Defining the American Left

There are no greater enemies than someone ten degrees to the left and someone eleven degrees to the left. It is this tendency towards factionalism and division (among other things) that has proven to be a major stumbling block for anyone left of center throughout American history. One has to look no further than the 2016 Democratic primary to find endless bickering about who is pure enough, whether party loyalty is a good thing or a recipe for disaster, and the relative importance of social and economic issues. And some believe that the idea of participating in a Democratic primary at all is against everything the left stands for.

The problem with this incessant arguing is that it produces nothing of value. While political debate, done correctly, can be a vital use of time within a movement, it should be used as a tool to build coalitions and win people over. Instead, we further divide existing coalitions and create personal vendettas that cripple movements for years over practically nothing.

One of the causes of this conflict is that the left tends to view itself very procedurally. Even when two separate groups have almost identical goals, their differing tactics will cause an immense rift, getting in the way of what could otherwise be productive organizing. That’s why it is time to take a different approach and work on a honing a set of principles that can be positively communicated, focusing on building movements rather than fracturing them.

In this post, I will lay out six principles that tie those on the American left together, whether you are a liberal, a democratic socialist, or a communist. While I’m sure these groups would be outraged to be put in the same category together, the fact of the matter is that there is a reason that they tend to be placed on the same side of the political spectrum.

I hope that this will help those on the left who read this to further examine their deeper values, whether you agree with my list or not, and use that to build bridges rather than burning them down.

For the purpose of this article, I will be using the word ‘progressive’ to describe those on the left, not necessarily because it describes everyone to the left of center, but because ‘leftist’ has strong implications that I don’t want to weigh down the points being made. Also, when using the word liberal, I mean it more in the modern, American sense referring to those who support at least a basic welfare system, rather than the classical sense that more closely resembles modern libertarianism.

1. Importance of equality

Equality is perhaps the most important principle that ties the left together. It is written in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, a phrase which has been both followed and expanded on by those on the left in the centuries since.

This can manifest itself in many ways. One of the most basic is the necessity of equality of opportunity, which goes even beyond the left as an important requirement in a civilized society. A country that can not provide equal access to education, healthcare, and basic necessities is not a proper country in the eyes of progressives. Others seek to go further, putting in place a certain level of equality of outcome, believing that there is no justification for a system that creates massive disparities in wealth and power.

Equality can also extend beyond simple material wealth. It also requires the basic worth and dignity of every person. People should be treated with a certain standard of respect, no matter their background, and the violation of one person’s humanity is a violation of humanity itself. The degree to which this is universal, as with all things on this list, but it is one of the defining features of the left, and specifically what sets it apart from conservatism throughout history.

2. Existence and importance of society

One of Margaret Thatcher’s most famous quotes from her time as Prime Minister was as follows:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no governments can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.

Society in this case is taken to mean the responsibility of community members to provide for each other rather than purely focusing on their own need. This quote is a perfect summary of the conservative view of complete self-sufficiency, coupled with a disdain for those who seek or require the help of others. Progressives take the opposite stance, believing that we have a common responsibility for one another. This can mean anything from neighbors to humankind as a whole. While conservatives may practice generosity or hospitality on a regular basis, progressives believe that is should be policy.

3. Cooperation over competition

In many ways, the belief in cooperation over competition is an extension of the belief in a society. Progressives belief that there is more to be gained from working with each other towards a greater good rather than everyone ruthlessly pursuing self-interest and hoping that the end result is better for everyone.

As with many of the other principles, the desire for cooperation can manifest itself in several ways. Near the center, liberals see cooperation as a necessary part of the political process, hoping to reach across the aisle and cooperate with the other side to reach a compromise that is better for everyone. However, this enthusiasm is usually not met from the conservatives on the other side, who view politics in a more competitive context driven by their own ideology.

Further to the left, many progressives believe that those same principles of cooperation should be assigned to the economy as a whole, where the excess wealth of those who don’t really it would be redistributed to those who really do need it. Many also believe in the idea of worker-run or community-run businesses, which coordinate rather than compete, allowing the community as a whole to have a level of control beyond buying and selling for their own benefit.

4. Positive changes can always be made to the current system

This principle covers the “progress” part of progressive. Many progressives are accused of being utopian in their political thought, as they are never satisfied with the way that things are. This is not to say that all changes that are made are positive, or that there is nothing good about the system that exists, but progressives believe that there are always improvements to be made.

While conservatives may fight against movements for change from as far back as the suffragette and abolition movements to as recently as the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, progressives tend to embrace them. The changes put forward may eventually become the status quo, and while conservatives may accept them then, progressives tend to move on to the next big issue.

5. Freedom requires a minimum standard of living

The classical definition of freedom is mainly concerned with an individual’s ability to act without interference from the government. This is commonly known as negative liberty. While this is an important part of any democratic society, progressives believe that it is not enough. They believe that to be free, you must also have a certain minimum standard of living.

After all, if you are free from government restraints, but unable to make enough to afford food and shelter, are you really free?

As a result of this belief, most progressives support some type of social safety net. This can range from the technocratic solutions supported by liberals such as the EITC and Obamacare to the more sweeping measures of single payer healthcare and free college supported by many on the progressive left. When looking even further to the socialist and anarchist left, many base their beliefs on the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, where society provides everything necessary to survive, as long as individuals provide whatever they can.

6. Recognition of social structures that can provide advantages and disadvantages for certain groups

This is perhaps the most controversial principle in terms of mainstream American politics. We live in a country that is ruthlessly individualistic, and as a result, the successes and failures of every single person are judged based on the strengths and weaknesses of that single person. More importantly, if a group of people are consistently worse off than another group, that is seen as a problem with the individuals in that group, not the way that the group is treated by society as a whole.

Progressives take the opposite position, and are more willing to recognize ideas such as institutional racism and sexism, as well as poverty. They believe that the failure to succeed is not always the fault of the individual, but is frequently tied to larger structures that keep certain people down.

It should be clarified that these principles are not necessarily universal or all-encompassing of the left. There are plenty of people all over the political spectrum that might hold some of these positions and not others. However, when it comes to actually defining what make the left a distinct group rather than saying “big government”, this is a good set of principles to start with.

Somehow idealistic and cynical at the same time