George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” lamented how ideologues were wreaking havoc not only on their societies, but also on the language of politics itself. He condemned the “staleness of imagery” and the “lack of precision” in the political writing of his day. During the past 75 years, little has changed. The labels and personalities may be different, but the abuse on and by words is much the same.
We can all agree that the United States has become politically polarized, especially so in the past half-dozen years. In better times, Yeat’s middle translated into a political Venn diagram for the US that had much more in the center than on the edges. In contrast, we are now at a point where the circles don’t even touch, and there is no organized entity in the middle. It is a void.
Part of the problem is language. Words matter; political words matter a lot. Policies are made; dollars are taxed and spent, and, it must be said, fights are fought and lives lost over words. It is time to step back, review, and retire the two terms, Left and Right, commonly used to describe our political leanings. They have outlived their usefulness.
More than two centuries ago during the early stages of the French Revolution, the National Assembly set the stage for these semantic groupings: Supporters of the King sat to the right of the presiding chair, while the proponents of change sat to the left. Since then, with plenty of zigs and zags, the Left has indicated an ideological posture leaning in the direction of economic groupings and economics-heavy policies focused on income and asset inequality. In cruder form, the Left has generally called for more involvement by government in the affairs of society. It believes central planners have a responsibility and the ability to blunt the inefficiency and greed of individuals acting in the marketplace.
On the Right, there has been a grab bag of stances, often driven by response to the more dynamic two-century history of the other side. The first variant, chronologically and intellectually, is the “go-slow” approach of Edmund Burke, in reaction to the French Revolution. Monarchy, church, and existing institutions are around for a time-tested reason. Mess with them at your peril. While the particulars of Burke are now dated, the notion of go-slow incremental change preserving existing institutions and practices has remained a prominent characteristic of conservatism.
Over the past half century in the United States, the Right also found itself the champion of a re-born 19th century classical liberalism—a belief in the rights and opportunities focused on individuals, not classes, operating in a framework respecting private property and open markets. These “libertarians” often found themselves, as a practical matter, in the “conservative-with-a-small c” community, despite efforts to establish a distinct libertarian identity. The semantics were further muddied by the emergence of so-called neo-conservatives—individuals tacking strongly away from the hyper-ideological first half of the 20th century—and distinguishing themselves from run-of-the-mill conservatives.
These descriptions of Left and Right do not do justice to the range of views and moments these terms have covered over the past century. But that is not the problem. The problem is that they do not even come close to describing the ideological mess that the country currently finds itself in. They do not identify or clarify. They muddle.
First, they suggest a linear spectrum of views. That has never been the case, but particularly not so now. The attitudes presently dominating the two leading camps are not even close to being linear opposites of one another. But more importantly, the labels are now so misleading as to be dangerous.
It is true that the Left in American politics has always been a bit jumbled, with a variety of economically and socially “progressive” agendas and levels of political intensity. In recent years, however, “wokeness” has stolen the show, sucked the oxygen out of the room, and forced even moderate liberals to publicly signal their fealty to the reigning ideology. That ideology is no longer about economic improvement, government spending, unionization, investment in education, tax reform, etc—the standard topics of liberal concern during the past century. Instead, it is about collective identities, especially race, through which all social, economic, and political activity are now to be filtered. In its most extreme forms, in your local school or university, it has become a psychological if not yet physical form of neo-segregation. No longer are individuals to be judged by the content of their character or—God forbid—by their merit or competence, but by their membership in one or another subjugated group. That everyone is an oppressor or a victim in every political, economic, social and personal interaction is not an accurate description of the traditional Left. The term should be dropped.
The Right has become even more convoluted. Under the tutelage of a spray-on grifter, it has become a radical, conspiracy-laden cult of personality, hoping to tear up the social contract in favor of ….. Well, other than supporting the grifter’s ventures, it’s not clear what his followers want. To outsiders, it looks like populist mob violence bordering on outright insurrection against all forms of established authority. Whatever these radicals actually support, it is certainly not any known form of conservatism, however that is defined: religious, secular, classical liberal, or even neo-conservative. The newcomers have little to do with the traditional Right. The term should be dropped.
It is time for semantic changes, to clarify the damage done by these new movements to our polity and to spare the English language more abuse. Dropping Left and Right also serves another purpose. As long as radical ideologies control the political narrative, traditional liberals and progressives, as well Burke-ian conservatives and classical liberals, are shut out of the political discourse. If you consider yourself on the traditional Left, you have little room to maneuvre right now. You are not in charge, and the agenda is not yours. The same for those of you on the traditional Right. And those of us in the broadly defined middle have been completely deprived of a platform now that Left and Right have been hijacked by extremists.
What new terms might liberate the liberals, moderates, and conservatives of all stripes from the control of these two new radical movements and to return to their positive agendas? “Woke” has come into popular usage to describe one of the two reigning ideologies. Is it a term of derogation? I don’t know. But I do know that woke is neither liberal nor progressive. Woke is woke. Let it be separate from liberal and progressive, and free liberals and progressive to advance their causes. I struggle more with a term that would isolate the gang of grifters and thereby free genuine conservatives and libertarians from sharing a semantic platform with them. Perhaps “Grifter” with a capital G? Suggestions are welcome.
(I have intentionally left the names of the leading political parties out of this. They are the topic for another day. Suffice it here to say that when a band of Republicans wishes to overthrow the republic, and when some Democrats are in favor of extremely undemocratic identity politics, we have additional semantic challenges ahead…)
I am naïve enough to think that clearing away some of the semantic rubble from the political Venn diagram might help the many moderates in this country return to the overlapping central circles. To assist in that effort, I reiterate my call for a third, centrist party of moderates. I’ve made this call before, to no avail. I’ll keep making it, even if to no avail, as long as the fringe groups are driving our political process. Their extreme agendas are about tearing things down, not creating prosperity. They are exemplified by the destructive rage on display on January 6 and in your child’s classroom. Still, I want to believe that these are mostly minority views, amplified by social media and captive traditional media. Ultimately Yeats’s middle must hold. If it does not, our brief and exceptional experiment in representative democracy is doomed.
September 16, 2021