No question about it: We the People of the United States are now sharply
divided into two hostile political factions, variously labeled as “liberal
vs. conservative,” “left vs. right,” and (my preferred designation),
“progressive vs. regressive.” Let a stranger utter just a couple of
sentences of political opinion, and you will usually have a pretty good idea
with which faction he identifies himself.
(There is a third part of our population, perhaps the largest: the
a-political. When asked the question, “what do you think of the
political ignorance and apathy of the American public,” they will likely
reply “I don’t know and I don’t care.”)
The ongoing political debate in our country exemplifies one of the most
remarkable paradoxes of language: namely, that while we routinely use
abstract words without difficulty and are well understood when we do –
such abstract words as “love,” “beauty,” “justice,”
“freedom” – we find it very difficult to define them, when challenged
to do so.
This paradox is well known to philosophers. For example, Plato wrote at
length about all the above concepts, and often came to no firm conclusion.
In fact his best known work, “The Republic,” is a book-length attempt to
In this essay, I will attempt the difficult task of defining “The Right”
and “The Left” (and its synonyms) – concepts which are employed in
public discourse with little apparent difficulty. In this brief space, I can
only offer a grossly over-simplified analysis and some unqualified
generalizations – a first approximation. For when we scrupulously examine
the polar political concepts of “Right” and “Left” as they are used
today, we encounter a great deal of vagueness, ambiguity, and even
contradiction. Thus, after I have set down my ten brief and simplified
distinguishing elements of “liberalism” and (so-called)
“conservatism,” it is necessary that I offer five qualifications.
That task that I’ve begun here can not be accomplished in the space of a
brief essay. It requires a book – and in fact that book is in progress.
Subsequent essays in this space will be drawn from that book, A
Progressive Manifesto, as work progresses.
One final note, before we proceed: In this analysis, I will use the
contrasting terms, “Right vs. Left” and “progressive vs.
regressive.” However, I will avoid the terms “conservative” and
“liberal.” As I have argued elsewhere (here
the word “conservative,” in its traditional sense, simply does not
correctly apply to the contemporary policies of The Right. As for
“liberal,” that word has been so abused by decades of assault from the
right, that it no longer serves to communicate its original meaning.
I propose the following ten pairs of
distinguishing characteristics of “The Right” and “The Left.”
1. Is society a collection of private individuals or is it a community?
The Right: Society is an aggregate
of self-interested individuals. Associations within the society are
personal and voluntary. Social progress issues from private,
self-interested behavior. Strictly speaking: “there is no such thing as
society – there are individuals and there are families.” (Margaret
Thatcher). “Good for each, good for all; bad for each, bad for all.”
The Left: Society is a community: “a cooperative venture for
mutual advantage [which] makes possible a better life for all than any
would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.” (John Rawls,
A Theory of Justice, p. 4) Common goods are achieved through
individual constraint and sacrifice. “Good
for Each, Bad for all; Bad for each, good for all.”
2. Cui Bono? Who are the beneficiaries of the policies?
The Right: A “Master Morality”
(the term is from Nietzsche). Policies and rules are designed to benefit
the wealthy and powerful few who own and control national wealth at the
expense of the masses who produce the wealth. For example,: George W.
Bush’s 2006 Budget Proposal and his tax “reforms.”
The Left: A Social-Democratic Morality. Policies and rules are
designed to result in the greatest good for the greatest number in a
regime of “equal justice under law.” Examples: FDR’s “New Deal”
and LBJ’s “Great Society.”
3. What is the function of government?
The Right: The function of
government is to protect the fundamental rights of life, liberty and
property – nothing more. “Government is not the Solution.” (Ronald
Reagan, 1981). “Government is the most dangerous institution known to
man.” (John Hospers). “Who is best qualified to spend your money? You,
or the government?” (George W. Bush).
The Left: Government “of, by, and for the people” is a
legitimate surrogate of the people’s interests and a protector of the
people’s rights. “To secure these rights, governments are instituted
among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
(Declaration of Independence, 1776). Citizens must constantly be on guard
against abuses of office. However, the answer to bad government is better
government, not the abolition of government.
4. What are the justifications for taxation?
The Right (i.e., the Libertarian
faction): Taxes for any purpose other than the protection of individual
rights to life, liberty and property, are a theft of personal property.
(But for the religious right, tax revenue may also expended to compel
The Left: Taxes are legitimate dues that we pay for civilized
society. (Oliver Wendell. Holmes). Taxes can be legitimately levied to
support such community goods as education, the arts, national parks, basic
research, and physical infrastructure. In general, to “establish
Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,
promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to
ourselves and our Posterity.” (Preamble, Constitution of the United
5. What is the function of free markets in society?
The Right: Social problems can best be
solved through the unconstrained action of free markets. Private
initiative and privatization of property produces results superior to
government action. (Maslow’s Rule: To a carpenter, all problems can be
solved with a hammer. Corollary: To the right, all problems can be solved
by the free market).
