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‘Left’: a reliable U.S. political term

The word ‘left’ has invited learned commentary, not least in Anatoly Liberman’s blog ‘The Sinister Influence of the Left Hand’. As Liberman shows, by reputation the word suffers in comparison with the ‘dexterous’ word ‘right’.

Origin of the term ‘left’

Those on the political right are happy with this, and contribute to the process. The political use of the term ‘left’ derives from the seating arrangements in the French national assembly at the time of the Revolution – and didn’t that revolution descend into bloody anarchy?

American politicians sometimes flee from the word ‘left’, considering it to be a liability in a country deemed to be conservative. But I would argue that America is less conservative than we think. Furthermore, Americans have invested ‘left’ with new meanings in a way that makes it a reliable term.

Alternative terms: progressive and liberal

Its reliability stems in part from the unreliability of rival terms. Take the currently fashionable term, ‘progressive’. Progressivism stems from the nineteenth century idea that the world is becoming a better place. The US Progressive Party polled 27 percent of the votes in the 1912 presidential election. But Progressivism had its ambiguities and downsides. The early progressives included simplistic moralists and also those who thought that America was progressive in being better than other countries, and that other countries would do well to follow America’s example, through coercion if they did not see sense – the origin of the modern doctrine of ‘nation building’.

The horrors of World War I killed stone dead the idea of universal improvement. With that death, progressivism lost its nomenclative coherence, and today it is little more than the political equivalent of ‘nice’.

Another rival term is ‘liberal’. In the nineteenth century, it meant free trade with other nations, a hands-off approach to commerce at home, and a devotion to civil liberties as defined in the First Ten Amendments. Then, there was a terminological reversal. By the second decade of the twentieth century, liberals supported the idea of government regulation as a means of ensuring the public good. In the 1950s, a further about-turn occurred. Mainstream liberals were now Cold Warriors who were willing to sacrifice civil liberties at home. In the next decade, the very same liberals U-turned to support the civil rights of black citizens, but they still backed LBJ ’s Vietnam War. Switch forward to the present day, and ‘liberalism’ to supporters of the Bush administration, and to Tea Party members, is a dirty but ill-defined concept.

The expanded sense of ‘left’

The political meaning of the word ‘left’ in the USA has been more consistent. It has not undergone confusing contradictions. Its meaning has changed in the sense of expanding. It has simply embraced more and more causes as time passed.

In America, the widespread political employment of the word ‘left’ began in the 1930s. However, historians use the word to describe political tendencies from around 1900.

The entity that most methodically defined the left agenda in the first three decades of the twentieth century was the Socialist Party of America (SPA). From the time of its first platform in 1904, the SPA made an escalating series of demands – for income tax, universal free education, old age pensions, free medical services and drugs, the public ownership of specified utilities, anti-lynching legislation, a minimum wage, respect for civil liberties, opposition to militarism, and independence for the Philippines. They defined the programme of the early American left.

People who describe themselves as socialists are still present in American life – Bernie Sanders sits in the U.S. Senate representing the state of Maine, for example, while Brian Moore makes radical movies. But the socialists are now just one, relatively minor, faction on the American left. If all socialists are on the left, only a small fraction of the left is socialist.

For in the 1960s, the ‘left’ moved on from its socialist phase. It morphed into the ‘New Left’. This movement concentrated on one aim in particular, ending American involvement in the Vietnam War. In its opposition to a war, it was more effective than the socialist Old Left, but was still fighting a traditional leftist cause, anti-militarism.

What we might call a ‘newer left’ succeeded it. This was more diversified, broke new ground, and between the 1970s and the present century defined much of the agenda associated with the left of the Obama era. In defining this broader left, it is useful to consider what a leading conservative said. James Davison Hunter in his Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America wrote of a political ‘culture war’ over the issues of ‘abortion, child care, funding for the arts, affirmative action and quotas, gay rights, values in public education, or multiculturalism.’

In American usage, the political term ‘left’ has had an expanding but consistent and therefore reliable meaning.

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