Left, Right, Center: Just Words

When it became apparent that Joe Biden had effectively won the Democratic nomination, it intensified the longstanding arguments between the party’s moderate and left wings about just where the American public falls on that beloved–and misleading–left/right spectrum.

A good example was this article from Washington Monthly, reprinted on Alterrnet.

This is the fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere: Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016; Sanders-style revolutionary candidates lost most of their Congressional races in 2018 while moderates were much more successful; Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was obliterated in Great Britain by buffoonish Boris Johnson’s Tories in a direct Sanders-Trump parallel; and now the Biden victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.

But defeatism would be the wrong lesson for leftists interested in passing social democratic policies in America and Britain. The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform.

The article went on to point to the mountain of social science research confirming that so-called “Leftist” policies are favored by significant majorities of Americans, which is undeniably true. (The author also pointed out those insisting that economic self-interest can trump cultural divisions are just as undeniably wrong.)

This was just one article among hundreds arguing that this or that campaign success or failure was the result of mistaken political strategies and issue framing. (If Bernie hadn’t insisted on using the word “socialist”….)

To an extent, that’s true.  What all of these analyses miss, however, is the role played by our American insistence on labeling everything. It isn’t simply intellectually lazy; labels significantly distort political reality.

If I consider myself a moderate or conservative, I will recoil when told that position A is “socialist” or “communist.” If I consider myself a liberal or socialist, I will automatically oppose measure A if it is supported by people I consider conservative or reactionary.

Actually, what is “left” and what is “right” at any given time is highly contingent.

When I was a politically-active Republican, the majority of the views I held were the same views I share on this blog. (Not all, obviously, but most. My basic political philosophy has been pretty consistent.) Back then, I was labeled “very conservative.” As the GOP marched over the ideological cliff,  my positions–which hadn’t changed– became “liberal.”

Hard as it may be to believe in our culturally and politically polarized time, many of the positions that Americans label “far left” today were considered unremarkable and mainstream in former years.

That shift is best explained by a concept called the Overton Window. Basically, as public opinion shifts, so does the location of the “middle.”  That middle, at any given time, defines what is politically possible.

In a sane society (granted, that isn’t what we currently inhabit), voters would analyze political positions based upon the perceived ability of those specific proposals to solve identifiable problems–not upon the consistency of that proposal with a label ascribing it to a tribal ideology.

But that would require understanding the problem, agreeing that it is a problem, and thinking carefully about the pros and cons of the proposed solution. It’s so much easier to react not to the proposal but to its identification with the “tribe” that supports it.

I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things…..


  1. Most voters don’t operate on logic anyway. Otherwise they wouldn’t be voting against their self-interest, goaded on by Republicans.

    Voters mostly vote from their emotions. What gets them off the couch or raises their ire. Certainly not policy papers.

  2. “If Bernie hadn’t insisted on using the word “socialist”….”
    Of all of the people who bristle at the word “socialism”, I wonder how many of them refused to accept the corona stimulus payment? The U.S. Treasury should get a big boost as all of those checks are returned.

  3. The “labels” we use to define ourselves are what the Linguist, George Lakoff, calls “frames.” They represent safe “places” into which we can crawl to find how best to react to the world around us.

  4. I would dare anyone to show me any economic system that works by itself. I can’t remember ever seeing a successful Communist system (outside of a convent of cloistered nuns), nor a Socialist system, nor a Capitalist system. All successful economies are blends. Most are blends of capitalism and socialism. The key is that the economy, whatever form it takes, must be well regulated. The problem with applying labels to everything is that they don’t describe anything except, perhaps, intransigence.

  5. Today’s leftist ideas are the same ones Franklin Roosevelt championed and from which the middle class (remember the middle class?) grew and prospered until Reagan’s trickle down theory.

  6. “As public opinion changes…”

    Who or what influences “public opinion?”

