Okay, so you're not a liberal. Glad we got that out of the way. Neither am I.
But that doesn't mean you're not a Lefty. We have a strange way of talking about politics, here in the United States. Tune in to any talking-heads show on TV and you'll see self-important guys in suits talking about "liberals" versus "conservatives" -- as if those two categories defined the limits of the possible. To make it even more confusing, they sometimes talk as if "liberal" and "leftist" meant the same thing.
I'd like to suggest a different way of talking about politics: let's leave "liberal" and "conservative" out of it for a minute and talk about "Left" and "Right".
These terms actually have a long history, which we don't need to go into here. But their meaning has been pretty constant and it isn't hard to define. The Right consists of the people who want to keep the rich rich and the powerful powerful -- the people who can be counted on to fight anything that might make the rich less rich, or the powerful less powerful. The Left consists of the people who wouldn't lose any sleep over trimming the sails of the wealthy and powerful, either because they believe in equality and democracy as positive values, or because they think there are things more important than the wealth and power of the wealthy and powerful: things like, oh, the natural environment, or the living standards of working people, or the liberty and dignity and privacy of the individual.
Let's get one thing straightened out, right away: it's actually quite possible to be a conservative, in several important senses of that word, and also a Lefty.
That sounds strange, doesn't it? The TV talking heads would tell you that "left" and "conservative" are polar opposites. Not so. For example it's perfectly possible -- and there's nothing illogical about it -- to think that people shouldn't sleep around, or spend their days consuming Internet pornography, and still to be willing to take the rich and powerful down a peg or two. It's perfectly possible, and logical, to believe that abortion is wrong, or spend your money collecting guns, and still think that medicine shouldn't cost so much, and that if the profits of the drug companies take a hit, well, that's just too damn bad.
What people often mean when they say they're conservatives is that they aren't 100% crazy about every cultural and social development that has happened in their lifetime. Which is quite understandable. But taking that view doesn't mean you have to like taxpayer bailouts of gilded Wall Street malefactors, or insurance vultures devouring the vast amounts we spend on health care. And if you're OK with making Wall Street and Aetna unhappy, then let me tell you, you've been a Lefty all these years without realizing it.
Perhaps you consider yourself a patriot, and you think that Lefties are people who hate America, or aren't willing to defend the country. Not so. But Lefties do make a distinction between fighting to defend the country, should that be necessary, and fighting wars of conquest that make the American people less safe rather than more.
Possibly you consider yourself a libertarian. This is a word with several meanings, but we can distinguish two important ones: there are personal libertarians and economic libertarians. My interest just now is with personal libertarians -- folks who just want government to leave them alone.
Personal libertarians aren't usually anarchists -- they believe that government does have some role to play -- but they want to keep it out of their hair as much as possible. I suggest to you that this is a fundamentally Left attitude, in a country where large corporations have taken over the government for their own purposes. Just think about the intrusions into your home that government is contemplating, in order to enforce "intellectual property" rights on behalf of movie studios and record labels. Just think of all the surveillance and monitoring that government proposes in the name of "national security" -- and who was it that made us insecure, but the corporations who saw opportunities for profit in imperial expansion?
In short: where is the biggest threat to individual liberty, autonomy and privacy coming from? Is it not those owners of wealth and power, who are the Left's natural enemy? And so -- if you're a libertarian, how can you not be a Lefty?
Now let's invert the hypothesis. Let's say you're what the talking heads call a "social liberal" -- you believe that abortion is a private matter; you think people should sleep with whoever they want to sleep with; you enjoy looking at Internet porn occasionally -- oh, all right, for hours, every day. So maybe you think you have to be a political liberal as well -- like, say, Hillary Clinton?
Well, again, not necessarily. This brings us back to what that word "liberal" really means, as applied to politics rather than culture.
Political liberalism, as opposed to the social kind is, above all, an elite outlook -- though it's an elite of SAT scores and educational credentials rather than an elite of wealth and power. It's not at all a Left outlook, since it values institutions and regulations, law and process, over the unruly wills and affections of ordinary folk.
Political liberalism has no quarrel at all with wealth and power. It timidly exhorts the wealthy and powerful to play nice; but if they don't choose to take liberalism's advice, then liberalism sighs, and wrings its hands, and murmurs something about being "realistic."
Liberalism is about anything but liberty. Liberalism is about regulation -- regulation drawn up after careful study by qualified experts, people with credentials, people who know what's good for you. Liberalism is about lawyers arguing the esoterica of Constitutional interpretation before the Supreme Court, and you having to live with the result.
In the same way, political "conservatism" -- the thing that, say, the Republican Party claims to stand for -- is about anything but conserving the values and the way of life that people are attached to and want to conserve. "Conservatism", as, say, Fox News understands it, is all about sweeping away any remaining obstacle to the relentless aggrandizement and enrichment of already-huge and rich corporations. Oh, they put on the cowboy accents, and mouth all the words -- but the record speaks for itself.
In fact, both political "liberalism" and political "conservatism" belong to the Right, as I understand that term. They are both about preserving and enhancing power and privilege. Liberalism defends and promotes the power and privilege of the professional elite, and "conservatism" defends and promotes the power and privilege of the corporate elite.
The Left is neither liberal nor conservative. The Left stands for individual liberty, autonomy, privacy and dignity, and for the good things enjoyed in common by ordinary people -- like open space, clean air and water, and the elementary decencies of civilization. Where power and privilege come into conflict with these values, the Left says that power and privilege must yield.
You don't have to hate wealth and power to be a Lefty -- though I might as well admit that I personally do hate them. But you don't have to accompany me that far. All that's needed to make you a Lefty is that you believe that there are other things that are more important than wealth and power -- things to which wealth and power must be made to give way.
Take a look at that pledge again. Is that you?
If you've read this far, I bet it is.
-- Michael Smith