I’m giving? then I will try to do a better job in the upcoming posts, because I don’t think that’s the case. I think there are snake oil salesman that consciously try to take advantage of populist waves, but for the most part I think it’s very unconscious.

      “Specifically, as I’ve argued frequently, it’s my argument that the symptoms you referenced are the effect of a coalition achieving its main goals, perhaps having some of its secondary goals co-opted, and then struggling to find a way of maintaining unity.”

      That’s an interesting way of putting it, and I suspect you’re right about this. But as I’ll explain later, I think it also has to do with the advent of electronic media and the 24-hour news cycle. To paraphrase a lot of lefties from this very site (Jessie, for example), the day to day operations of government no longer interest them much. They’re much more concerned in the theatre of the litmus test-issues. I think this has to do with the fact that we *can* get 24 hour political infotainment now, and we don’t really have any interest in hearing about new OSHA regs or materials prioritization for competing highway projects. We want Roe v. Wade, arguments about the legitimacy of single mothers and policy makers weighing in on George Zimmerman 24/7.

      But I still like what you say here, and as I say I think there is a great deal of truth in it.

      Though just to be me, I’d quibble that we don’t really have healthcare reform. We have a half-baked cake that can’t survive as is, with one side reflexively wanting to repeal and the other side reflexively saying is just fine.Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @tod-kelly To speak in my own defense, I argue that it’s not in liberal’s best interest to look at OSHA regulations or policy papers as way to win elections. The way you get people on your side since the beginning of time in politics isn’t with nice white papers and the right ideas – it’s emotionally appealing to their values.

        So yes, I think the Democratic Party and the broader left should, well making sure the wonks write nice policy, invest in framing the Republican Party as it truly is in the Year of Our Lord 2014 – a party ran by rich (mainly white male) people whose main interest is using the arms of government to redistribrute wealth toward them through the privatization of core government processes and flexing of the tax code.

        If that involves a little language that makes bluntly, guy in nice houses going to office jobs a little uncomfortable, so be it.

        But, I would disagree with Mark in the sense that the reason why you’ve gotten a larger and louder “left” in the past ten years or so is the many of our accomplishments are either slowly being disassembled, sometimes with help from those in the DNC (welfare reform / education reform) and our major goals still aren’t completed.

        Oh, and by the way, I don’t think of anybody who thinks of the ACA as “fine as it is.” I guarantee you that every single Democratic politican running for POTUS in 2016 will run on improving and expanding the ACA. It’s just that some of us don’t believe every time we mention the ACA, it doesn’t have to have a line like, “the Affordable Care Act, which we agree is a half-loaf of a bill that doesn’t do enough for American’s” every time some mentions health care reform.Report

      • North in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I’m interested in the idea of a larger louder (full on) left. If the (full on) left larger and louder now or is communication tech just allowing the left (and everyone else) to be heard more easily?Report

      • @jesse-ewiak I actually don’t disagree that much with what you’re saying in this comment – the major difference stems from the fact that you’re using a much narrower definition of “left” than I. I’m using it as more or less synonymous with “the Dem Party and its core constituencies.” You’re using it as a synonym for a subgroup of those constituencies. Which is fine – there is no objective point on the spectrum that can definitively distinguish between “left” and “right.”

        To the extent we’re talking about the “left’s” activities under either definition prior to about 2010, my analysis of those activities would also probably parallel yours quite closely.

        I also don’t doubt for a second that for the portion of the Dem coalition you are defining as the “left,” the various Dem policy victories of 2009-10 are in fact terribly inadequate, even when combined with the victories on SSM and the withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for what it’s worth, thanks in no small part to GOP silliness, I even think there’s still enough of common interest to keep the Dem coalition pretty healthy for a little while longer.

        But there’s been enough success on some important issues that once united the coalition no longer can do so – you can get virtually the whole coalition to defend most of PPACA, but any attempt to make additional wholesale improvements to healthcare will split the coalition because PPACA was itself basically a giant compromise amongst the various elements of the Dem coalition.Report

    • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      @north I think it’s a few things.

      1.) Yes, people, even in more conservative areas of the country can look online and realize, “oh, there are other people out there that don’t think the word liberal is evil and the Democrat’s should always capitulate so they can continue to win elections.”

