Beyond Left And Right

Bret Stephens–the New York Times columnist– is too conservative for my taste, by which I mean I tend to disagree with his positions on issues. But he is conservative within a traditional American liberal democratic framework.

If that observation seems odd to our contemporary American ears, it is because the language of politics has been debased. Years of Rush Limbaugh and his clones turned “liberal” into an epithet devoid of meaningful content, and the radicalization of the GOP has confused “conservative” with Neanderthal.

Which brings me back to a recent Stephens column with which I do agree.Mostly.

Stephens says the U.S. needs a Liberal Party. He dutifully recites the reasons third parties routinely fail in a system that is set around a two-party duopoly, but he also argues that both the GOP and the Democratic Party are historically weak. I’m unconvinced that things have changed enough to make a third party viable, but in the process of his discussion, he makes a very important–and very under-appreciated–point.

By “liberal,” I don’t mean big-state welfarism. I mean the tenets and spirit of liberal democracy. Respect for the outcome of elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech, and the principle (in courts of law and public opinion alike) of innocent until proven guilty. Respect for the free market, bracketed by sensible regulation and cushioned by social support. Deference to personal autonomy but skepticism of identity politics. A commitment to equality of opportunity, not “equity” in outcomes. A well-grounded faith in the benefits of immigration, free trade, new technology, new ideas, experiments in living. Fidelity to the ideals and shared interests of the free world in the face of dictators and demagogues.

All of this used to be the more-or-less common ground of American politics, inhabited by Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes as much as by Barack Obama and the two Clintons. The debates that used to divide the parties — the proper scope of government, the mechanics of trade — amounted to parochial quarrels within a shared liberal faith. That faith steadied America in the face of domestic and global challenges from the far right and far left alike.

But now the basic division in politics isn’t between liberals and conservatives, as the terms used to be understood. It’s between liberals and illiberals.

Stephens points to the illiberalism of both the Right and the far Left, pointing on the right to  “Stephen Miller on immigration, Steve Bannon on trade, Josh Hawley on elections and Marjorie Taylor Greene on every manner of lunatic and bigoted conspiracy theory.” On the Left, he excoriates excesses of the “Me too” movement and the so-called “cancel culture.” He says that the illiberal Right is by far the most dangerous, because it is capable of winning elections and, when it loses, willing to subvert them.

Whether you agree with his specific critiques or not, I think he is absolutely correct about the need to reinforce and restore the underlying liberal consensus that democracy requires-what he describes as the “capacious” liberal faith within which we can argue in good faith about what “sensible” regulations look like, and the extent of the “social supports” that cushion the vagaries of a market economy.

Today, we characterize those debates over specific policies as “liberal” or “conservative,” but they can only occur within a larger, widely accepted liberal democratic framework that embraces a government protective of individual autonomy, based upon consent of the governed (as reflected by the votes of the citizenry)and committed to equality before the law.

Specific policy debates are, as Stephens says, parochial quarrels within that shared liberal faith.


  1. This is a little too much terminology ping-pong for me. As people making their livings by parsing EVERYTHING, the situation boils down to an electorate that stayed home. We got Trump partly because 90 million eligible voters stayed home. We almost got him a second time because 60 million voters stayed home, and the mindless frenzy of the cultists drove 73 million voters to say things like, “Thank you, sir. I’ll have another.”

    Their cultism, created by the Limbaugh type screamers and liars, has, in my opinion, taken classical political definitions off the table. When the radical 20% from either end of the spectrum rule the airwaves or garner the most ink in the media, the middle 60% are left without a voice.

    Liberal, illiberal, “conservative”, whatever… But, we’ve always screamed at each other throughout our history. Imagine being a fly on the wall in Congress, circa 1859. How were the parties defined back then? I think we are at a similar crossroads in our political history and viability. This ugliness has been coming for a long time… ever since Reagan started carping about the government being the problem. Donald Trump just put it in passing gear.

    Ugly is too kind a word to describe creatures like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. I’d submit seditionists for all the Republicans who are denying their constituents their Constitutional rights by refusing to govern.

  2. Sounds good on the surface, but, this liberal and a so-called conservative split in what he seems to refer to is what used to be 2 halves of the same side of a coin versus the other side of that coin.

