A staple of conservative criticism on cable news, talk radio, and social media is to disparage liberal opponents as creatures of the left (or, for good measure, the far left), an epithet that satisfies the need to place them beyond the pale. In return, too many liberals disparage their conservative foes as creatures of the right (or, worse, the far right).
The high offered by either dispensation is emotional clarity. It makes things simple. No need for further discussion.
But in launching such attacks to stake out positions as guardians of our democracy, both parties are appropriating invective that is decidedly un-American.
The terms left and right date from the French Revolution in 1789 when members of the National Assembly sitting to the right of that body’s president wanted to preserve the king’s powers and those on the left sought to limit them. Eventually, the king lost both his powers and his head but the terms took on a life of their own.
In the 19th century, the left in France generally strove for liberalism, secularization, and social and economic reform; the right stood for monarchy, the church, the army, and top-down republicanism. There was also a Center that fluctuated between the two factions, and of course schisms within them. The result was intermittent violence from the revolutions of 1830 to 1848 to the Paris Commune. Or the rhetoric of violence with the Dreyfus affair, the “Two Frances” of the interwar years, the triumph of the French right in the Vichy era and the Socialist-Gaullist struggle in the postwar years. The only constant was the loathing both sides had for the other and the conviction of each that only its own nostrums could save France.
Variations on the French paradigm of left and right infected France’s neighbors as the rest of Western Europe lurched into democracy in the late 19th and 20th centuries with baleful results. The Weimar Republic struggled through 15 years of political strife until the Nazis brought it to an end, with a little help from the Communists; nor could democracy survive the chasm of left and right politics from Austria to Spain in those fitful interwar years. The rare exception was England, with a traditional Conservative, Liberal, and Labor Party, although this seems to be going by the board in our own time.
This left-right lockstep was foreign to America. We had our own conflicts but we never described them in the categories of left and right. It is a foreign idea.
To be sure, Americans engaged in partisan politics and took a backseat to none in vilifying one another, but always as members of political parties which, whatever the contumely heaped on one another, were nevertheless American. Federalists versus Republicans; Democrats versus Whigs, Republicans versus Democrats.
When racial strife or class warfare erupted here in the second half of the 19th century, it was, for the most part, incorporated within the standards of the two main parties. When this proved inadequate, there was recourse to third parties from the Populists to the Socialists to the Bull Moose enthusiasts to the Dixiecrats. (The exceptions were the Communists and the American Nazi Party, both foreign imports on the fringes of American politics that failed to take root on native grounds.)
But for the better part of the 20th century, most Americans considered themselves Democrats or Republicans and, depending on the political climate, often crossed over at the polls. Each party represented a certain overall worldview: the Democrats pro-labor, economic reform, social safety net, and progressivism; the Republicans fiscal discipline, smaller government, individual responsibility, libertarianism, and traditionalism. Within these strictures there was considerable flexibility. The other side’s position might be seen as wrong-headed but it wasn’t anathema. The operative word was “consensus”—respecting the other party’s position and hammering out a compromise in an atmosphere that, for all its cantankerousness and bombast, was still congenial. Most politicians and their adherents stayed within bounds. One ventured beyond them—as did Senator Joseph McCarthy—at his own peril. Rather, politicians would declaim the disabilities of the opposition, or even joke at the foibles of their own side. As the humorist Will Rogers famously observed: “I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”
It wasn’t until fairly recently that Democrats were turned into leftists and Republicans into rightists. These are terms of mutual abuse. Not only are they foreign imports but, worse, they tar their targets with the brush of foreignness. If you’re a Democrat who supports more liberalized immigration policies or a woman’s right to choose or the Affordable Care Act, you are a leftist, an alien whose beliefs will undermine the country. At best you are a useful idiot if not an outright traitor. If you are a Republican who advocates tighter immigration, more religion in the public weal, gun rights, and fewer taxes you are a rightist.
These are terms of opprobrium that are un-American in every sense. They come out of a foreign soil of civil strife in a zero-sum culture of haves and have-nots where people were cast in the convenient categories of “Us” against “Them.” It was a winner-take-all politics with no quarter given, so each side fought to the last and demonized the other in doing so.
To be sure, there was a “New Left” in the ’60s, which presumed itself a successor to an “Old Left.” But that itself was a fringe movement of the “Progressives,” more an engine of ideas appropriated by mainstream New Dealers than a mass movement in its own right. Similarly, in the postwar years there were localized efforts to form a Liberal Party subsumed by the Democrats and a Conservative Party which became redundant as its precepts took hold in the Republican Party.
At its national convention in 1948, the Communist-tainted Progressive Party, which ran Henry Wallace in his ill-starred presidential bid—played a theme song whose refrain went: “It’s the same old merry-go-round / The donkeys go up and the elephants down.” This was an attempt to mock the sameness of the two major parties and to suggest that the Progressive Party offered a serious alternative. In a way, the progressives were right. Because although the Democrats and Republicans disagreed on many issues, they did have one thing in common: a belief in the American system and a respect for their political opponents. That “sameness” has been lost in recent years. The Communists of yore might take comfort that the very alien ideas of “left” and “right” that they themselves embraced have now been adapted by the more strident voices of both parties.
It was the progressives’ hope to take over a major party from within. Little did they dream that their vision would be fulfilled by activists at the other end of the spectrum.
Like climate change, the question in American democracy is whether the rift in our politics is still reversible. One small step in this process would be a lightening of the rhetoric, which means dispensing with such pejorative categories as “left” and “right,” and listening to what the other person has to say. The American genius for righting the ship of state in troubled waters has served us well until now. Whether it can find its way through the current storm is still in balance. The choice is ours.
Jack Schwartz was book editor of Newsday.