The American left has been in decline since the leftward shift of FDR’s New Deal era blunted the edge of radical politics and filled the need leftists attempted to satisfy. Since then, the distinction between liberal and leftist has all but disappeared in American politics and the battle has largely been waged between progressives and liberals. However the left is resurgent and is an increasingly important bloc in American politics that must be understood and reckoned with on its own terms.
With new cleavages in American politics making themselves known, it’s worth looking into just what exactly are the differences between liberals, progressives, and socialists/leftists more generally. It’s also worth looking at the political transformation happening in America and I suspect it reflects a similar trajectory to the personal politics of many people in the United States. It certainly reflects the evolution of my views over the last decade or so.
A Liberal or a Leftist? What’s the Difference?
In American political discourse, some of the loudest voices frequently call everybody from Barack Obama to Bernie Sanders a marxist, a leftist, a socialist, or some other similar moniker all meant to tap into lingering Cold War Era tension. A significant portion of the political debate in the United States is so far to the right that the distinction between liberalism and leftism doesn’t even matter. At a certain point, because of the posture of the debate, everything to the left of Jeff Flake is all of those things at once. However, this confuses the nature of these political forces. There are fundamental differences between liberalism and leftism, significant similarities, but differences large enough they need to be dealt with fairly.
One thing that liberals and leftists have in common is a respect for the enlightenment rights based conception of the world that is tied to liberal democracy. American leftists support free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, and various other rights Americans have come to understand as absolute. However, they add to that foundation with a conception of economic power that adds a new dimension to these foundational rights. And to a large degree aim to dull the power the concept of private property plays in the United States in a way liberals do not.
The right to be free from economic coercion and truly bear the fruits of one’s labor is more important than the owners of capital property-based claim to the surplus value created by those who work for them. This is a significant difference between liberals and leftists that works its way into almost every significant policy debate. For example, take Medicare-For-All, liberals are hesitant to do away with the private insurance industry because in their mind those people have a property-based entitlement to the businesses they’ve created and the customers they now serve. Leftists on the other hand view healthcare as a collective good that should be provided publicly as both a moral imperative and as a matter of economic efficiency.
Ultimately when push comes to shove and more moderate Democrats fold on Medicare for All it will be because the foundational view of profits and property allows them the cognitive dissonance required to let millions of people go without healthcare simply because they can’t afford it. Disrupting the insurance industry, who in some sense is entitled to those profits in their mind, just isn’t worth the risk of the unknown, even if the status quo leaves millions of people without healthcare.
At its core, the difference between liberals and leftists can really fundamentally be seen in the liberal apprehension to mess with private property rights. Juxtaposed with the leftist idea that to be free from economic coercion is an extension of those rights etched out by the liberal conception to begin with. The pressure point for liberals being, to what extent do private property rights infringe on economic coercion and to what degree can those rights be done away with or infringed upon to help remedy that coercion.
Progressives come into the equation somewhere in the middle, if the liberal and leftist distinction is viewed as a spectrum. It’s a muddy category which a lot of people with a lot of different priorities and policy goals place themselves in. A progressive focused on climate change may be perfectly happy with a public option over Medicare-for-All but view nationalization of the oil and gas industry and a Green New Deal as a priority no matter the cost. Similarly a progressive focused on healthcare may be a diehard Medicare-for-All supporter while being just fine with carbon taxes funding modest modernization and green energy projects.
Progressives take ideas from either camp depending on their priorities and are in my view less ideologically rigid. The majority of modern Democrats would likely sit somewhere in this space. As the crises of climate change and some of the fundamental contradictions in the American economy become more pronounced, more and more Democrats have moved to the left. People who happily voted for Bill Clinton’s Third Way now find themselves cheering on AOC and endorsing the largely Bernie Sanders inspired agenda of the modern Democratic Party. Many of these voters may not understand the transformation they’ve undergone and they may never self identify as a socialist or a leftist or even a progressive, but their shift to the left has significant consequences for the near future.