    Was it ever really that way? In our current situation, it seems, from what I remember anyway, Ronald Reagan was not such a great transformational leader, he was more of a sneaky and subversive type of individual who successfully decimated the Social Security trust fund and turned it into his personal governmental slush fund. He also helped decimate the mental health infrastructure in this country. Amongst other things, that’s just a small example of what you can call progressive credulity, or maybe credulous conservative orthodoxy, the cult of personality didn’t start with Trump, it was in full force with Ronald Reagan. Was tearing down the Berlin wall worth looting the Social Security trust fund? He didn’t have his cohorts attack the capital building, because where Trump was a blunt and ignorant sledgehammer, Reagan was the slick smiling con artist who really had nothing but a smile and the ability to act in front of a camera. He was a mouthpiece for those behind the scenes who were of dubious character.

    And, I think that very word, “Credulity” is extremely descriptive of left, or right, or center belief systems.

    Instead of doing the research work on any “Tribal Click” it’s easy to listen to someone who seems to have an appealing opinion that feels comfortable in relation to personal desires and manufactured realities.

    So, Bret Stephens seems to have done the research, but, his research is more of a Trojan horse which seems to misdirect what’s been happening in his particular incredulous conservative conservatory of which the GOP is firmly seated.

    The assault on voters rights, racial inequality, immigration, equality in education, equality in healthcare, injecting religious ideals into the rules of secular society, and the assault on the safety net for all Americans, not only from GOP conservative incarnations across this country for decades, but the inclusion of the Dixiecrats into the GOP embrace, revealing the depth of malfeasance in the GOP sphere of comfort. I think Sheila’s earlier thread mentioned the John Birch society, well, I would venture to say, if you look at all things that happened then and are happening now, how many GOP leaders (influencers?) seemed and seem to embrace that particular ideal? Ron Johnson? Josh Hawley? Tom cotton? Lindsey Graham? It doesn’t take much to coax the John Birch society beliefs out of many in the GOP, who by the way, delightfully refuse to mitigate this unprecedented laid bare overly permissive maleficent Epoch in our history.

    There is not one iota of Christian belief in any of these Grand Old Party so-called leaders. They’ve used the “Bastardization” of religion to promote their un-Christlike behavior! I guess you can refer to the GOP as the “Judas Goat” party leading their sheep to the slaughter house!

  3. I am not sure how anyone can call Reagan, the Bushes, or Bill Clinton, Liberals, and the examples Stephens uses for the “left” are not equivalent to those he mentions who represent the “right.” So, although his definition of liberalism is fine, and his examples of the very-illiberal right are fine, apparently, he can’t bring himself to the point of mentioning good examples of the “left.”

  4. He wants liberals to “respect the free-market” and uses this term, “I don’t mean big-state welfarism.”

    The entire capitalist structure has been propped up by big-state welfarism from the Central Bank for well over a decade. The same Central Bank cleaned up the balance sheets of corporate titans by buying their debt over last summer.

    Meanwhile, workers can’t get wages lifting them out of poverty. $15.00 isn’t enough if we use the same economic justifications for healthcare or college education’s rising costs.

    I spent a good part of yesterday listening to leading liberals discuss the state of affairs regarding our so-called free press and government authoritarianism, censorship, and imperialism.

    I expect all these leading thinkers will be censored completely since they’ve already been marginalized—truth-seekers who abandoned “liberal media” or were censored by their editors.

    As they noted, the problem is the “passive consumer of news” will never hear the truth because you have to seek it out. Consumers can seek out things to buy online but not their news and info about world affairs. As long as they rely on their TV, they’ll hear what our government-industry complex wants them to know.

    A real liberal is open-minded and questions everything. They aren’t consumers of news. They don’t accept what is being fed to them. They go digging for the truth.

    This is one reason liberal colleges are under attack. They are meant to open the mind to explore, which is unacceptable to a closed society.

  5. It seems to me that the real problem we have is the “dumbing down” of the American public. As I read Vernon’s comment about the middle 60% being left without a voice, I thought about some of the very fine books I’ve read over the past few years. Our voice is generally in the writings of people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Heather McGhee, Norm Ornstein, or Delores Kearns Goodwin. I would say that the liberal voice is where most Americans will never see it, on the printed page.

  6. This makes me nostalgic for the days when political debate was framed with reason on both sides. Oh for those days!

  7. I have to echo the idea that Reagan, et. al. were not/are not Liberals, as Pascale points out. Reagan opened the path that Trump too easily followed, and his economics was based on nothing but elitism, while the Bushes and Clinton just advanced the cause he supported.
    Yes, Stephens is far too conservative for my blood, also.

  8. There’s a reason that Stephens starts citing presidents with Reagan, and no one earlier. He’s basically saying that we used to all agree (during the time of the listed presidents) that neoliberalism is correct and just.

    I don’t agree with that at all. It’s led us, inexorably, to where we are today.

