Left, right, and centre are spatial terms and relational notions; ‘left’ and ‘right’ are defined in relation to one another. In political contexts, these terms also have a more substantive meaning.
From the time of the French Revolution, when the more radical delegates to the National assembly seated themselves to the left of the presiding officer, ‘left’ has designated a relatively stable, though evolving and multi-faceted, political orientation; ‘right’ has had a corresponding, contrary meaning. These polar opposites constitute a spectrum along which people, policies, programs, and political parities can be arrayed.
What they signify is impossible to say precisely, though the difference is well understood. This is because an idealised or notional left/right spectrum has been recognized, more or less explicitly, by nearly everyone since the late eighteenth century.
Very generally, the Left is dedicated to continuing the French Revolutionary commitment to ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity (community).’ Tradition, authority, and order are the core values of the Right.
Socialists of all types, anarchists and New Deal-Great Society-Bernie Sanders liberals — but not ‘classical liberals’ (‘libertarians’ in common parlance), at least not nowadays — are on the left; conservatives are usually, though not necessarily, on the right.
Political parties and social movements that everyone understands to be on the left have left and right wings, as do movements and parties of the right. As with any continuum, there are many gradations. How many there are, and how they should be described, is context-dependent.
In keeping with the spatial metaphor that has defined our political universe for so long, there is a ‘centre’ as well.
However, the centre is almost never a figurative midpoint between the left and the right.
Neither is it an Aristotelian ‘mean.’ That term denotes positions that are appropriate to prevailing circumstances. There is no reason to think that centrist positions are always or even generally appropriate in the Aristotelian sense. What counts as centrist is determined by the political mainstream at particular times and places.
‘Centre’ is therefore even less amenable to a general characterization than ‘left’ and ‘right.’ Typically, the centre leans towards one or another pole on the spectrum. However, it is always at some remove from both of them.
There is a tendency for individuals and parties to gravitate towards the centre, and indeed many do. But there are also circumstances conducive to polarization, and there is never any guarantee that the center will hold or even be politically significant.
In liberal democracies, where ostensibly free and fair elections serve to maintain political legitimacy, conventional wisdom has it that the tendency for the left and the right to move towards the centre is particularly salient. The general idea is to garner as many supporters to their left and to their right as they can.
It, therefore, makes sense, supposedly, to pitch policies towards the median voter. Political parties intent on rallying particular constituencies may nominally endorse more extreme positions, but then they seldom actively promote them. Radical aspirations are therefore frequently stifled in the legislative arena, even when support for them runs strong in the general population.
When the center does fail to hold, it is usually in periods of political and perhaps also social upheaval. In those conditions, centrist parties, along with the constituencies they represent, often radicalise — generally merging into the side that wins the day.
Thus it is mainly in situations in which the regime itself is undergoing fundamental transformations that the center is depleted of its former occupants. In time, though, a new mainstream is constituted, and its centre again becomes the point on the left/right continuum where the majority of positions and policies in play at the time cluster.
TO EVERYONE living through it, it feels as if the Trump presidency has turned the political scene topsy-turvy. This is what happens when there is an imbecilic president whose governing style is a low-grade imitation of a mob boss’s.
The fact is, though, that the Trump presidency, destructive as it has been, has changed a good deal less than meets the eye. The foundations of the regime remain the same as before; fundamental neoliberal economic structures remain intact, and the perpetual war regime that went into overdrive after 9/11 continues to flourish.
The jury is still out on how effective Trump’s verbal assaults on the institutions that regulate global trade will be. No matter what Trump says, tweets, or thinks, those institutions were fashioned to work to America’s advantage, and still generally do. Evidently, though, they do not conform well enough to his or his base’s understanding of American ‘greatness’; thus they have become imperilled.
What is disturbingly clear is that for all but the filthy rich, and especially for anyone not white as the driven snow, life in Trump’s America has taken a turn for the worse.
Trump has been a godsend for ‘white nationalists’, the current euphemism for nativists and racists. He has legitimated them and their views to an extent that no one would have imagined just a few years ago.
Also, to the detriment of the health and well being of the vast majority of Americans, Trump and his minions have done serious harm to America’s feeble welfare state institutions.
And even this is not the main reason why there will be hell to pay when the next economic downturn happens, as it inevitably will, more likely sooner than later. By giving Wall Street free rein again, and by cutting taxes for the rich, depleting the treasury of financial resources that could be put to use in a crisis, Trump has all but guaranteed that most Americans will soon find themselves in straits as bad or worse than ten years ago.