      2.) Economic success, even with the faults that came with it in the 90’s and early 00’s papered over a lot of the faults in the Democratic coalition. It’s hard to speak against welfare reform for example when unemployment is 4% and 20-odd millions jobs have been created. Same thing with deregulation, free trade, and the like. Now, that we’re dealing with the results, it’s easier for people to speak up.

      3.) The demographics of the DNC is changing, both within the party and within the House and Senate. The Senate Democratic caucus in 2000-2004 included a few straight up conservative Democrat’s, including in states that could elect centrist or center-left Democrat’s. Or, in the case of Connecticut, liberal Democrats.

      In addition, as late as ’04, there were still strategists saying Democrat’s had to win white working class in the South to win the Presidency. That’s been debunked. So, there’s no need for example, for a Democratic governor to all but flip the switch on the execution of a death row inmate to win the general election.

      As a result, the Democratic wing of the Democratic party, to steal a line, is willing to say, “actually, we can start talking like FDR and Hubert Humphrey again without losing in landslides, OK?”

      @mark-thompson – The only thing I’d disagree is that, I’d argue that the only core constiuency that is really happy with the DNC as it stands right now (ie. the current ACA, lack of ability to go after Wall Street, etc.) are the money people and a smaller percentages of the actual party.

      Max Baucus is gonna’ be out of a job in November. So’s Ben Nelson. And so on and so forth. Even Mary Landreiu is defending the ACA now that it’s passed.Report

      • North in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Jesse, that sounds entirely plausible and I am grateful for you elaborating. Thank you.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        Same thing with deregulation, free trade, and the like. Now, that we’re dealing with the results, it’s easier for people to speak up.

        How do you reconcile the left’s pro-immigration stance with its anti-free-trade stance? Or are these different subsets of leftists? Does the left broadly break down into pro- and anti-foreigner camps?Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

        and how far back do you want to wind the deregulation clock? Get trucking rates and airline fares back on a government created schedule? Stop the sale of filled milk across state lines?Report

  16. Major Zed says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned The World’s Smallest Political Quiz and its underlying two-dimensional (as opposed to one-dimensional) look at politics. (At least to trash it as being too simplistic!) But I think they are onto something, putting “personal freedom” and “economic freedom” on independent axes.Report

    • Rod in reply to Major Zed says:

      I used to be more impressed with it. The problem is it recognizes only one primary value, freedom or liberty, which is fine as tool to advance libertarian ideology, but doesn’t really advance understanding of political groupings much.

      The problem is that the primary difference between liberals and libertarians isn’t just that we value economic freedom less, it’s that we hold another value, equality or egalitarianism, not in direct opposition to liberty, but more as an orthogonal factor. Similarly, conservatives hold another value, I’m not sure what to call it, perhaps fraternity. It’s an us versus them mentality that finds expression in both good and bad; patriotism and loyalty, but also racism, classism, religious intolerance, etc.

      Perhaps there’s a better way to factor this out, but this seems pretty close to me. So this model would be three dimensional with identifiable ideologies parked near appropriate corners and edges of a cube.Report

      • Major Zed in reply to Rod says:

        Oh, I’m sure there are better ways to factor it out. And there is plenty of research going on as well. My point is twofold: (1) left-right is inadequate and yet (2) there is some structure more intelligible than “everyone is different.” These might be of interest:
        Born This Way
        Steven Pinker interview
        Five dimensions of fairnessReport

      • Will Truman in reply to Rod says:

        I think it’s a good map if people consider the liberty-to-security/order axis to be particularly important. Which libertarians do, which is why they like the test, and why it hasn’t gained traction elsewhere. We have a very small Libertarian movement and no formal Orderite movement.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Rod says:

        Zed, I think the reason we’re stuck on the plane is that it’s how most people see it and see themselves. Which is of pretty paramount importance when it comes to how we sort one another. Both how we sort ourselves and how we sort others. A lot of the other things, like the dimensions of fairness, are mostly an attempt to explain the sorting we do amongst ourselves.Report

      • dhex in reply to Rod says:

        communalist values v. individualist values as a third axis?Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Rod says:

        Honestly, communalist versus individualist may actually be a better second axis than liberty vs order.Report

      • J@m3zAitch in reply to Rod says:

        Maybe, but I don’t think it fully captures the dynamics. Individualists aren’t necessarily anti-communal, they just prefer voluntary communities. To get the axis right it can’t suggest individualists are anti community. It needs to get at that sense of whether the person’s sense community is as a voluntary order, or whether the community trumps the individual.

