Left, Right, Center–REALLY?

As the competition among Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination heats up, pundits are warning against taking the party “too far to the left,” or alternatively reminding readers that “centrists” are failing to connect with the party’s rank and file.

We are once again entering bullshit land, where labeling takes the place of analysis. Plop a label on a policy proposal and suddenly it is a call to arms: if the label says “left,” self-identified conservatives and centrists bristle and oppose it; if the label says “centrist” or “moderate,” it is reflexively opposed by self-identified leftists.

Needless to say, no one is considering the proposal on its merits.

This rush to categorize candidates and policies as right, left or center is not just misleading, it is lazy and often irrelevant (not every policy position can be crammed into a nice neat ideological box). This habit has irritated me for years– in fact, in 2003, I wrote about it.

Periodically, someone will respond to a column I have written with a statement beginning “well, you liberals always…” Being dismissed as a liberal always amuses me, because I hold precisely the same political values I held in 1980, when I was the Republican nominee running for Congress against Andy Jacobs, and a fair number of voters found me “too conservative.” The only thing that has changed is the label….

Well, to be fair, the GOP has also changed, galloping off to the radical far right, and pulling the “conservative” label with it. But I stand by the following paragraph:

This mania for labeling people so that we don’t have to engage with them on the validity of their ideas has accelerated during the past few years. Perhaps it is talk radio, with its tendency to reduce everything to name-calling sound-bites. Admittedly, it is much more efficient to call a woman a “feminazi” than to take the time and effort needed to discuss why her positions are untenable. And the tactic certainly isn’t limited to Republicans; Indiana’s very own Evan Bayh has solemnly warned the Democrats against the danger posed by “leftists” like Howard Dean. (I’m not quite sure when Dean’s support for gun rights, the death penalty and a balanced budget became “far left” positions. Perhaps when they were espoused by someone the Senator isn’t supporting.)

Labelling an opponent’s proposal as “extreme” (left or right) is a tactic to undercut that proposal without actually engaging with it.

Allowing citizens to opt into Medicare (i.e. making Medicare a “public option”) or advocating expansion of the program (“Medicare for All”) are hardly proposals to dismantle capitalism. They are proposed solutions to a real and growing problem. Imposing higher marginal tax rates on the rich would return us to tax policies that used to be widely endorsed by both parties. Doing so would hardly turn America into a communist gulag.

These and other proposals may or may not be sound policy. We won’t know if we refuse to   address the particulars of suggested policies and instead simply label and dismiss them.

Pundits notwithstanding, the truth of the matter is that America doesn’t really have the sort of leftists that have long been active in Europe. What passes for left-wing in the United States is moderately progressive. To the extent there is extremism in the U.S., it is on the radical right, and the most important task facing Democrats and Independents is to rid the nation of Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell.

Flinging labels at each other won’t get that done.


  1. “To the extent there is extremism in the US, it is on the “radical right” “.

    Do you Really believe that? If so, you’re being intellectually dishonest.

  2. “So, Purdue provided another stop for billionaire Schultz, one of Forbes 400 richest people, to test the political waters in a tour date that came together in a matter of three days on the West Lafayette campus.”

    So, we gonna talk labels! Schultz claims to be an Independent who may or may not make a bid for the 2020 circus. Speaking at Purdue makes me suspicious of his Independent label; Mitch Daniels as Governor of Indiana appointed most members of the Purdue University Board of Directors who, in turn, appointed Daniels President of Purdue University. Daniels left his playbook for Pence to continue his works as governor; Pence kept to the playbook and added his religious fervor to enact laws working against LBGTQs and all women in this state which helped put him in the White House as Trump’s bobble-head in photo ops. Would a true Independent seek such support to make a bid for the presidency? I think not! I was an Independent voter for decades and recognize a far right-wing Republican when I see one.

    “This rush to categorize candidates and policies as right, left or center is not just misleading, it is lazy and often irrelevant (not every policy position can be crammed into a nice neat ideological box).”

    Schultz crammed himself into the box on the right with that 3-day trip to Purdue. If he should decide to attach himself opening to the GOP, we are looking at another Trump with more intelligent speaker abilities due to his intelligence level.

    I deeply dread the upcoming presidential parade of contenders on all sides; we must survive today, another Friday under Trump’s MISadministration and the weekend awaiting “what next?” will be forced on us on Monday. Keep 2020 in mind but, to use a term Charles Manson preached to his “family”; “Come to now!”, meaning face the realities of today.

    George; you need to become more curious to what is going on.

  3. I’m no one’s syncopant, even if more often than not the person is correct in hypotheses, such as the author of this blog. If there is an illogical statement that is emotionally based rather than on facts, it’s not a bad thing to point that out. I was ok with everything else except for that glaring statement.

