Evolving Meanings of Left vs. Right

Andrew Sullivan is having a label-crisis. He appears to be troubled by the fact that his views are not the views held by most people who now identify themselves as conservatives:

I suffer, it seems, from an affliction that bedevils many. I now find myself largely opposed to most Republicans and in favor of a Democratic president as an even tempered pragmatist. But I have not reimagined myself as a leftist. Others have, of course, but I wince a little every time. Take the issue of taxes – and you see where the right-left paradigm is totally insufficient to the occasion.

Income tax rates are now lower than they were under Ronald Reagan and far lower than they were under Eisenhower. And yet it has become a Norquistian non-negotiable that no taxes can be raised at all on anyone, let alone the beneficiaries of the last thirty years – and those who differ must be “leftists” – even when the US is facing debt of historic and dangerous proportions. Someone advocating what Eisenhower was perfectly comfortable with would be regarded by the Republican right today as a communist. And yet, of course, Eisenhower was emphatically not a Communist, whatever the John Birch society believed. In retrospect, he might even be seen as the most successful small-c conservative of the 20th century. (This was indeed Paul Johnson’s take in Modern Times.)

Similarly, those who view Obama as some kind of radical have to come to terms with what Glenn Greenwald spells out here:

Since Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones has increased more than 50% — from 8,000 to more than 12,000; the wealthiest recieved a massive tax cut; the top marginal tax rate was three times less than during the Eisenhower years and substantially lower than during the Reagan years; income and wealth inequality are so vast and rising that it is easily at Third World levels; meanwhile, “the share of U.S. taxes paid by corporations has fallen from 30 percent of federal revenue in the 1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.”

Conservatism cannot be defined as whatever is the most extreme right-wing narrative of the moment. Time matters. Conservatism needs to be flexible enough a governing philosophy to be able to correct for conservative ideology itself. When such an ideology threatens fiscal balance, a prudent foreign policy, and a thriving middle class, it has become the enemy of real conservatism, not its friend.

The problem is that the conservative movement has been taken over by the extreme right-wing. For the rational Republicans of previous decades, Barack Obama is far closer to their views than the current Republican Party is. Even Barry Goldwater in his later years rejected the religious right and considered himself a liberal.

I’m not going to bother arguing over labels, considering how imprecise they are. If Andrew Sullivan wants to call himself a conservative, but one with views far different from the extremists dominating the conservative movement, that’s his business.

Personally I am far more willing than Sullivan to face reality and grant the extreme right wing victory in taking control of the conservative movement. These days, basically if you are not bat-shit crazy, you are not part of that conservative movement.From my perspective, that currently does make one a leftist, but I certainly am not going to try to force Sullivan to re-imagine himself as one.

The reality is that the meaning of left and right have changed tremendously over the years. There is no longer a battle between capitalism and socialism. The truth is that today the Democrats and the center-left are the supporters of capitalism in the United States. Despite their rhetoric, most on the right do not. The right now supports a system of plutocracy which has been corrupting our free market system.

Today’s conservatives certainly are not fiscally conservative in the traditional sense. While far from perfect, the Democrats have a far better record on the Republicans with regards to the deficit and fiscal responsibility. Bush and Reagan were the biggest backers of big government and were the ones responsible for deficits.

Factors other than economics have become more important in distinguishing between liberals and conservatives. The biggest division came during the Bush years as liberalism came to primarily mean opposition to the neoconservative foreign policy (including the Iraq war) and opposition to the increasing dominance of the religious right in the GOP. In past years Republicans would support the religious right by with their rhetoric. Once in office they would throw them a few small bones, and then laugh them off as the kooks of the party. Under Bush, the kooks took control and social issues increasingly defined left vs. right.

At present I would consider these factors to be the most important characteristics of liberalism compared to conservatism:

  1. Support for individual liberty
  2. Support for a market economy, including the regulations necessary for markets to work fairly and efficiently, as opposed to being corrupted to be used to transfer wealth to the ultra-wealthy
  3. Support for science and reason in interpreting the world and making policy decisions

Some on the left hold economic views which old time conservatives would not be comfortable with, but quite a few do not.

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4 Comments

  1. 1
    ItzMeB says:

    Evolving Meanings of Left vs. Right: If you are not bat-shit crazy these days, you are on the left. #ncpol http://bit.ly/hjzfNN @RonChusid

  2. 2
    Lee Roberts says:

    MT @RonChusid: Evolving Meanings of Left vs. Right: Not bat-shit crazy? You're on the left. #p2 #p21 #topprog http://bit.ly/hjzfNN

  3. 3
    #topprog says:

    Evolving Meanings of Left vs. Right – http://liberalvaluesblog.com/2.....-vs-right/

  4. 4
    Ralph Dratman says:

    Ron,

    This is a GREAT post. Between Andrew Sullivan’s carefully chosen words and your reflective commentary, it’s a real double feature of exposition.

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