Are Left and Right Meaningless Political Labels?
by EDWARD CLINE
December 1, 2011
The standard Left-Right yardstick of political identity places President Barack Obama on the Far Left, which means Communism and the total state. On the Far Right? Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck and others, according to the received wisdom. The Far Right is synonymous with fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, and autocracy, with some religion mixed in.
But anotherinterpretation of his political agenda would place Obama on the Far Right. Indeed, countless political cartoons using Nazi and Communist propaganda posters from the past have depicted Obama in either regime’s attire and waving the appropriate swastika or hammer-and-sickle banner. The phenomena leave readers either amused, confused, or in agreement.
The standard, ubiquitous yardstick begins on the left side with Communism and ends on the Far Right with fascism. But is this yardstick of any value? Is it a valid measure of political systems? Is it a trustworthy indicator of an individual’s or organization’s political beliefs? For decades it has served only the Left when the Left wishes to characterize a politician or political agenda in deprecatory terms as being on the Far Right.
In truth, there is no fundamental difference between the Far Left and the Far Right. They are both totalitarian in nature. Their median is a mushy socialism posing as “Progressive” welfare statism that leaves no whine or grievance left behind. And in all historical cases, the median has always drifted inexorably in one direction or another. The “liberty, equality, and fraternity” of the French Revolution that threw off the aristocracy – a revolution colored by egalitarian collectivism – gave way to the Reign of Terror, a dictator, and two decades of war. In truth, the direction is irrelevant. One can be enslaved, robbed, imprisoned, and beaten by a man wearing a brown shirt as thoroughly as by a man wearing a red one. Or a black one. Or even by a man in an Earth First T-shirt.
The 2010 Super Bowl Audi commercial was a tongue-in-cheek depiction of “Green Police” lording it over violators of government environmental regulations with all the fervor and intrusive power of TSA screeners. Whose progeny are they? The Left’s, or the Right’s? Who sowed the dragon’s teeth of environmentalist tyranny and let loose the uniformed harpies? Tom Haydn and Bill Ayers, or Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush?
The standard yardstick is ambidextrous in nature, and is useful only to the totalitarians of either “side” when they wish to resort to name-calling and pre-digested bromides. There is no yardstick that truly incorporates the antithesis of the alleged opposites, which is individual rights under laissez-faire capitalism. Seen from the perspective of an “outsider,” the Left-Right yardstick is useful only if one wishes to measure the contradictions and conundrums posed by modern political trends and how they imperil individual liberty.
The device of “ambidextrous politics” to measure and explain political trends and consequences is not new. Search the Web and one will find dozens of references to the subject, and long essays about how the standard yardstick is inadequate to explain contemporary or even historical political systems. The Left-Right yardstick has been critiqued before. But because there is a common revulsion among “conservatives” and Progressives alike for unfettered free markets and the rule of secular law (and not of bureaucrats or priests), laissez-faire is missing from the yardstick. And justly so. Laissez-faire breaks the ruler in half. But that yardstick has been burned into the minds of millions over decades of indoctrination in schools.
Norman Berdichevsky, editor for The New English Review, is the author of The Left is Seldom Right, published in 2011 by The New English Review Press. It is a collection of essays and articlesby Berdichevsky from over the last five to six years. It challenges the Left-Right yardstick and offers ample evidence of its inadequacy to explain and incorporate all the varieties of statism and freedom. Berdichevsky, however, does not offer an alternative measure that would handily identify the particulars of the Left and Right. It owes much to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, which pioneered the critiquing of the Left-Right yardstick.
The Left is Seldom Right is a virtually unedited collection of twenty-two of Berdichevsky’s pieces. It suffers from numerous typos, awkward syntax and sentences, and duplicated paragraphs that pop up in different articles or chapters. There is no index of subjects, only a selective bibliography. An index would have been helpful because so many of the names, kinds of government, and historical instances recur or overlap in the chapters. The book is disorganized and lacks a thematic flow. And often one will find whole paragraphs lifted from sources like Wikipedia without attribution (e.g., the account of the Luxor, Egypt massacre of tourists by jihadists in 1997, p. 244). Attorney General Eric Holder is referred to as “District Attorney.” One is at a loss to understand why so little care was invested in a book that purports to refute an important ideological premise.