  4. JoAnn, you are absolutely correct about Schultz being at Purdue at the invitation of Daniels. I was disgusted at the news. Of course, I am continuously disgusted at my alma mater ever since Daniels placed himself there as the president. Now, even more so since he has created the online university that will ultimately downgrade a Purdue degree. Schultz was definitely courting the republicans in his visit to West Lafayette. I imagine his appearance was well attended.

    I do believe that the labelling of an opponent as extreme left can be attributed to the rabid talk radio hosts and Fox Noise. They continue to ramp up their vitriol while defending their truly far right views.

    Regarding McConnell, I heard on an NPR podcast last week that the Kentucky voters actually hate him but they will keep him in office as long as he supports Trump. Yes, those idiots to the south of our border still love the prez who is doing everything he can to lower their living standards and take away their healthcare too. So, no matter what Trump says or does, McConnell will back him up because McConnell is up for re-election in 2020.

  5. George – I disagree with your statement because it actually IS the radical right that is out there constantly screaming and hollering that the left is trying to take over and destroy the country while it is the right who has actually been doing what they are accusing the left of doing.

    It is a well orchestrated, finely tuned and fully funded libertarian marketing campaign that has been quite successful and continues to eat away at our democracy on a daily basis.

  6. George,

    I think we can agree that there are so few left wing extremists in this country that we might say they are irrelevant to nearly any political discourse. On the other side of the ledger, however, the extremists are in control of an entire major party.

  7. schulz at Perdue,sounds like a moment for free publicity. like trump.he,ll spread the layer thin,with the greatest taste. trumps runaway freebees,were at the gracious feed from cbs,nbc,fox,abc,etc,and whatever purveying whores of media have decided we should tollerate and give into. free publicity is a mainstay once the privleged is found a way to sell itself,for any reason. any outside money,will be taken like a cheap whore.so,let the advertisers and media barons understand,we are not taking this cheap blitz again. do your part as a citizen,to act like one,them and all of us.. labels suck, its the person..far left,sure,i am one,as my lic plate says,,, on my jacked up 4X4 pickup,,”alt left” ,,damn proud of it.. but im not selling my ass to the media,so they can make a buck,and further erode democracy..hey schulz,another name,assh,,, we dont need another trump…

  8. For what it’s worth, I agree with Sheila’s take on lazy punditry. PEOPLE!! It’s February 8, 2019, no November 1, 2020!!

    This “labeling” of Democrats is a waste of time, a distraction and stupid. We must keep our eye on the ball: To whit: Get Trump out of office as soon as possible. We may not HAVE an election in 2020 if the neo-Nazi gets his way. ANY Democrat can beat Trump in 2020. Any of us on this blog can beat Trump in 2020 if we have the support and funding.

    Most of the Democratic candidates are congruent, policy-wise. It won’t matter about their label. We just have to pick the best candidate to beat Trump and someone who can bring the Senate over to the blue side of aisle. There is SO much damage to repair from 2020 onward, as to emulate a second reconstruction.

    Our task is to keep formulating and perfecting the kitchen table issues that 70% of the country wants. Let the right-wing clowns have their 34% of fools. We must have the super-majority in both Houses of Congress and the White House to cleanse ourselves of the orange menace.

  9. Well said, Sheila! The labeling game reflects political gamesmanship, not the actual realities of public policy. It is a way to avoid public dialogue rather than to further it.

    Let the issues speak for themselves, without pundits and funded advocates casting spells to make them invisible to those gripped by the fear of being labeled “liberal” or “left” or “conservative” or “right.” Let the conversations proceed.

  10. There is another dimension to this left-right labeling and it is this: That whether a party is moving left or right depends on where the center is at a given time. Given this measuring stick, we have moved so far to the right since Reagan that a move to the “left” today brings us to a still “right” position in macro terms.

    Sheila hits the nail on the head with her description of politicians who are lazy and use left and right in lieu of sober analysis of each proposal, but from a political point of view why shouldn’t they? It has been a tried and true means of enlisting votes among the (also lazy) masses for or against a bill by simply labeling it left or right. We the people are thus voting not for or against a bill but some politician’s description of it rather than for or against the substance of any such proposal.

    We can do better. We can look at each proposal with an eye as to how it serves the common good and without inflammatory adjectives such as liberal, conservative, left, right etc., leaving those terms for the stump and not descriptions of stands on legislative bills, but it won’t be easy since all of us have grown accustomed to such descriptive terminology, and I plead guilty.


  11. Extremist and lazy are labels too. Let’s engage on ideas. If journalists are not doing their job properly then let’s point out the failures and what is lacking in their work ethic. Rather than call someone an extremist, let’s discuss why their actions and speech don’t do anything to help the situation. Provide examples of how such tactics fail and some of the drastic consequences of the failure to treat each other as equals and with respect.