  9. I have said for a long time that faith (what we assume in the absence of proof) and sex are the most personal of human pursuits because they are simply nobody else’s business and probably unique in some ways for all of us. Perhaps I should add politics to that shortlist. Many of us believe that labels are handy for classifying other people but we personally transcend their ability to define us in any way but as a tribal cultural distinction.

    Those tribal distinctions seem to have exceeded the capacity of civil discourse to mediate. I have a sense though that if we ever sat down and over a significant investment of time laid out in detail to the best of our ability to explain what we fundamentally believe in without in any way labeling it and assuming labels as definitive enough to convey all of the details we’d see that in reality, we as a culture are not that much different than what used to work better for us.

    Unfortunately though the introduction of tribal labels is in the way of achieving understanding among us. Tribal labels lead us to attack and defend the resources of our tribe as the highest priority. It creates a culture of power rather than freedom, of war rather than peace, of competition instead of collaboration.

    While we’ve been here before it’s never been as unlimited human population and limited natural resources are also in the struggle.

  10. More B.S. from B.S! He fails to mention the corruption of our politics by “Big Money”. We need publicly funded political parties which (along with all their candidates) couldn’t be bribed by the Greedy.

  11. This current obsession with “Cancel culture” is ridiculous. Cancelling things has always happened. Ask the slaves about the cancellation of their freedom. What about the segregationists trying (and succeeding, in many cases) to cancel or subvert desegregation laws. Ask the people cancelled by Joe McCarthy. Ask the Smothers Brothers, for crying out loud. Things have always been cancelled, sometimes for good reasons, and sometimes not. But it’s NOT new, and it’s not necessarily bad.

    The main issue now is that it’s rightwing institutions, ideas, and people that are facing a backlash. So, in lieu of actually arguing against the reasons people are angry, the right wails about “cancel culture!” Snowflakes.

  12. Instant runoff voting, also called ranked choice voting, will enable third parties to have support they cannot now garner because voting 3rd party now risks throwing an election to a major party you abhor. The 2 party monopoly is dysfunctional and destructive so the sooner we allow ranked choice voting nationwide, the better for our democracy.

  13. Vern’s “too much terminology” is almost congruent with my “wordplay,” a means of discussing situations with no discernible answers, a skirting of the underlying substantive issues that our former politicians solved via compromise but that we now with our poisoned logic refuse to employ in our current world of insult, prevarication, pretense and propaganda.

    Our liberal democracy began with FDR and ended with Reagan, who at one time was a union president and liberal Democrat. Presidents between FDR and Reagan both Democrat and Republican were New Dealers of a sort, including even Nixon, the otherwise baddest president of the Twentieth Century along with, perhaps, Harding (both Republicans, of course).

    It appears that Biden may be the nearest to the FDR mode of governing since, uh, FDR, inasmuch as Clinton cozied up to the big banks and Obama’s attempts to enlist Republican compromise proved fruitless. If we have learned anything from Trump’s refusal to admit to a peaceful transition of power, it’s this: That the people by their vote of consent gave Democrats the power to rule – so let’s rule.

  14. i remmeber a conversation with Sen,Ted Kennedy he did on air,he was asked about dealing with the republicans,and their needs..he was very candid in answer,, “we would go have a few with each other at a barband discuss what we needed,and who,could help, we may disagree,but as long as i supported his bill, he would support mine,done..”
    though it was decades ago, i remember the easy way he delt with we allowed this to change,we see more programmed hype now,over substance. the media zoo of who said what,and the talking head off disent,has change everything.. banging out another@/#/or whatever.. instead of relevent conversation,between its become a hidden faction based on words over face to face discussions there is few if any conversation like we use to have,instead we have total demand from one to the other,in written words and hype.. we already know the bad and good,and whos doing what. now were left with system overloads on our hard drives.. im not a communication major,as i find my bantor more in line with “my own”,as one will say.. stepping out to greet peole and finding common ground is the best way,,like being stopped for speeding etc,grab the officers attention and get off the subject,,(sometimes it works,keep smiling) like the blue collars who suck up enough sewer water everyday from his buds, and the headlines,discuss the context..every damn American knows how hard it is to succeed when the shit hits the fan… blaming the ones who work to keep ya up and running is a no brainer.. you just have to find that avenue and walk,on it.. i watched Sen Sanders on c span the other day in his usual tiraid about the rich,ladden with publically known facts,if your paying attention, and names damnit! he called em out,corps and bezoz and musk..the next speaker grahm,he went on about the illegal this and that of money,offshoring,scams,etc, and crimes of those who break the law..grahm sure spun that into a green paste eh? Sanders was about inequality,and grahm about the law breaking rich crimainals.. seems the rich got rich by grahms gratitude to them,whereas, Sanders speaks about how the rich got there by the likes of grahm;. i like taking apart this subject of spin,and discuss the context my class forgot,or are too occpied by blairing crap they hear..if grahm came to the senate to help the rich,then why in the fuck do,you vote for the very people screwing you?
    now,, thats how ya face to face a blue collar in conversation… got votes?