Worst of all, by watering down or setting aside the weak but nevertheless indispensible environmental regulations in place before their arrival on the scene, Trump has hastened the day when the world will be hit with, and perhaps be undone by, grave, possibly irreparable, ecological catastrophes.
There are many other lesser harms for which, directly or indirectly, Trump is responsible. This is all serious stuff, but while they make life worse for many people and shift the political spectrum to the right, they do not shake the foundations of the regime in a way that puts the center in jeopardy — at least not yet.
In short, what we are living through is not a Trumpian ‘revolution’, not even in the ‘Reagan Revolution’ sense, but a degeneration of much of what is worth preserving in the old regime. Trump didn’t start the process, but he has come to dominate it, and his mindless and mean spirited antics accelerate it.
IF ‘LEFT’, ‘right’, and ‘centre’ are understood in relational terms, American politics plainly does have a left, right, and centre. These designations overlay the deeply entrenched, semi-established duopoly party system that structures the American political scene.
It wasn’t always so, but nowadays, almost without exception, Democrats occupy left or centre positions on that spectrum; Republicans line up on its right. In a relational sense, the center is replete with Democrats; the left not so much. Centrist Republicans, long a vanishing breed, are, by now, as rare as snowstorms in July.
Understood notionally, where ‘left’, ‘right’, and ‘centre’ designate positions on an historically evolving, widely understood, ideal political spectrum, the situation is much the same, but with a major difference: there is hardly any left at all.
There have always been plenty of (notional) leftists in the United States, but there has never been much of an intersection between the left of the political spectrum, understood relationally, and anything resembling a notional Left.
In this respect, the United States is an exceptional case. There are few, if any, liberal democratic regimes in modern capitalist states in which notionally leftwing political forces have played such a negligible role.
This unfortunate state of affairs has become worse in recent decades under the aegis of (notionally) center-right Democrats like the Clintons and their co-thinkers. Thanks to them, the Democratic Party today is a (notionally) centrist party through and through.
They succeeded as well as they did partly because our party system stifles progressive politics more effectively than it is stifled in other ways in other liberal democracies.
The duopoly is still going strong, but, even so, times change. Largely thanks to Trump, there are now inklings of a notional Left in formation that stands a chance of avoiding marginalization.
Thus Democrats all along the (relational) spectrum now consider themselves embattled, challenged from the left by anti-Trump militants. Many of the challengers come from under-represented, Democratic-leaning constituencies — the young, women, and ‘persons of colour’ — with traditionally low levels of political participation. In view of the abundant, well meaning but generally toothless ‘diversity’ blather for which Democrats are notorious, this is delightfully ironic.
The challengers include African Americans, of course, but also people drawn from sectors of the population that Trump has targeted and demeaned with particular malice — Hispanics and Muslims especially.
The Democratic Party has been actively courting — and colonizing — African American and other subaltern constituencies for a long time. As was evident in the Clinton campaign’s efforts to fight back the Sanders insurgency in 2016, it has forged robust political machines in the process. Their ability to mobilize voters on behalf of mainstream Democratic candidates has been disappointing however; what they have been mainly good at is tamping down radical dissent.
But because race and ethnicity intersect with age and gender — and because, in the final analysis, ‘it’s the politics, stupid’ — many of the African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims and others now being drawn into the electoral fold will likely not be as amenable to being coopted by Democratic Party grandees as persons who ‘look like them’ have been in the past. The danger of cooptation remains formidable, but it is almost certainly surmountable if the will to resist the pressure is strong.
Thus conditions are now in place for a revival of Left politics at the electoral level.
This frightens the party’s leaders. They and the pundits who serve them speak of unity. But is plain as can be that they are determined to quash whatever they cannot turn to their own advantage.
Corporate media’s role in this endeavor is crucial. They are already hard at work — pushing the all-too-familiar line that the way to win, especially in ‘red’ states and districts, is to occupy the (relational) center.
In this context, ‘red’, of course, doesn’t mean red; it means almost the opposite, Republican. Only in America!
The evidence they offer is equivocal at best. I would hazard that a better case could be made in support of the idea that it was Democrats acting like Republicans that made Trump possible, and even necessary, than in support of the idea that Democrats in 2016 weren’t Republican enough.
The argument for taking up Republican lite positions – or rather positions that Republicans would hold had Trump not hijacked their party – depends on two considerations: one based on fallible common sense and one on a highly stylized model of rational choice that has little, if anything, to do with the kinds of choices people make in the real world.
The common sense argument, crudely but perspicaciously put, comes to this: that in a contest between two corporate ass-kissing parties, the party that corporate assholes prefer has a plain advantage.