An instance of how the Left-Right yardstick can tilt one’s perspective on politics (not cited in the book) is offered here from “Our Bipolar Politics” on The Working Reporter website about politics in Wisconsin and Minnesota:
Minnesota and Wisconsin are politically bipolar. Wisconsin, in particular. The home to so many progressives and union activists is the same state that gave us Joe McCarthy and Paul Ryan. McCarthy’s record of deception, witch-hunting, black-listing, career-wrecking and defamation, speaks for itself. Congressman Ryan, who grew up in a nearly all-white town, attended a nearly all-white college and then went to work for his family’s small town business before being encapsulated by the bubble of conservative politics (great range of experience), is “ranked among the party’s most influential voices on conservative economic policy.”
Lucky us. No surprise that this guy is to the right of Attila. Before long, he’ll probably be calling for hearings on un-American activities. Like his fellow-traveler Michele Bachmann, he’s on the “Less government and more God!” track.
“Our founders got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.” – Paul Ryan
Apparently Mr. Ryan sees no gap between the figurative and the literal, feels no real need for context (a number of the founders were Deists), and thinks that if we all pray hard enough everything will be just fine. Hallelujah.
My home state of Minnesota is also on tilt. They’ve given us Humphrey, Mondale and Franken. The good ol’ DFL. Common sense at every turn. Garrison Keillor’s written a wonderful book about Minnesota politics entitled, “Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America.” And now, like a bad cold that won’t go away, the great state of Minnesota continues sending us the uninformed right-wing mental machinations of Michele Bachmann.
The author would be less flummoxed had he not employed the Left-Right yardstick, which makes him the prisoner of an unnecessary paradox. But, note the repeated usage of the term “right” in the screed, always as a term of disparagement. The term “left” is not in evidence. This is because the implied “correct” direction is left and needn’t be mentioned in print or outloud. There is no other default direction. The term “left,” after all, might alert the reader to unsavory elements of that position better left unsaid and un-implied. “Left,” however, is synonymous with welfare state entitlements, “empowered people” vs. political cronyism and corruption and unrepresentative government, caring for the poor, soaking the rich, guaranteeing a “quality of life,” opposing an ossified “establishment,” and so on. All of it “good.” All of that is implied or insinuated.
Conservatism, allegedly a “right-wing” phenomenon, always stands for penny-pinching, heartless, union-busting, old-boy networking Scrooge-ism, not to mention unfettered, unregulated capitalism. In fact it does not stand for any of those things. Conservatism means: conserving or preserving the status quo, even if it means preserving a wealth-consuming and wealth-spreading, right-violating, deficit-financing welfare state. The Left always wins in these circumstances, even if it loses elections. Conservatives do not challenge the moral premises of the Left. It shares the basic altruistic, collectivist premises of the Left. It would rather “progress” to full statism in a soap-box racer, instead of on the Left’s Harley-Davidson. But both sides depend on building their statist utopias on the standing rubble of a semi-free economy.
It is this kind of blinkered, epistemologically arrested measure that can be dispensed with. In the first chapter, “The Origins of the Right-Left Metaphor; The True Right-Left Dimension,” Berdichevsky presents several alternative yardsticks, or graphs, or compasses which, while they are inadequate in themselves, demonstrate that the notion that all politics must be viewed as either Left or Right or somewhere in between (the “center” or “middle ground”) is absurd and misleadingly simplistic.
Surely, a pictorial guide is needed. Berdichevsky depicts one on page 30 of his book, a compass with four directions emanating from liberty and tyranny, with Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left, Objectivists, independents and centrists on the top of liberty, pointing to freedom, and communists, fascists and other totalitarians on the bottom, pointing to serfdom.
Berdichevsky presents abundant evidence throughout his book that the Left-Right dichotomy is patently false. He describes how various authoritarian regimes in history were designated “right” or “left” by their opponents. Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, supposedly a “pro-business” regime that oppressed the workers, was simply a pale imitation of Hitler’s National Socialist regime, complete with major industries and businesses entering into government-private sector “partnerships” in command economies. The sauerkraut of Nazism was complemented by the pasta of Fascism.
