about where one stood on the political spectrum. Left stood for liberal and Right for
conservative. The problem is that the terms liberal and conservative also seem outdated
and do not convey what they are intended to convey. It is time to use new words or terms
so that we have some decent shorthand to quickly understand where a person stands or falls.
Words are very important. When I worked in Congress, on more than one occasion
in conversation with Democratic members of Congress, a discussion of vocabulary would
occur. They found a political landscape in which their opponents controlled the rhetorical
high ground because they controlled the vocabulary that was employed. They were
"pro-family" and they believed in "freedom and God". Economically they were a "free
market". For them it's not torture, it's "enhanced interrogation techniques"; and it's not
kidnapping, it's "rendition". Their terrorists are "freedom fighters". In response, Democrats
have always played vocabulary catch-up. On abortion they were "pro-choice", which was
nowhere near the power of calling oneself "pro-life". If they were the supporters of family,
what did that leave you? If they are for "free" markets, and you oppose them; you are stuck
with defending "less free" markets. They are "pro-family". What does that mean you are
if you oppose them? Vocabulary matters; and for too long Democrats have abandoned the
verbal field of battle by allowing themselves to be labeled with terms that are politically
difficult to maneuver around.
Left and Right and liberal and conservative are terms that no longer signify much
politically, and we need a new vocabulary. To be from the "Left" comes out of a time when
there was a real debate in this country and the world over capitalism versus communism.
To be on the Left meant you favored a role of government in controlling the economy,
owning the means of production, owning very little private property, and the needs of the
many outweighed the needs of the few. There were to be no private businesses and no
excessively rich. To be on the Right meant a belief in a weak central government and to be
a supporter of a free-market-private-enterprise economic system. Industry tolerated no
government interference, and the needs of the individual outweighed the needs of the many.
To be on the Left or liberal was to be open and entertain new ideas and embrace change;
while to be on the Right or conservative meant opposing change, defending tradition, and
holding on to the best of things. Politically, the Left supported a strong federal government
and the Right pushed state's rights.
Today, most of these terms and descriptions have been turned upside down or
simply don't exist anymore. No one in the "mainstream Left" advocates that all means of
production should be owned by the government. No one is arguing for an economic system
in which there is no private property. Can you think of a member of Congress who advocates
an end to Wall Street or the commodities market; or wants the government to take over
every aspect of American life? It was a "Lefty" like Bill Clinton who pushed and passed
NAFTA, GATT, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which deregulated broadcasting;
and greased the door to a few people owning most media and created the opportunities
for the Hannity/Limbaughs of the world.
To be on the Right was supposed to mean that you believed in small government,
and the idea that government governs best which governs least. You believed in individual
rights and were a strong advocate of civil liberties. A conservative "conserves" those things
which are the best for the country. Conservatives like Richard Nixon believed and supported
the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency because clean air and clean water were
good for everyone.
Today, these terms and definitions seem to have lost all relevance. Those on the
"Right" supported eight years of a Bush Administration that expanded government
interference and control in the private lives of Americans that is unprecedented. The "Left"
was attacked as "tax and spend liberals". The Right was supposed to be fiscally conservative.
Yet, spending under a Bush White House and Republican Congress exploded out of control.
In the first six years in office, President Bush didn't have to veto, or want to veto a single
budget, appropriation or spending bill. While fiscal policy was out of control, the "Right"
wing of the Republican Party supported government intrusion in everything from the
classroom to the bedroom. They railed against a Supreme Court decision that outlawed
sodomy laws in Texas, opposed two same-sex individuals getting married, attempted to
indict Oregon doctors who participated in voter-approved assisted dying; and of course,
wanted the government to be able to tell a woman what she can do with her womb. When
California voted to legalize medical marijuana, the Bush Justice Dept. raided pot clubs,
even ones that had obtained city licenses and approval (Oakland and Santa Cruz). When
the California Coastal Commission blocked offshore oil exploration, the Bush Administration
sued to overturn the decision. So much for states rights or new federalism. Perhaps the most
damning of all, is the fact that not a single "Right" wing political figure proposes abolishing
Social Security or Medicare, which are two of the most socialistic and government-dominated
programs in history. Add to that the scandal that is Pentagon procurement, where a few
well connected companies get most of the contracts; and the term "Right" has become
The term "Left" or liberal doesn't fare much better. Clinton's responsibility for
NAFTA, GATT, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", and deregulation of the telecommunications
industry is well documented. It was also under his watch that many of the remaining
firewalls intended to protect the financial systems were eliminated. In 1999, the Glass-
Steagall Act was eliminated, opening the door to the abuses that led to a global economic
meltdown. The "Left Democrats" that believe in government regulation had totally
capitulated. In 2002, Democrats voted to give President Bush the power to go to war in
Iraq; and not once did they filibuster or stop a single war appropriation bill from passing.