    A report has already been circulated in London that senior Labour Party officials sabotaged Corbyn’s campaign by circulating rumors that he’s an antisemite. Now, why in the world would the Labour Party sabotage their efforts with the momentum that Corbyn had generated?

    Who told the people about Corbyn being an antisemite and who manufactured consent for the Brexit policy?

    A country ranked 25th like the USA on the global Democracy Index doesn’t have a political spectrum — it has a hierarchy.

    Once again, who or what communicates “reality” to masses of people, and how can there possibly be so many versions of the truth or reality?

    Does anybody expect that the capitalist-owned media will suddenly start reframing our society as a classist system where workers are getting screwed by capitalists who use whatever means possible to keep their power and money flowing?

    If #FakeNews is tagged on anything other than Fox News, can you imagine the horror if ALL media used the same framing?

    By the way, a recent poll of Republicans showed that 50% of them believe that Trump should be able to shut down media stations. These are the same people who call Bernie Sanders, “Comrade.”

  7. “What all of these analyses miss, however, is the role played by our American insistence on labeling everything. It isn’t simply intellectually lazy; labels significantly distort political reality.”

    Marv is correct in labeling our current condition as a “WAR”; another Civil War which will result in maintaining the Union or destroying the Union as governed by democracy, Rule of Law and supporting OUR Constitution. What is “left”, what is “right” and what is “moderate” is now on all issues and at all levels “life vs. death”, physically and metaphorically for this entire nation under the horrific “leadership” of two “enemies of the state”…Trump and McConnell. The political reality is that they are the two members of their private “circle jerk” to increase their power and financial profit margins and for no other reason.

  8. Todd,

    “By the way, a recent poll of Republicans showed that 50% of them believe that Trump should be able to shut down media stations. These are the same people who call Bernie Sanders, “Comrade.”

    It’s turning out to be just one, big, bad, joke. Someone needs to find a “long pole with a hook on the end” and pull Donald Trump, along with his ardent supporters in the Republican Party off the “political stage.”

  9. Peggy and Alphons: WELL SAID. You two went right to the nub of our politics. REAL economists are compelled to admit that FDR saved capitalism from itself. The greedy, “let market dynamics fix all problems” crowd keeps plunging our country and its people into a neverland of self-absorbed wealth seekers. But they never addressed, nor address the 15% living in abject poverty. They’ve been there since Reconstruction – in varying degrees and percentages – and NO political movement has done much proactively to bring those 15% into the world of earning a living wage with a living skill set and live in decent housing while sending their children to decent schools.

    The above scenario are included in FDR’s last SOTU address in 1945. Simple, huh? Not to Republicans. You know, it’s that bootstraps myth they keep selling to those with no boots. So, labels and frames are what ideologues do, what speech writers search for and election chairpeople work on. Meanwhile 15% of our population lives on the brink. Why don’t they vote? Well, gosh. Who would they vote for that would address their issues and offer programs to raise them out of abject, institutionalized poverty? Not Republicans, because offering something like an inner-city Marshall Plan would be socialists. Not Democrats, because they’re afraid of being labeled socialists thus turning off the misguided middle classes who swallowed the capitalist worm.

    We, as a nation, won’t come close to fulfilling our founders’ dreams until we (1) make the intellectual leap to overcome our inherent racism, (2) forget the labels created by the monied interests and do the right thing in making our society more fair and rewarding to those willing to work at building/rebuilding everything, (3) value educators and treat them/pay them equivalently to other, highly-educated professionals and (4) proactively eliminate the scourge of drugs and guns by way of dignified work, available health care for everyone and injections of pride into our living conditions. Eliminating the underclass will raise all boats on the tide of their purchasing power, reduced crime and job creation.

    But that’s just me. Nobody listens to these things, or if they do, nothing is done about them. It doesn’t matter about being Republican or Democrat so much as it does about being selfish or far-seeing.

  10. Vernon,

    “But that’s just me. Nobody listens to these things, or if they do, nothing is done about them.”