The rational choice argument trades on the plainly dubious view that, for example, the best, or rather the most rational, place to set up a lemonade stand on a particular block is in the middle, equidistant from the two corners.
The example assumes, among other things, that prospective customers are evenly distributed along the block and that their tastes in lemonade and their desires for it are relevantly similar. It also assumes, that their choice of where and from whom to buy lemonade depends on how far they are from lemonade sellers. Placing the stand in the middle of the block minimizes the maximal distance that potential customers would have to go. Somehow, the argument goes, this consideration makes the middle position best.
It is far from clear why it would. In the real world, how far a potential lemonade customer is from a lemonade stand is seldom, if ever, a compelling reason to buy from one seller rather than another; quite to the contrary, distance is seldom a factor at all in such decisions, particularly when the difference in distance from one stand to another is trivially small.
It can be argued cogently, though perhaps not always convincingly, that the general idea behind this example explains why parliamentary socialist parties, seeking to form coalitions with other parliamentary parties, often forsake the radical promises they make to their own party members and to the general public. However, its relevance to voter behaviour in Democratic primaries or in general elections in which Democrats and Republicans compete, especially when not voting is an option, is about as far-fetched as its applicability to the placement of lemonade stands.
Nevertheless, defenders of the conventional wisdom insist that the rational choice is to go for the centre. The Democratic Party leadership and liberal cable networks are on board with this. Being nothing if not shrewd, the party’s leaders can be persuaded to make cosmetic changes. They are therefore willing to bend a little to keep their ‘base’ happy. Ultimately, though, they will, to the best of their ability, allow only as much change as is necessary to assure that nothing of importance changes at all.
A task of a genuine political Left would be to transform the (relational) left of the Democratic Party into a Left in the notional sense; or, better still, to construct (notional) Left alternatives outside the Democratic Party’s framework altogether.
As matters now stand, though, except insofar as it is useful for keeping Trump and the miscreants he has empowered from doing even more harm than they otherwise would, while his – or Mike Pence’s — Constitutionally mandated term grinds on, the Democratic Party is, at best, a non-starter.
Therefore the way to think about making common cause with it is the way that major sectors of the notional Left in the interwar years of the twentieth century thought about working with anti-fascist parties that represented class interests distinct from or even hostile to the interests of workers. The idea, then, was that in the face of an impending emergency, it made sense to fight with them, while always maintaining a critical distance.
That passes for a ‘resistance’ in liberal or ‘democratic socialist’ circles nowadays is a pale approximation of the genuine article. This is not just because the spirit of rebellion has been bred out of us or because of any failure of imagination; it is because in the circumstances that currently obtain, resistance, like ‘revolution’, even in the anodyne ‘Our Revolution’ sense, just isn’t on the agenda.
But there is something now that can and should be resisted by any and all appropriate means — the illusion that the way to defeat Trump and Trumpism and, more generally, to advance progressive causes, is to tack to the relational centre.
That centre in today’s Democratic Party is a dead centre; it is where progressive impulses go to die.
And, like a vampire on a mission, that dead center is gearing up for a fight — against those who would challenge the Democratic Party from the left.
Witness the weeklong spectacle that accompanied the departure of John McCain from the land of the living. What a nauseating display of veneration for a man supremely unworthy, and of nostalgia for the good old (actually bad old) pre-Trump days!
How pathetic! The whole country’s, not just the Democratic Party’s, left, right, and centre — minus Donald Trump, of course — heaping praise on a Navy pilot who, heeding McCain family traditions and the call of Lyndon Johnson, killed a lot of Vietnamese peasants for no defensible reason, before becoming a ‘hero’ after the Vietnamese shot his plane down, and who, after repatriation, embarked on a legislative career in which, despite a few ‘maverick’ exceptions, he promoted every retrograde Republican cause that arose, war mongered vociferously at every opportunity, and did all he could, even before Hillary Clinton took a notion, to get the Cold War revved up again.
They were all there, every rotten one of them — from Barack Obama and Joe Biden and, their brother-in-arms, George W. Bush, the man who, but for Trump, could now boast of being the worst president in modern times, all the way to the decrepit Henry Kissinger, the never to be indicted war criminal whom liberals have learned to stop loathing and to call upon for advice instead.
Even that malevolent airhead couple Jarvanka showed up, invited, it seems, by Senator Lindsey Graham, McCain’s hapless sidekick.
This was no popular front. It was a festival of the dead ventre, a blight on the political landscape, and, with Trump sucking up all the air, a harbinger of things to come.
CounterPunch.org, September 7. Andrew Levine is the author most recently of The American Ideology (Routledge) and Political Key Words (Blackwell). His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a research professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.