They voted overwhelmingly for the Patriot Act, allowing the government unprecedented
power into our private lives; and they turned a blind eye to torture and kidnapping, and
there was the evisceration of the Fourth Amendment as the Bush Administration illegally
tapped phones, read e-mail, and tracked internet activity. When all of this was discovered,
Democrats gave the phone companies immunity from prosecution for their illegal and
Perhaps worst of all, and that the terms have become meaningless; is to look at
an Obama Administration which won't release photos of tortured prisoners, won't release
White House visitor's logs, supports unlimited incarceration without a trial, and which has
an economic team made up of the very people who were architects of the financial
deregulation that led to the current financial crisis in this country. Add to that their defense
of a law banning gay marriage, and continuing "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and expanding an
unworkable war in Afghanistan, and the "Lefty" Obamas take on a decidedly different look.
So if Left and Right or liberal and conservative no longer have real meaning, what
do we do to describe where one stands on the political spectrum? I suggest the terms
"Progressive" and "Regressive". They might take some time to get used to, but I believe
they really help you define the current crop of politicians, pundits, and talking heads.
To be progressive is to philosophically be comfortable with change and moving
forward. Change is the natural state of affairs in life; but in politics, change can be a dirty
word. Progress is easy to measure but difficult to achieve. In the 20th century, those events
considered progressive: the women's suffrage movement, Social Security, the civil rights
movement, Medicare, Head Start, the G.I. Bill, gay rights, national labor standards, child
labor laws, collective bargaining legislation, anti-trust laws, and fair housing and lending
were passed with Democrat and Republican support and opposed by Republicans and
Democrats. Regressives opposed every example I have sighted. If regressives had had their
way, none of these landmark decisions or movements would have succeeded. When Bob
Dole ran against Bill Clinton in 1996, he bragged about how he and other Republicans
fought and voted against Medicare. (However, he didn't have the political testicular
fortitude to propose abolishing it now.)
It's easy to understand progress and easy to understand those who want to regress
and turn back the clock. Since Ronald Reagan, regressives have tried to turn back the clock
on workers by busting unions and packing organizations like the National Labor Relations
Board with pro-business, anti-labor appointees. They have reduced the tax burden on the
rich while increasing taxes for the middle class. When Newt Gingrich speaks of the New
Federalism, he wants to go back to the "Gilded Age" at the turn of the 19th and 20th
centuries. It was an era of a weak central government, no anti-trust laws, few taxes, and
a time when the gap between the rich and the poor was at it's height in Industrial America.
He wants to return to that time. Regressives want to turn back the clock on women's
reproductive rights and individual civil liberties. As our culture progresses towards
tolerance, they want to return government sponsored prayer to public classrooms and
have the government regulate what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms.
Progressives push to expand health care to all Americans, while Regressives fight
any attempt to change the system. Progressives cite the undeniable fact of a growing climate
crisis, while Regressives talk of offshore oil drilling, more use of coal, and more dependency
on nuclear power. Progressives oppose torture, illegal spying, and immoral wars; while
Regressives argue that the end justifies the means, even if that means going back on fifty
years of laws and agreements.
Try it for awhile, and see if the terms fit. Analyze the hottest political topics
currently facing the nation in terms of who is in favor of progress, and who wants to resist
change or turn the clock back. When you do this, things can get much clearer for you
politically. This new nomenclature would devastate the corporate media and people like
Hannity/Limbaugh, who would have to change completely how they characterize the
political debate in this country. What would they do if they didn't have left and right or
liberal and conservative to use anymore?
Words matter in politics and in life. There is a clear difference in image between
someone who is pro-life or just pro-birth. When the political debate in this country is not
between left and right or liberals vs. conservatives, but rather about whether we progress
or regress; the entire structure of both problems and solutions changes. Pick an issue and
analyze it, and it's proponents and opponents in this new light, and see what happens. You
will be amazed. What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send
them to firstname.lastname@example.org