    They never will, unless we address the WAR. And the RACIST, ANTI-SEMITIC, OLIGARCHY behind it all.

  11. Let’s get down to a ROOT CAUSE ANALYSIS of the Trump disaster.

    It lies in the lap of the Koch Brothers, Charles and his deceased brother, David, and, more importantly, their decease father, Fred Koch, founder of Koch Industries; Co-founder of the John Birch Society.

  12. Todd,
    on the money,,Bernie didnt have the media behind him,he was a awkward joke. someone outta step when they didnt follow the socalled mainstream.. in talking with others who fill the mob i work with,its always “before they give it all away..”never,how will he pay for it. obviously we had dire influence from faux news(murdochism),the billion aires telling the millionaires,telling the little people how to think. farmers are out in the field today,i see them as the biggest pushovers,when they are literally the ones getting the biggest shaft. because they have to believe their neighbors thinking,or the feel they wont survive. they as a group pounce on any so called giveaways,etc,because,they didnt have any..(like a farm bill, eh bubba?) the sense they have a give aways,are hostile to others having one..,but dont stop those subsidies . they feel the average joe doesnt deserve a ,(for any reason)living wage because they didnt have one,nor should they be taxed to give one..again,running the fake news circut again and again. if wall street didnt siphon up the profits in futures,stocks,hedge funds,the farmer would have a better chance, at his gamble.
    but his news service is bolstered by cheap slants and timed monolog. if you were to look at the think tanks,and ask why they exisits?, that alone would send a message,its for the biggest dollars to influence,by scientific research. telling the working class whos who,and why you shouldnt vote for them,by some overpaid suit in makeup on fake news talking heads.

  13. Again, when I clicked the POST COMMENT button, my comment was erased.

    First, I’m getting damned tired of that happening.

    Second, it makes me even more annoyed at having to type my name and email for every post I enter.

  14. The idea that Americana may be moving to the left is accurate, though the rate of movement is thought to be glacial by leftists and too rapid by others of us in our party. Some of us apparently feel this is a first time thing with Bernie and his hot to trot followers when a cursory look at history shows us a Debs from down Terre Haute way who makes Bernie look like a right winger.

    Truth be told, we Democrats are indeed a party of the Big Tent and have firebrand AOCs as well as rather conservative members in our political grouping, and like Sheila, see our self-descriptions vary depending upon the definition of “center” for the day claiming, alternatively, that we haven’t changed but that our party has left us etc., all based on our perception that the “center” has moved right or left and that we are victims of such movement. Disclaimer > I am guilty of self description as a pro-labor New Deal Democrat slightly to the left of center, but recognize that such description is itself subject to obsolescence as the “center” moves left or right based on the issues of the day. As of now with the “center” moving left, it appears I will be a middle of the roader at some point – but when – and how do I know that the “center” won’t move right and make me a new lefty in my party? The lesson > We may be what we are but are subject to the collective wisdom of the herd in describing what we are.

    Right now I have neither time nor inclination to pursue theories in political science when our house is on fire with a demented fire chief in charge. I am 100% obsessed with removal of the fire chief and his sycophants and accept any and all assistance from all voters of any or no party affiliation, right, left or center. First things first!

  15. diffrent subject,
    i found a corona 19 timeline written by a journalist who did some research,and added the stories behind each timeline..
    commondreams.org by dilip hiro

    the corona virus chronology from hell.
    take a look, its got the peices from news from around the world as it developed.and of course,dr trumps ingnoring it..

    if frobes mag was right about trump loosing 1 billion in march of his empire, the we should see another billion gone by months end, i dont think his net worth is beyong that..november, trump evicted from white house, pennyless… ya gotta bring the coniac our for that one.
    best wishes, washdapaws..

  16. jack,

    “if frobes mag was right about trump loosing 1 billion in march of his empire, the we should see another billion gone by months end, i dont think his net worth is beyong that..november, trump evicted from white house, pennyless…”

    If that’s the case, can we blame him if he initiates a coup before then? I sure wouldn’t. Maybe Gerald would.