  12. Of course those abstaining their support for the DNC authorized candidates will still be labeled as bots and Russians.

  13. “Bullshit Land” – I sincerely hope that this doesn’t end up as being the moniker for this country, actually showing up on maps of North America. All of this purely invented political chaos is certainly leading us in this direction “where labeling takes the place of analysis” and all common sense and consensus building. I, like you Sheila, deal with having inaccurate labels being placed on me all the time for the very same reasons by friends, some being life long friends who have drunk far more than their quota of that Kool-Aid. I tend to go with what actually works and is sustainable in regard to public policy which I have always considered to be a virtue. All of this clearly bogus-labeling, all geared to derail the very justified efforts to remove the clowns currently infesting our government from it, is merely another ploy by those infected with “baccilus stupidus pseudo-republicanus”. They are all so moribund that this is all that they have left to use and they know it.

  14. Of course you don’t want to be labeled as left or extreme left because the “left” try to hide what their real agenda is, until now! Thankfully AOC’s Green New Deal and the abortion infanticide agenda in NY and Virginia are opening peoples eyes to what the left really stands for. What a gift they’ve given to the GOP

  15. Always good to find Sheila Kennedy reflecting on an issue I enjoy. Does that make me a Sheila-wonk? OK Fine. I posted an article from Beverly Gage in the New York Times called “The Political Center Isn’t Gone – Just Disputed”. Give it a read. Nice augmentation to this piece!!
    Go get em Sheila Kennedy!!

  16. It is primarily McMega-Media who wants to use these labels. The labels require no in depth analysis something these days the McMega-Media absolutely abhors. They do not want to spend the time or effort to evaluate each potential candidates stance on the issues. Rather, they label and then tri-angluate each candidates fit within a certain demographic.

    A major issue for 2020 should be Medicare for All and nothing less, with controls on the price of drugs. However, there are the defenders of the For Profit System who are advocating some Medicare “buy in” which would keep the For-Profit system intact. Others still cling to trying to improve ACA, which allows the For-Profit System to survive.

    The other issue is a paid for college or trade school tuition for all who want to expand their education. Denmark has this, in fact a student is paid a stipend to go to school.

    Tax reform and to eliminate the loop holes, money laundering and tax evasion practices so near and dear to Wall Street. I like Elizabeth Warren’s idea of a wealth tax.

    There is also our never ending wars against someone or anyone. We need to drastically cut back our world wide military footprint. So far it seems Tulsi Gabbard is the only one with the courage to say this and of course the Neo-Cons that inhabit both parties are appalled by this.

  17. Ever scince Rush Limbaugh showed the way politics as entertainment has consumed media from print to radio to TV to antisocial media on the Internet. In the process it obscured the line between what Sheila labels civic illiteracy and clownmanship.

    We now have soap boxes and megaphones for everyone regardless of learning level and insight and even common sense. The cacophony has to be organized somehow in order to be anything but babble so we label everyone and everything with often more respect than it deserves as a political position.

    In the process we have reached the extreme of meaninglessness for all of the labels.

    Que Agent Orange stage right a person clearly beyond political labeling of any meaningful type.

    For those who want to return to thinking we have to rise above labeling. It rarely adds to meaning anyway. Let’s talk merit in the future and accept that the future will be, regardless of what anyone wants, profoundly different than our past and our only choice is to prepare for it. We don’t any longer in this overcrowded over connected world determine it.

    The world changes. We adapt.

  18. The Democrats didn’t adapt. If they had,Hillary Clinton would not have been the chosen candidate. When Biden is chosen,Trump will be greeted with 4 more years. Bet on it.

  19. To resort to a purely mechanical metaphor: often issues are like bolts stuck in a hole; it does no good to try to loosen or tighten a left-threaded bolt with a right-handed wrench nor a right-handed bolt with a left-handed wrench.

    Some of our problems might best be solved with right-favored policy.

    Some of our problems might best be solved with left-favored policy.

    Mislabeling policy may be useless but not as useless as the fixer who carries only a partial bag of tools.

    We need leaders in government who are wise enough and unafraid enough to use a left- or a right-handed tool when those tools are required by the problem…regardless of the label assigned to the fixer or the tool.

  20. Once again, you’ve said it better than anyone. Resorting to sound-bite labeling does indeed prevent engagement on the issues. So sad. I fear everyone is becoming a victim of attention-defcit-disorder.

  21. Sheila – thank you and amen!
    So well said.

    My philosophy profs used to say that the truly home-grown, American school of philosophy was Pragmatism. Maybe that’s why a “too conservative, former Republican” and a self-described “unrepentant, bleeding heart liberal” agree on policy so often. 8)>

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