Oddly, Berdichevsky does not mention Otto von Bismarck’s socialist welfare state, thus missing a chance to underscore the nascent and watershed fascist origins of a unified Germany and how its welfare statism spread to the rest of Europe. Were Mussolini, Hitler and Bismarck “right-wingers,” or “left-wingers”? Neither. They were statists of varying degrees and styles of tyranny. The details of the regimes are almost irrelevant. Force was the sole and final arbiter of an individual’s relationship with the state. The Hitler and Mussolini regimes were noted for their “right-wing” violence and brutality: street warfare, assassinations of opponents, party purges, show trials, and the like, all staged in the pursuit or retention of power. As were the Lenin-Stalin brands of Communism. But they were all instances of socialism and collectivism in action. That is, of the “Left” in action. Or the “Right.”
Berdichevsky’s book, if nothing else, can enlighten a reader about so many past paradoxes, such as why the Left originally endorsed the founding of Israel but now is engaged in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel vitriol. Berdichevsky discusses the Spanish Civil War, the Greek and Argentine episodes of authoritarianism, and why the Left allies itself with Islam and the Right refuses to condemn that particular species of totalitarianism (to question Allah and Mohammad, after all, must eventually lead to questioning God and Jesus Christ – this is my observation, not Berdichevsky’s).
In a chapter too short by several hundred pages, Berdichevsky also tackles Hollywood’s Leftish paradigm and our Leftish literary establishment but leaves one unsatisfied. Ayn Rand is mentioned once as the only screenwriter in Hollywood who had lived under Communism, and a quotation from her HUAC testimony would have been illuminating. Director Elia Kazan is mentioned as the bane of Hollywood communists. Berdichevsky, however, fails to mention one movie that would have helped to underscore his point that Hollywood was under the strong influence of American communists, For Whom the Bell Tolls.
I saw this film, directed by Sam Wood and released in 1943, for the first time decades ago before I knew anything about the Spanish Civil War, that is, about who was on the Left or Right (or who were the Republicans and who were the Franco-Falangists, or who were the good guys and who were the bad). Or before I knew anything about Sam Wood. Hemmingway’s novel was a disappointment. But the film still leaves me almost uncontrollably moved – especially the ending – as much as does the ending of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (the Ralph Richardson audio production, not the José Ferrer, 1950 film production, although I won’t gainsay the film). Is liking For Whom the Bell Tolls an indication of political naiveté? Does liking it place me on the Left or Right?
Berdichevsky, apparently an anti-abortionist religious conservative, reveals his own “right-wing” leanings (in many instances he includes abortion as another left-wing imposition) when he excoriates the film Inherit the Wind (the 1960 version) and claims that the depiction of William Jennings Bryan as a fundamentalist, bible-thumping, non-intellectual yahoo, which he actually was, constituted a disgrace and evidence of Hollywood’s Leftism.
And it is here that Berdichevsky also reveals his own Left-Right yardstick confusion. Bryan’s populist appeal meshed neatly with the Progressive or socialist message that grew louder and louder from the 1880’s throughout the 1920’s (culminating in FDR’s New Deal). Somehow, Bryan is revered by Berdichevsky as a tragic martyr of the Right. Yet it was the Progressive movement of the 19th century, coupled with imported statist ideas from Europe, notably from German universities, that resulted in the accelerating growth of big government and the Left’s welfare and regulatory state in the United States. Bryan contributed to that growth, as did many, many “right-wing” Republicans.
How would Berdichevsky place H.L. Mencken on any yardstick or political measure? What does he think of Mencken’s sardonic obituary of Bryan, who died shortly after the Scopes Monkey Trial? Mencken:
“The evil that men do lives after them. Bryan, in his malice, started something that will not be easy to stop. In ten thousand country towns his old heelers, the evangelical pastors, are propagating his gospel, and everywhere the yokels are ready for it…. Heave an egg out of a Pullman window, and you will hit a Fundamentalist almost anywhere in the United States today. They swarm in the country towns, inflamed by their pastors, and with a saint, now, to venerate.”
Mencken was arguably of the “Right” – when the “Right” meant respect for individual rights and opposing an intrusive, invasive, and shepherding government. Where would he fit in Berdichevsky’s political universe?
Is Berdichevsky of the Left, or of the Right? Go figure.