  17. Marv – We have already had a coup of sorts with Trump’s capture of a major political party, members of which tolerate his dictatorial antics so they can remain unleashed by such distractions in their individual pursuits of money and power. Our task is to keep this developing coup from maturing until we can remove the ringmaster this fall. Fortunately, polls indicate that we will succeed as some of his cult are having second thoughts. Anecdotally, I received an email from a hard right Republican nephew last night who told me he was considering voting for “my” candidate. I think he may be one of many as Trump continues to demonstrate his rapidly declining illness to all, an illness, by the way, which could be so debilitating that (in the absence of a 25) he may not be the Republican candidate for president this fall, a possibility I presume Perez has considered since, as Bill once noted: There is many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.”

  18. Marvis correct,
    Everything is monitored! Back in the early 2000s, before I retired, we went to this particular site across from the woodfield Mall in Arlington heights Illinois. It looked like a domino laying on its face.we ran three separate high-voltage feeder lines into the building. We also ran bundles of fiber optic cables that were 6in in diameter. These cables ran from a satellite dish farm a few miles away. This building monitored every single conversation in the United States autonomously. Every word deemed threatening or conspiratorial, those conversations were recorded and scrutinized and saved.

    This building has walls that are 6 ft thick with reinforced concrete, lead lining the outside, and a steel veneer. It could withstand the EMP from a nuclear explosion. There were security cameras and motion detectors along the right-of-way from the building to the dish farm.

    Every single conversation, every single blog, every single thread, every single text message, and every single email along with regular video conferences and telephone conversations are monitored and recorded, if necessary!

    I can guarantee with absolute certainty that probably every single person who posts on this site is being monitored either through the blog itself being surveilled, or individual conversations.

    But, don’t think everyone is so special that they need to monitor you, it’s happening across the board!

    As far as the political parties go, Sheila is correct in saying that their parameters change with the times! If you compare Republicans now to the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln, they almost seem like the Democrats during the time of Abraham Lincoln, and the Democrats of now seem like the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln.

    The Republicans really took the nosedive when the Dixiecrats flooded the Republican party and converted the South to Republican instead of democrat. Mankind’s flawed political system and mankind’s ignorance of his fellow man will continue to shape political beliefs, right, left, and center, are always interchangeable, and not for the good!

    And in this time of upheaval, when protesters could actually have a leg up because of the financial peril facing some of these huge corporations, the power of the people’s purse could have an impact that it ordinarily wouldn’t have immediately. Civil disobedience, can you imagine people sitting on highways or at train stations practicing social distancing of 6 to 10 ft? you can best believe that the police are not going to want to handle all of those folks. And the amount of people would be spread out in a much greater fashion than ordinary. It definitely would send a signal, but, alas, history is just a word, and humanity is too ignorant to learn from it.

  19. Elizabeth Warren didn’t use the world “socialism” and you see how well that worked for her.

    Democratic voters were looking for a moderate liberal, someone who could peel off enough votes from their growing strength in suburbs, to win the election. Biden is well-positioned to do that as well as go after blue collar votes. In nominating Biden, the Democrats did the smartest thing they’ve done in a long time. Biden’s only weakness is he’s about 15 years too old. Otherwise he’d be the perfect candidate, especially for these times.

  20. Monitoring, and when can I believe my own lying eyes and ears?

    Mid-1964, months before the first geostationary satellite was placed in “orbit”, I attended a top-secret screening of a demonstration of US spy satellite capability. This was during my training on David’s Island, off the coast of New York, in the DINFOS efforts to create propagandist experts for the military.

    The demo began with a photo of Earth from space. Then the space camera focused on a view of New York state, then on a view of New York City, then on a closeup view of a single block in NYC, then on a single building of that block, and finally on a single window of that building. That was 56 years ago.