        That’s not well-stated, but what I’m essentially getting at is the diference between LWA and me. Our approaches to community are mutually baffling, if not downright abhorrent, to each other.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Rod says:

        I tend to think of your approach as a community of individuals, and his of being individuals of a community. Though I would not at all say that you don’t value community, I would say that the center of gravity is, for you, the individual. And for him, the community.Report

      • J@m3zAitch in reply to Rod says:


      • dhex in reply to Rod says:

        “To get the axis right it can’t suggest individualists are anti community.”

        in a sense, though, they are. or at the very least, they’re weighing the individual more heavily than the community.

        the big problem with my suggestion is that people tend to waver on this line depending on the larger goal involved. someone may oppose anti-sodomy laws on individualist grounds but also support laws against business discrimination on communal grounds. or vice versa. or be against both for individualist reasons, etc.Report

      • LWA in reply to Rod says:

        The word you are looking for is solidarity, the value of group identity whether it is a voluntary social group like the Elks, or a larger grouping, like patriotism.

        @Will Truman
        I’d say thats about right, that I see the individual as being a part of a group where libety is merely one of many things we value. This is why I don’t shrink from asserting that at times liberty takes a second place to some other value.
        Jonathan Haidt does a very good job of sorting the essential values out into 6 categories, where we can see how political differences arise by stressing different categories, valuing one higher or lower.

        My problem with the various axes models is that there is an inherent bias towards centrism, that somehow there is an ideal intersection. Which by extension allows the most radical advocates to move the center.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Rod says:

        I personally believe that there’s something inherently coercive about the most voluntary of communities. That doesn’t mean some forms of community can’t be more voluntary than others–with a greater possibilities of exit, for example–but I have a hard time even imagining what a purely voluntary community would look like. Even if one voluntarily submits, they have to face the norms and rules of the community if they want to stay in. And the rules and norms usually don’t map perfectly to an explicitly stated prior agreement. There are often understandings and expectations that one discovers only after entering the community, and the costs of leaving increase.

        Someone could read what I’m saying as, voluntary community is an ideal type that can be approached but never arrived at. That’s not what I intend to say–I think voluntarism and community are conceptually in conflict at a deeper level–but I’ll settle for the ideal type formulation if only because it creates common ground between me and libertarians and because I favor increasing the degree of voluntarism over coercion in most cases.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to Rod says:

        @pierre-corneille ,
        I agree. That said, some communities are 99.9% there. OT is an example.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Rod says:


        Agreed, and if I didn’t agree, I could always go elsewhere 🙂

        Still, that last 0.1% is hard to get. That frog just can’t get to the edge of the cliff no matter how many times he goes halfway.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Rod says:

        @pierre-corneille–for me, ideal type is exactly the right concept. In practice, the key is to figure out how to create a functional group with a minimum of coercion.

        The essential question as I see it is, “is the individual made for society, or is the society made for the individual?” That is, are individuals primarily social products, beholden to their society? Or are societies primarily the product of individual action? Neither is absolutely and wholly true, with the other absolutely and wholly wrong–and I mean that as an empirical claim. But normatively, which way a person leans on that question is what will distinguish them.

        LWA–I don’t think the word solidarity really captures that. One can have “Three Musketeers solidarity,” all-for-one-and-one-for-all, as a freely chosen thing.Report

      • Pierre Corneille in reply to Rod says:


        I find myself very close to the center on the issue. Sometimes my thumb wants to tip the scale to “society ought to be for the individual” and sometimes it wants to tip to “individual ought to be for society.” That’s assuming my thumb has a “will” at all.

        I’m just really undecided. As you know, I support a lot of measures (e.g., ACA) that seem to put me in the “individual ought to be for society” camp. So as a practical matter, maybe my thumb does tip one way over the other.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rod says:

        When I try to explore what the whole “individuals primarily social products, beholden to their society”, I get to a handful of questions that begin to make me uncomfortable.

        I mean, I’m perfectly fine with asking “what should society expect from Jaybird and his ilk?”, and I’m comfortable with asking “what should society expect from the Upper classes and their ilk?” but when I start wondering about others, I find that it’s uncomfortable to even put my finger on who they would be, let alone begin phrasing the question of what it’s fair for us, as a society, to expect from them.