The Left: Privatization and free markets, while valuable
ingredients of society, must not be absolutes. They must be regulated for
the common good by agencies of popular government. Unregulated free
markets are self-eliminating, for their natural tendency is toward
monopolies and the end of competition. Thus the necessity of anti-trust
6. Is wealth generated in society from the top down (“trickle down”)
or from the bottom-up (“percolate up”)?
The Right: “Trickle-down.”
Prosperity results from investment by the wealthy. “The rising tide
lifts all boats.” “I never was given a job by a poor man.” (Sen.
The Left: Wealth “percolates up” from the labor and innovation
of an educated work-force.
7. What is the role of language in society and politics?
The Right: Language is a political
weapon, to be “shaped” to the advantage of the ruling elites.
"Newspeak" in George Orwell's 1984 shows the way.
Lives!" and "The
The Left: Language is the primary (“keystone”) social
institution. The distortion of language leads to social disorder, public
alienation from politics, and economic inefficiency. In other words, the
left takes an authentically “conservative” view of language.
8. How are human conduct and society morally evaluated?
The Right: Simple, dualistic view of
human nature, morality, society and social problems. (“You are either
with us or against us.” G. W. Bush).
The Left: Complex view of human nature, morality, society and
social problems. Rules and principles often conflict and must be
“bent” to accommodate circumstances. (The Religious Right derides this
as “situation ethics” and “moral relativism”).
9. Political methodology.
The Right: Dogmatic approach to
policy. “Top down:” unyielding principles applied to particular
circumstances. “Unconfused by the facts.”
The Left: Pragmatic and empirical. “Reality based:” i.e.,
willing to be “instructed” by the real world. Principles adapted in
the face of newly discovered facts and newly invented technology. Policies
tried, and if they fail, are revised or even abandoned.
10. Moral perspective:
The Right: Egocentric point of view.
Society viewed and evaluated through “the mind’s I.” The interests
of the individual are supreme.
The Left: Moral Point of View. Society viewed and evaluated from
the perspective of the “ideal observer” of the society as a whole,
without advantage accorded any individual unless that advantage works to
the benefit of all. (Equal opportunity, blind justice).
From these elements arise the contrasting policies of The Right and The
Left, regarding such issues as the minimum wage, Social Security, worker
protection, legal liability (torts), and environmental protection.
1. Political opinion is in fact distributed along a continuum – a
“spectrum” – thus between the extreme Right and Left are the
“centrists” and “moderates.” Because the above list suggests a polar
dichotomy of political opinion, it is a distortion.
2. Accordingly, these elements are not “defining characteristics,”
rather they are “symptoms.” (“Defining characteristics” are
attributes that something must have for a word to correctly apply to it. For
example, “unmarried,” “adult” and “male” are defining
characteristics of the word “bachelor.”) Because these “elements”
are not defining, a “progressive” or a “regressive” individual may
exhibit many but not all of the traits attributed above to The Right and The
Left. To cite a medical analogy, these traits are like “symptoms” that
comprise a “syndrome.” Not all symptoms need be present to confirm a
3. To further complicate matters, there are strong disagreements among the
factions that comprise “The Right” and “The Left” – within each
“family,” so to speak. For example, the libertarian right opposes all
legal restrictions on personal conduct (e.g., drug laws, sodomy laws,
obscenity restrictions, banning abortion, etc.). The religious right, on the
other hand, advocates the criminalization of “sin”.
4. These traits are not necessarily exclusive. A political position might
“mix” both “right” and “left” traits, and do so consistently.
Surely The Right affirms, for example, that workers produce wealth
(“percolate up”), and The Left acknowledges the necessity of private
investment in a thriving economy (“trickle-down”). (Only the radical
left, e.g., the communists, would deny the necessity of private investment).
The distinction is in the relative importance The Right and The Left assign,
respectively, to private investment and to labor.
5. Finally, because this list has been drawn from a progressive point of
view, regressives would surely object to several of “The Right”
elements, listed above. Most notably, they would strongly object to the
characterization of “The Right” as a “master morality.” Most
regressives sincerely believe, or at the very least emphatically affirm in
their public pronouncements, that their policies (notably “trickle down”
and minimalist government) bring about “the greater good for the greatest
number” of citizens. I will argue that this assertion is a delusion at
best, and a fraud at worst. Examine each policy of The Right and ask, “Cui
Bono?” – who benefits? – and the answer will almost invariably be
“the privileged few.” An apparent exception would be The Right’s
support for the agenda of the religious right – opposition to gay rights,
advocacy of obscenity laws, the banning of abortion, etc. – but even these
policies are also devised to benefit the oligarchy of wealth and privilege,
for they are adopted to secure the enlistment of the essential “foot
soldiers” of the Right, the evangelical Christians, whose votes are an
essential ingredient of the political power of The Right. (“Master
Morality” will be the subject of my next essay, and the third chapter of A
The list is offered to progressives as an inventory of “targets” – of
doctrines of the Right to be criticized, and of The Left to be defended. But
to be of much use, these elements must be elaborated and examined – which
is why I am writing my book.
As you read this list of “elements” and the qualifications which follow,
you may think of some refinements and additions. By all means, share them
with me with an e-mail to this address: [email protected]
. This is, after all, a work in progress.