What All This Philosophical Mumbo Jumbo Means for American Politics
These distinctions are somewhat distinctions in the bedrock views of the politicians and voters who hold them. What is important, what is worth pursuing, and at what cost is it worth pursuing it all have very different answers for each of these conceptions. Similarly, the politicians who hold one framework over the other, will make different policy concessions and push different priorities once in office. If the shift from liberal to progressive is predicated on some policy priority that eschews private property rights in some way, the shift from progressive to leftist is probably best described as the moment when someone applies that same logic to every issue in a more systematic way.
Many voters have already started to let whichever progressive policy persuasions they had bleed into other issues. And as this commitment to solutions instead of half-steps grows stronger, the apprehension to identify as a socialist grows weaker. At least that was my experience. Also, as politics becomes more partisan, accusations of socialism from conservatives are more and more common, giving identifying as a socialist a sort of “trigger the cons” appeal it didn’t used to have. A similar trend is happening on the right with the term nationalism, which is problematic for many reasons.
Convincing progressives they are actually socialists is an incredibly important political goal. Bernie Sanders desensitized Americans to the term and reframed the discussion around Nordic models and away from state socialism of the USSR variety. That was a big step, but convincing people that the common strand in their thinking on issues from climate change and healthcare, is social control of those industries, is the next step. And given American apprehension to “big government” in the post-Reagan world, and lingering Cold War sentiment, that will be a big hurdle.
However, it’s a journey many Americans are poised to make and one I recently made myself, so I feel able to speak to the importance of shifting the dialogue in this way.
Progressives, Just Admit it Already, You’re Actually Socialists and That is Okay
Recently I stumbled across a few old blog posts where I was incredibly wishy-washy about the term socialist. Another reader pointed out they had noticed a significant shift in the views we put forth. Going further to say that in times like this it’s important to “smash the accelerator” not the brake. In a lot of ways, that is the underlying philosophy of a transition from progressive to socialist that I made somewhat unintentionally.
I’ve always identified on the left and growing up in Northern Idaho supporting Barack Obama might as well be trying to revive Lenin himself and bring the October Revolution the streets of the United States. So, even back then before my politics was articulated in a more radical way, I felt as though I was taking a fairly radical stance. As I learned more about politics and the crises we face as a country and planet, my opinions on the solutions to these problems veered more and more to the left.
Whether it’s big money in politics, big financial institutions, healthcare, climate change, or ending mass incarceration, each of these problems are so morally insidious and problematic that even the compromising “purple America” tone of the Obama administration seems laughably nonchalant in the face of all these catastrophes.
Self identified progressives realize this fact. These are the people who largely identify as independents but vote for Democrats. When it comes to banking, Dodd-Frank’s focus on stress tests and funding levels wasn’t enough, breaking the banks up with a modern day Glass-Steagall is more inline with their views. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t enough, but Medicare-For-All sounds just right. A judicial litmus test to keep money out of politics and protect a woman’s right to choose is a litmus test for any candidate. All of these policy positions buck the liberal status quo, they aim to reduce private property rights for the benefit of those who face the downwind economic consequences of the power consolidated property provides.
Progressive is a nice label, but it’s just a stop on the way to socialist. Once this common thread is identified, applying that same logic to every problem quickly proves there is a satisfying goal to be furthered in almost every policy arena. One that puts people over profits, the bedrock of the progressive ideal that is most often best championed through socialist policy. Once I personally realized this fact, it became silly not to identify as a socialist. That’s what I am, that’s what most progressives are and the sooner they realize this, the sooner the Democrats will take the leftward shift of the American electorate as seriously as they need to.
That’s the moment Democrats will champion leftist policy with gusto. They do rhetorically right now, but a strong base of voters who know what they believe and articulate that vision without the wishy-washy language of progressivism is the next step we need to take. It’s what will allow people to hold their politicians accountable when they don’t deliver on those goals. It’s not that big of a leap though and politicians like AOC show it’s already underway. And all for the better, because in my view, a big dose of socialism is the only way out of this mess.