        Which makes me wonder if that’s merely a Jaybird issue or if it’s actually an interesting issue that I should know better than to discuss in polite company.Report

      • J@m3z Aitch in reply to Rod says:


        Well, it’s not really a binary variable, even though I sort of stated it that way.

        And I think it’s worth pointing out that those who say society is for the individual would happily allow those who think differently to form their own communitarian subsocieties within the larger society. it. E.g., libertopia has plenty of room for the Hutterites.

        In contrast, the more communitarian types mostly would be aghast at allowing a wholly libertarian sub-societies. There’s a totalizing tendency there, such that even when it allows for a fair amount of individual (negative) liberty, it demands that all subsets of society adhere to particular limits on individual liberty, rather than allowing subsocieties to voluntarily form and allow more.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Major Zed says:


      The problem with any sort of political quiz is that it usually reveals more about the biases of the creators than it does about the takers. The quiz is done by a group called “Advocates for Self-Government: Planting the Seeds of Liberty.” That is rather value heavy name.

      Someone or some group needs to come up with an extremely dry and value neutral quiz. The best quiz would probably contain lots of questions and allow for more answers than agree, maybe, disagree.

      I find it somewhat better but my issues with the quiz are that freedom and liberty are extremely squishy and subjective phrases. Equality is important to me and I think of myself as being mixed-market economically but I am not sure that many libertarians would agree.

      Just because I think certain products should be safe and tested and potentially come with warnings about side-effects (like medicine) does not mean I am anti-profit. There is no guarantee but medicine should not be snake-oil.Report

  17. Major Zed says:

    I’m re-reading “Born This Way” and it’s really worth reading. Not partisan at all (IMO) and quite fascinating in its presentation of 6 dimensions or “moral foundations.”Report

  18. NewDealer says:


    I use the word liberal over the term progressive and Conor F of all people makes distinctions between liberals and progressives.Report

  19. Tod,

    As someone who challenged you on one of your earlier posts (not the most recent, but the one you wrote a couple weeks ago) to come up with a definition of what you mean by “left” or “right,” I really have no problem with the definition you’re using here.Report

  20. KatherineMW says:

    Here’s the problem with saying “the left” when you mean “a broad spectrum of people who prefer the Democratic Party to the Republican Party”.

    The latter group is fairly big-tent – it includes a lot of people with a lot of different political opinions. That makes it very different from the present-day American Right, which is heavily exclusionary towards anyone who doesn’t toe the party line.

    “The Left”, as an entity well to the left of the Democratic Party, also tends to be quite strongly in-group oriented, suspicious of dissent, and hostile towards compromise. I know this, because I’m to the left of the Democrats, probably on the leftward side of the NDP, and I can still run into a bit of “shun the heretic” when I try to debate with members of the Left. These similarities are likely because both the Left and the Right are on the relative fringes of the ideological spectrum; the different is that the Right has taken control of a major political party (the Republicans) and the Left is basically sidelined in electoral politics.

    So when your entire argument is about how “the left” is starting to act more like “the right”, and you’re using the “the left” to mean the ideologically varied, endlessly compromising, centrist, Democratic-leaning folk – while, then that becomes very confusing, because people start trying to understand whether your use of “the left” means “The Left” or the (broadly defined) Democrats/liberals.Report

    • @katherinemw

      Maybe your point here is an opportunity for us to tweak Tod’s definitions, because I think what you’re saying actually speaks to what he’s trying to prove in this series of posts.

      We can talk about the varieties of conservatism and what it means to be a small-“c” conservative. We can then point out how the GOP at any point in its recent past is not truly representative of the variety we see there. What the GOP seems to represent, or at least seemed to represent from, say, 2000 through 2012 (to use rough and inexact years), is something called “movement conservatism.”

      It seems to me that Tod is positing something like the emergence of a “movement leftism” for which the Democratic party risks being a vehicle. He’s not saying the Dems are like this now, but that certain current trends suggests that it might become like this.

      It’s quite possible I’m misconstruing Tod’s argument. I’m certainly framing it in a slightly different way from the way he does. But if that is his argument, then I find it a very interesting one and if it’s true, then something the Dem’s, and perhaps people who identify with “the left,” too, ought to keep in mind.Report