  15. The Trump Cult and the Reactionary GOP by extension has left no room for political compromise, as they have so thoroughly wrapped themselves up in social-cultural-religious ropes they no longer have any flexibility.

    Wearing a mask or not wearing a mask has become a political statement. Likewise being vaccinated has now become a political-social-cultural statement. I have encountered these extreme Trumper’s who will not be vaccinated, preferring to believe some convoluted anti-vax Memes over Science.

    Windmills and Solar Energy are rejected by The Trumper’s and the GOP.

    The GOP response is to enact more repressive means to prevent people from voting, rather than making it easier to Vote.

  16. Tom:
    the republicans all belong to ALEC. its get rich or you cant look over their policies and how they demand the republicans heed..see who the head dog is of ALEC,then decide..
    we have allowed this. the DNCC even made it a rule you cant run as a demo against it seat..
    we have allowed this…
    now,about the greedy,and who? it doesnt matter,hime town or rich,the very parties and orgs
    have made the rules and you cant run..$$$$$

  17. Ranked choice voting can be manipulated by extremists on either side to ensure that the most extreme candidate wins.

  18. I have a hypothesis that if everyone reined in free speech with the Buddhist principles of right speech, we’d probably not have “cancel culture” or at least, very little of it. Of course, comedic social prophets often engage in speech that speaks truth to power. Sometimes the sarcasm is very cutting.

    And yes, it would be nice if the media gave moderates more of a voice because they could demonstrate how to practice bipartisanship instead of the highly charged divisive and tribal language people are using.

    I am surprised that the conservative writer calls the basic principles of the Constitution “liberal”. To me they are simply human rights that uphold democracy, not liberal or conservative. By calling them liberal, he is implying that conservative views oppose the democratic principle of the Constitution.

  19. Pete, well said brother!

    Jack, always on point.

    Robin, why are you always so nice? ?

  20. All responders to your daily blog….are really good….all are most articulate….John Sorg is my favorite….

    That said….I do not favor the two-party system we have…I think it leads to each side poking fault and disagreement at the other….and representing the will of the people is ignored….and for certain…. our legislatitve cretins cling to staying elected….. to further theirs and their party prejudices……misguided ego’s remain !

    I think poking fault and disagreement takes no intellect….or…no real ability whatsoever…..elected representatives and senators must devise SOLUTIONS to public issues….remember….focusing on disagreements make the disagreements BIGGER….focusing on SOLUTIONS make them BIGGER.

    In my working life as a project_mfg. engineer….I could not have lasted long as a fault finder….and certainly my employers were interested in such fault finding…..

  21. Sorry to say – a bit of a good thought, but heavily tainted.

    His talk of “liberal democracy” versus “illiberal” was well conceived. This is actually an old distinction, often spoken of in terms of foreign policy, as in “we should support liberal democracies and not dictators”.

    As too many people do, he lives in a world of false equivalency. If the Republican Party has become illiberal, and the Democratic Party hasn’t, it must be on the verge of falling apart.
    Sorry, one party has gone off the deep end and the other is slowly rediscovering its roots.

    There is also the meme that AOC and her allies are radical crazies, the “left” equivalent of today’s Republicans, except that AOC accepts compromise and her positions are only a little to the left of FDR.

    As for “cancel culture” – is condemning hate speech “cancelling” it? – It seems to me that if you want to see book banning, look to the “right” end of the political spectrum. “Cancel”? St. Ronald of Reagan was a supporter of denying work or housing to people who didn’t confess in McCarthy show trials and “name names”.

    Third parties often have periods of great appeal. What we actually need is a second political party. We now have one political party, and one cult.

    Thought experiment – we get a third party and Congress is split, 35-35-30 or even 45-45-20 – the minority will get what they want – need a clearer picture? Joe Manchin and Kysten Sinema – our third party in the Senate. Think 49-50-2

    By the way, I do not think we need to go back five years and seek a “middle” that is Reaganism and trickle down economics; I prefer to the next swing to follow up previous swings: Abolition, TR Progressives, FDR to LBJ New Deal, and now – restoring the middle class/saving the environment/etc. (not the “third way” Clinton loves Reagan “middle”), but I am willing to compromise a little 8)>

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