    Later, in 1990, in a conversation of then General Telephone CEO, the subject of the possibilities for monitoring individuals in their own homes by using their TV as a camera came up. He informed us that monitoring was already taking place long before television came into our homes. According to him, every electric line inside our homes, by a simple flip of a switch somewhere on the gird, could be turned into a microphone that listens to what is said in that building.

    Then, in 1999, I had morning coffee at Panera Bread with an ex-physics professor from Illinois State University. He then owned a business that built and sold his invention to the federal government.

    The invention was a listening device that knew no actual language on earth but did read emotional tones quite accurately. It determined through sound images the emotional content in a recording of a human voice and could tell whether the voice was speaking of innocent stuff like gossip, soap operas, recipes, sports, etc. or speaking of dangerous stuff like bombs, insurrection, spying, etc.

    Thus, his invention enabled across the board monitoring to sort recordings into those to be archived and those to be listened to again by a human intelligence agent, greatly reducing the human assets required for targeted monitoring.

    Though I saw and heard these three assertions with my own eyes and ears, and the sources were known to be impressive in some way, I still suspect that the first two were false, or greatly exaggerated. The first could have been carefully scripted theatrical special effects. The second could have been a CEO feeling a need to buff his swagger.

  21. I am always amazed about how many people of the so-called “Moderates” have visceral fear of Medicare 4 All, better to let Corporate America control your Health Care.

    Somehow the Los Angeles Lakers qualified for a loan with in the new stimulus package.

    “The Lakers applied for the loan under the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, a part of the federal government’s $2.2tn stimulus package. The Lakers’ request was granted in the first round of distribution, but after the fund ran out of money in less than two weeks, the team returned its loan, as did several wealthier business including Shake Shack and AutoNation.”


    It makes you wonder how many companies have taken the money and run??? This is what happens when we have an Oligarchy. The Oligarchy could care less about Left, Right or Center, it is all about them. The $1,200 checks were some crumbs tossed out to allow the the Proles to think the System Works.

  22. Multiple times the following post has been erased. So, here, I’ll tack it on the end of this complaint.

    On the subject of labels:
    I want to conserve natural resources.
    I want to conserve clean air.
    I want to conserve clean water.
    I want to conserve fertile soil.
    I want to conserve smooth highways.
    I want to conserve strong bridges.
    I want to conserve deep water ports.
    I want to conserve safe airports.
    I want to conserve the credibility of our financial institutions.
    I want to conserve the quality of American public education.
    I want to conserve the viability of higher education.
    I want to conserve respect for science.
    I want to conserve the creativity of the arts.
    I want to conserve the forests.
    I want to conserve the individual dignity of every American.

    But I cannot wish to be called a Conservative, because then I would be presumed to be the enemy of all the above.

    “Conservatives” want to designate a name for us as a group, but they cannot even name themselves without lying.

  23. Paul,
    “Elizabeth Warren didn’t use the world “socialism” and you see how well that worked for her. Democratic voters were looking for a moderate liberal…”

    I think Democrats just wanted someone who could begin sentences with some other word than “so”.

  24. In high school, I was a Goldwater supporter because of anti-communism. I eschewed the ‘conservative’ label when I was Earlham’s rep on the ‘National College Conservative Council’ (whatever that was). Found out my ‘sponsor was a banker in Alabama (1965) and then got a copy of the ‘Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion’ in the mail. I left the ‘conservative’ movement and never looked back. Stayed Republican – 2 term Pres of Earlham’s YRs, similar positions. Came home in ’68 & supported Nelson Rockefeller. However, as the southern strategy played out, my conscience moved me into the Democratic Party. Have been BOTH GOP and Dem committeeman in my precinct. I’m a clear the GOP needs to expire.

  25. ML writes, “It makes you wonder how many companies have taken the money and run??? This is what happens when we have an Oligarchy. The Oligarchy could care less about Left, Right or Center, it is all about them. The $1,200 checks were some crumbs tossed out to allow the the Proles to think the System Works.”

