Who are the Left? A Liberal Response
by New Dealer
Tod Kelly recently tried to define what he considers to be the Left and received much criticism for his definition. This is my attempt as a liberal Democratic party supporter to try and define the differences between the Democratic Party, Liberals, and The Left/Leftists.
The first issue is that politics depend a lot on the context of nations. This essay is solely focused upon politics and people in the United States of America.
The second problem is that the terms Left and Right originated in a very specific historical context and have probably outlived their uses. The very brief description is that the terms the Left and the Right originated during the French Revolution and originally referred to the seating arrangement of the Estates General. The republicans and anti-monarchists generally sat on the left-hand side of the Estates General and the monarchists and pro-Bourbons generally say on the right-hand side of the Estates General. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say that the terms Left and Right have outlived their purpose and most people have political beliefs that place them all over the map. We have seen this numerous times on this board and almost everywhere else in politics and many issues do not tack squarely to being solely on the left or solely on the right. There are liberals and conservatives who oppose the Drug War and NSA and possibly for very different reasons. There are liberals and conservatives who support same-sex marriage and for very different reasons.
I. The Democratic Party:
The Democratic Party is a political party with a long history in the United States of America. Depending on who you ask, it might or might not be the descendants of the Democratic-Republicans and Thomas Jefferson. The Democratic Party has always been a big tent party with distinct urban and rural wings. The Democratic Party was the home of Tammany Hall and urban immigrants and also the home of Southern Planters and confederate apologists until pretty recently.
There have always been Democratic schisms and fights between moderate-conservative members and liberal members. The late 1800s saw a split between conservative Bourbon Democrats like Grover Cleveland and populist reformers like William Jennings Bryan. Whole books have been written about the struggles and changes in the Democratic Party from a largely conservative and southern party to a largely northern, urban, and liberal one.
The Democratic Party has not always been completely home to leftists though. Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas were never invited to merge with the Democratic Party and run as candidates. The I.W.W. was also very anti-Democratic Party and it was the more moderate unions like the American Federation of Labor and later the United Auto Workers under Walter Reuther that found a home in the Democratic Party. Democratic politicians have always had hot and cold relationships with unions.
Most of my friends are Democratic Party voters for one reason or another. I can come across as a socialist firebrand or an haute bourgeois sell-out depending on the friend in question.
This sort of stuff happens in any country where there are only two big parties. The UK Labor Party has long been divided between a left-wing of unrepentant socialists like Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, Tony Benn and a more moderate “right-wing” of people like Hugh Gaitskell and Tony Blair.
The same has always been true of the Democratic Party with liberals like Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone, Elizabeth Warren, Bill de Blasio, Al Franken and moderate-conservatives like Bill Clinton, Diane Feinstein, Ben Nelson, and Richard Russell.
Liberalism is a political philosophy and identification.
In the context of modern American politics, I would say liberals generally support civil liberties like (but not limited to) freedom of speech and privacy, reform of the criminal justice system, a woman’s right to choose, civil rights legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and EDNA which protects the rights of minorities and allows for full participation in economic and civil life. There is also support for a strong and robust welfare state and general legislation to help the poor and disadvantaged.
The infights for liberals are not about goals but more about the best policies for helping make sure more people reach the middle class and are no longer trapped in poverty. Almost all liberals probably agree on universal healthcare and the need for a robust safety net with unemployment insurance, food stamps, and social security/pensions for retirement. Differences are over issues like upzoning and economic deregulation, and charter schools.
This fight usually gets described as being between neo-liberals like Matt Ygelias and more traditional liberals like me who are more market-skeptical or prefer a mixed-market economy with socialist and capitalist aspects.
III. The Leftists
Were you in college or grad school during the 2000 Presidential Election? Did you get involved in many earnest discussions with people who insisted that there was no difference between Bush and Gore and the only real liberal was Nader?
During 2012, did you know people who positively responded to Roberto Unger’s video about why Obama needed to lose because things would only improve once the masses saw how bad the right could be?
This is the Left. They talk about being anti-Empire and love Chomsky as one commentator pointed out in Tod’s attempt at defining the left. This part of the Left has never been part of the Democratic Party and does not want to be part of the Democratic Party. On contrast, the Republican Party has done a lot to actively court their fringe elements. See Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Gold and the Unmaking of American Consensus for a good view on how the far right took a decades long climb to be power players in Republican politics. A tactic that they will be paying for in future generations because most people under-40 find the GOP abhorrent when it comes to social issues.
It is hard to count how many people belong to or identify with this section of the left because of their isolation from the Democratic Party and because they lack a party of their own. The mayor of New Paltz, New York was a member of the Green Party once upon a time. Seattle recently elected a socialist to their board. A handful of other cities have city council positions filled by Green and other small left parties but overall their presence in American politics is miniscule. Almost every big metro area in the US is going to have a handful of anarchist collectives and communes but these businesses and communities often choose to live in semi-seclusion it seems.
This version of the left is often fairly harmless and often the subject of jokes. For examples, google for articles about the very acrimonious debates that happen at meetings for the Park Slope Food Co-Op. Or read about the decline and politics of Pacifica Radio. I remember hearing someone on Pacifica denounce the Nation as being too right-wing.
This is a very simplistic and subjective overview of what I see as the differences between the Democratic Party, Liberals, and Lefitsts. Political identification is largely about self-perception and there can be no easy definitions and a lot of True Scottsman Fallacies. There are people who stay identified with the political parties long after their politics changed. Justice Byron White often felt that the Democratic Party left him behind but felt compelled to design during Clinton’s administration because he was still a Democrat. Justices Steven and Blackmun both made comments about how they didn’t change but the Republican Party did as they increasingly became seen as being part of the Court’s liberal bloc.