I’ve had the good luck to be participating in an upcoming book project, called Keywords for Radicals, that seeks to explore what various political and social terms, from a leftist perspective, have meant in the past and could mean in the future. Recently, the debates swirling around Jonathan Chait’s essay on the “politically correct left” have reminded me how important such a project is – for while the term “liberalism” has been notoriously difficult to pin down in recent decades, what is rarely remarked on is how obscure – to the point of almost, at times, being invisible – what it means to be on the left is, as well. For in the discussions being had at this blog, other places online and in personal conversations, I noticed a common obstacle – the fuzziness of what, exactly, Chait means by his use of the categories “liberalism” and “the politically correct left.”
As I mentioned in the comments to Andy’s great post about Chait’s essay, I find the lack of clarity on what is meant by “the left” to be particularly frustrating. It seems to me that this term has been ambiguous for quite a while – for about as long, in fact, as the meaning of the word “liberal” stopped carrying the positive connotations it once broadly held in the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, written into the confusions about what it means to be a leftist is a history of the last 50 years of American political culture.
For it was not always this way. During the Depression – when members of the Democratic Party started commonly referring to themselves as liberals to distinguish themselves from conservatives – everyone knew what a leftist was. A leftist was a communist, or a socialist, or perhaps an anarchist. And although liberals and leftists cooperated in the actual corridors of government more than any other time up till then or since, liberals were quite clear about not being leftists and most people, if not all, regarded this as a legitimate distinction to make.
Fast forward to our contemporary times of the Tea Party, where everyone from Fox News anchors to nominally respectable politicians use the terms “liberal” and “socialist” interchangeably. We’re all familiar with this oddity, but usually the tragedy of the tale is what has happened, as a consequence, to the idea (and ideal) of liberalism. Frequent is the liberal complaint, delivered in a sarcastic tone, that obviously they are dirty commies since they believe that everyone should, say, have health care.
Now I have no problem at all with liberals pointing out the absurdity of conservatives equating a welfare state worth its salt with full-blown socialism, but it is interesting how such laments reinforce the narrowing of the political landscape by simply engaging in the battle on the basis of what liberalism is or is not, rather than what something else might be. (What is socialism, anyway? Simply not liberalism, apparently.) For it appears that the lack of a culturally influential and politically powerful left has made it difficult for liberals, as well, to get a grip on what is meant by “the left.” For Jonathan Chait, the left – or specifically the “politically correct left,” I suppose – are people who want to talk about race and gender and insist upon doing so (loudly!, with all caps even!, OMG), even when he’s really trying hard to keep things focused on the Stuff That Matters. There are all sorts of possible problems with this, but Chait is merely one example of a general lack of agreement about what in the world “the left” refers to.
Take, for example, this essay by Alan Brinkley from a few years back. Here, again, the concern is with what it means to be a liberal – but at one point, Brinkley argues that “the liberal creed remains one that even many conservatives, if they thought about it, might agree with.” So here we have a description of liberalism which, one would assume, separates it pretty substantially from leftism: whatever leftism is, no one ever wrote the sentence, “the leftist creed remains one that even many conservatives, if they thought about it, might agree with.” But not so fast. From various discussions with people who I think would refer to themselves as liberals, it has been made clear to me in the past few years that a lot of liberals do not think of themselves as closer to conservatism, but rather closer to “the left.” Again, we might want to sort this out by clarifying what we mean by liberalism, which is what liberals have been busy at work doing for quite a few years now. (This is also a huge part of Chait’s program, as he seems very concerned with preserving a liberal tradition according to how he understands that term.) But perhaps we could also help ourselves out by clarifying what we mean by “the left.”
For when we move out of the realm of scholarly or political commentators, the problem becomes even worse. Almost all self-described leftists can recount tales of being mistaken for liberals. (How many times have relatives assumed that I must be a big supporter of President Obama since earlier I said something shockingly sarcastic about capitalism?) Indeed, the most popular alternative label for those liberally inclined – “progressive” – exists in part, I think, because the distinction between liberalism and the left has been so substantially blurred. You know the problem is acute when the only “recent” pop culture reference you can think of that actually compares liberals and the left with the purpose of contrasting them is a punk rock song that, oddly enough, appears to clump socialists in with liberals and leaves only anarchists with the distinction of being on the true left! (I mean I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met any liberals who fought for Stalin.)
This ambiguity compounds the problems even self-described leftists have in navigating political contexts. Because the boundaries between liberalism and the left can be so fuzzy, figuring out where other people fall, relative to our position, can be tricky. Leftists thus have a slew of terms to describe the politics of the ambiguous liberal – “progressive” is one of these (but due to many leftists’ suspicion that it is merely a trendy way of saying “liberal” it is not too common), “lefty-liberal” is another, and there’s also my personal favorite, coined by a friend of mine, “squishy left.”
This inconvenience is not merely a matter of semantic confusion. Rather, it is a troubling sign of the times, one of many conceptual shortcomings that have resulted from the narrowing of the American political imagination. For just as Republicans can call someone like Hilary Clinton a radical and not be laughed out of their offices, leftists find it difficult to engage with their closest cousins about their differences when there isn’t even a commonly shared understanding about what those differences are. This is not to suggest that we search for some pure leftism or some pure liberalism, or that the two political and philosophical traditions never overlap; they do, considerably. Yet it does seem that having some shared concept of what it means to be on the left is just as urgent as defining or debating about what liberalism means – for whether or not you identify as liberal, leftist, or conservative, one thing is clear: our current definitions are not helping us much, and indeed, they may be hindering us from beginning to have even a coherent argument, let alone a constructive discussion.
 The very fact that I have to say I think they would refer to themselves as liberals is itself an illustration of what I am talking about; the general allergic reaction many (but rarely the conservatives) have to political labels these days often means you cannot simply assume that those who seem like liberals to you might actually identify as liberals; they might prefer “progressives” or abstain from any label at all.