What is Left? What is Right?

Are American political designations still useful?


As a small-"l" libertarian—a believer in "free minds and free markets" (to quote my magazine's tagline), open immigration, civil liberties, educational and reproductive choice, gun rights, pluralism, noninterventionist foreign policy, drug legalization, gay marriage, and perhaps most scandalously of all, a world of meaning far beyond politics in which people are generally free to pursue individual and communal happiness on something approaching their own terms—it's hard to get too worked up over whether the terms "liberal" and "conservative" mean much anymore. This is sort of like trying to decide whether Razzles are really a candy or a gum: it's drawing a distinction that doesn't amount to much of a difference. From the first bite to the last, you still end up with a bad taste in your mouth.

At least since the reign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, American politics have been marked by a broad consensus that the role and scope of government should be big and bigger. This consensus, reflected most clearly in the upward trajectory of public spending at all levels and the willingness of politicians to insinuate themselves via legislation, regulation, and moral grandstanding into every aspect of our lives, is so pervasive that the supposed great gutter of government, Ronald Reagan, described himself—accurately—as a New Deal Democrat. To be sure, liberals and conservatives—and their political proxies, the Democrats and Republicans—have sometimes differed in the ends toward which they swing the government club, but neither crew has been slow to pick up the cudgel in the first place. Certainly over the past dozen years that the Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress, it's become increasingly difficult for someone not born and bred for partisan loyalty to figure out the operative differences between Dems and Reps, liberals and conservatives. Whatever other crimes he may have committed, Rep. Tom DeLay should go to jail for suggesting last fall that "after 11 years of Republican majority we pared [the federal budget] down pretty good." Or if not jail, then a hospital for the politically delusional (though I understand that there are few beds available at present).

Hence, we're well into the second-term of a conservative president who has boosted real discretionary spending more than Lyndon Baines Johnson managed. In his first four budgets, Bush boosted discretionary spending by over 35 percent, compared to LBJ's 33 percent hike over the homologous period. And, alas, when it comes to foreign policy, Bush has similarly out-LBJed LBJ. Unless you're slavishly devoted to the party of Walter Mondale or the party of Bob Dole, does it really matter, say, whether it's liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi or conservative Sen. Rick Santorum pushing for a minimum-wage increase? Whether it's Sen. Ted Stevens pushing for content regulation of cable and satellite TV or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton spearheading an attack on the dread menace of video games? Sen. Trent Lott or Sen. Robert Byrd shipping the federal treasury to constituents back home a dollar at a time? Attorney General Janet Reno or Attorney General John Ashcroft pushing for a surveillance state?

It's an old joke—among libertarians, anyway, a famously funny group (just read the novels of Ayn Rand sometime)—that conservatives want to be your father and liberals want to be your mother. Despite superficial differences, both groups want to be your parent and treat you as a child who must be shielded from your own worst impulses. This isn't to say that specific policies and individual politicians don't matter, but it is to suggest that in the aggregate, liberals and conservatives are less like Cain and Abel and more like Chang and Eng.

Yet we thankfully live in an age of glorious ideological confusion. The old, worn-out designations Right and Left—a pentimento of early revolutionary France—are finally breaking down under the weight of current events and in the face of continuing technological and cultural changes that are giving more and more of us the ability to live however we want. The war in Iraq and the current immigration debate, to name two pressing issues, are pitting conservatives against one another and causing liberals no small intra-ideological squabbles.

More important, Americans are evacuating partisan politics. This is reflected in generally weaker attachments to the Democrats and Republicans. In 1969, according to a Harris poll, 81 percent of Americans identified themselves as one or the other. By 2004, only 65 percent did. If anecdote can be trusted, I'm heartened by the number of liberals and conservatives who sidle up to me at policy debates, book parties, and other grim affairs and confess with a mixture of shame and pride that they have unmistakable libertarian tendencies. However inaccurate such hyphenated designations may be, it's no small curiosity that Noam Chomsky from time to time calls himself a "libertarian socialist" and William F. Buckley occasionally self-identifies as a "libertarian journalist."

That's progress, and it suggests that the best way to understand contemporary politics is not through a right-wing/left-wing, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat frame but in terms of choice and control: does a particular policy or politician increase or decrease our freedom? In his underappreciated 1955 masterpiece, The Decline of American Liberalism, Arthur A. Ekirch Jr. wrote that American history from the colonial period on has been a struggle between forces of centralization and decentralization in politics, economics, and culture. He fretted that the "liberal values associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment—and especially that of individual freedom—have slowly lost their primary importance in America life and thought." I think he was mistaken in his conclusion, but his larger analysis provides a key to the 21st century. Because of widely observed increases in wealth, advances in liberatory technology, and breakdowns of stultifying social and cultural orthodoxies, individuals in America are freer than ever to chart their own destinies (we'd be freer still in a world of truly limited government). If we finally jettison played-out designations and think in terms of choice and control, our current moment would come into far-clearer focus. And so would our future.

Nick Gillespie is editor-in-chief of reason. This story originally appeared in The American Conservative and can be viewed in that format here.