    Supposedly, the Democrats held off voting for the senate package because there was no monitoring of the $341 billion PPP. The house democrats got their wish and assigned an Inspector General to oversee the program. That IG was fired by Trump who also said he would ignore any requests to monitor where the money went. There have been several reports leaked out so far and Trump campaign contributors were given special priority along with other large companies who did not use it as intended. This is one of the reasons they issued a second round of funding which is being distributed by BANKS — not the SBA as advertised.

    Those banks made $10 billion in fees off the first round of loans. There is no political spectrum in this country because we are an Oligarchy which is hierarchical just like a corporation. The power lies at the top of the chart — not spread out among the bottom.

  26. Marv – We have already had a coup, a coup of the Republican Party by a blustering bully tolerated by members of a party allowing their greed for money and power to overcome a continuing risk to the loss of our democracy and descent into banana republicanism. Fortunately, our party shows signs of coming together and some in Trump’s base have had enough of his antics. Anecdotally, I had a hard right Republican nephew email me last night that he was thinking about voting for “my” candidate. Perhaps the chickens are coming home to roost, and we will by telling the truth and persevering be going to interrupt this coup come November.

  27. Gerald,

    “Marv – We have already had a coup of sorts with Trump’s capture of a major political party, members of which tolerate his dictatorial antics so they can remain unleashed by such distractions in their individual pursuits of money and power. Our task is to keep this developing coup from maturing until we can remove the ringmaster this fall. Fortunately, polls indicate that we will succeed as some of his cult are having second thoughts.”

    When did a coup ever give up without a fight? There’s no desire for a social democracy with the 40% who will still vote for Trump. They might not like it, but they would rather have some type of authoritarian leader than accept the scenario you have just pointed out.

    Seriously, keep dreaming, we need top quality citizens like yourself to inspire us to stop this sociopathic fool, before nothing is left to fight for.

    Can you imagine what will be left by November at the rate we’re going?

  28. Marv – History records many bloodless coups, especially military coups, that succeeded sans fights. I prefer democratic succession, and am thus opposed to coups even by those I want to govern. As Mammy insisted in her Oscar performing stint in GWTW, “Taint fitting, that’s all.”

  29. Whenever I held public office people always tried to define and label me. I always replied with a paraphrase of FDR’s response. They called him everything on the spectrum, you know. Both purposes of supporting him or defiling his name. He would say::”I am a Christian and a Democrat in that order.” I would say:”I am a Christian, a Democrat and a Pragmatist.” In the last analysis all that matters. Is something that works effectively in the long and short run. Isms be damned. Protecting the people “trouble in River City ” isms is a tough job.

  30. Well said, Sheila. These labels have lost meaning. I was under the impression (I don’t know if it is accurate), that while not smooth, the Overton Window slowly moved “left” over history, as previously “left” ideas (abolition, women’s suffrage, trade unions, etc.) became “center”.

    I have continuously railed against the press and others who successfully moved the Overton Window in the other direction. My fears have been realized. As far left as the Democratic Party moved, they never embraced the furthest “left”. There were always flavors of “socialism” and “communism” that were rejected. The new Republicans have shown no such restraint. With the “middle” so far to the “right”, we have a President who embraces White Nationalist, Nazis, and others that no previous incarnation of the Republican Party has embraced in my lifetime. I don’t think there is anything “too far right” that he would reject.

    Labels and stereotypes are ways our minds deal with the huge amounts of information we have to process. It often leads to strange juxtapositions.

    Like Sheila, my political views haven’t changed a lot in my fifty some odd years of political activism. I have described myself as an “unrepentant bleeding-heart liberal”. I doubt that Sheila would ever use that phrase to describe herself, yet our political views seem fairly closely aligned.

    You are right, Sheila. These labels are just words, and sometimes they just get in the way.

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