The Harris polling agency last month released the results of an interesting study. In a survey of 2209 adults, they discovered that most Americans only have the vaguest idea of the meaning of two important pairs of words that play crucial roles in the national political discourse: conservative and liberal, and left and right.
Some of the numbers are surprising. According to the survey, 37 percent of Americans think liberals oppose gun control, or else they are not sure if liberals oppose gun control. Likewise, 27 percent of respondents thought a right-winger was someone who supported affirmative action. Furthermore, the survey showed that respondents generally viewed the paired concepts liberals and left-wingers and conservatives and right-wingers as possessing, respectively, generally similar political beliefs--with one caveat. In both cases, respondents were roughly 10 percent more clueless about left-wingers and right-wingers than they were about liberals and conservatives.
"The label left-winger is broadly perceived to be similar to liberal," the agency concluded, "except that more people are not sure what it means."
Respondents were asked to define the labels according to what their positions were on seven "political issues": abortion rights, gun control, cutting taxes, gay rights, same-sex marriage, affirmative action and moral values. This list of issues is preposterous in itself as a symbolic reflection of the political landscape, but that's a discussion for another time. To me the most instructive category was "moral values." According to the survey, 78 percent of respondents believe conservatives support moral values, while only 40 percent said the same about left-wingers. In fact, 29 percent said they believed left-wingers actually opposed moral values.
I'm glad the Harris people never called me for this survey, because I would have had to answer "not sure" to every question. Even after working as a political reporter for many years, I still have absolutely no idea what the American versions of left and right mean--what they mean in an ideological sense, that is. It's hard not to be confused when we call a saber-rattling free trader like John Kerry far left, while a man who keeps a portrait of Lenin on his wall, like Grover Norquist, is considered the very definition of a right-winger.
When I see someone called a leftist or left-leaning in print, I'm never sure whether they're talking about an actual communist, or just some timorous capitalist yuppie whom David Brooks spotted drinking a latte, or standing in line to see Cinema Paradiso. Politically, it's just not a very concise definition.
But of course we all know exactly what left means, when we're talking about social labels. In common parlance, left is clearly code for "feckless, pseudo-intellectual wiener," while right is code for "winner" and "the people who are actually running things while you assholes are reading James Joyce." Left also emphatically stands for "wrong side of history," while right is explicitly understood to mean the only remaining legitimate vision for future social organization. All ambitious politicians run screaming from the word left, understanding it to be a fatal electoral contagion, whereas being labeled rightwing even adds a winner's aura to an openly drooling political psychopath, like Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning.
Historically, the term left originated with the French Jacobins (they sat on the left in the Assemblies of the French Revolution) and the Stalinists who gave a 20th century gift of Jacobinism to about 20 million victims. That's what the term leftist meant for about 200 years: a bloodthirsty fiend who seized your property and chopped off your head. You'll never hear the editorial board of The Nation admitting that they're in any way the inheritors of this excellent legacy, but this implication is always lurking somewhere in the back of every right-wing caricature of the modern left.
For one thing, the left in these quarters is always described as a tiny minority of over-educated elites, desperate to seize power and impose some blockheaded, sweepingly sinister grad-school theory on decent folk. Beyond that, conservative writers always manage to have guillotines, terror-bombers, death-camps and other relics of the glorious leftist past ready to stick in some nearby paragraph whenever the modern left is described.
Here's this trick on display in a Miami Herald piece from last fall called "Left-leaning intellectuals, voters and their values." It takes writer Carlos Montaner about three sentences here to turn Noam Chomsky into a Shining Path terrorist:
The American academic left, sweet and law-abiding, usually grazes in the fields of the Democratic Party. Although it can be as radical as Noam Chomsky, its lucubrations end up in some fiery article disseminated through the Internet or buried in an obscure publication read by barely a few hundred members of the same sect. Thankfully, blood is never spilled.
In Latin America or Europe, the situation is different. The criminals in Peru's Shining Path emerged from the philosophy department of a provincial university. They began by reading Hegel and Marx and went on to slit the throats of peasants they called "collaborators."
Clearly, only the constant vigilance of the right prevents all those kids with pointy beards working in coffee shops from organizing massacres. Thankfully, blood is never spilled!
Which gets back to the Harris poll. If people are confused about what left-wing means, there might be a reason for that. If you can call both Leon Trotsky and Eric Alterman left-wing and be technically right in both cases, then clearly the word is doing injustice to one of them. They have nothing in common; Trotsky had a much better sense of humor.
There was an hilarious example last week of how loosely left-wing can be interpreted by our media. While covering Condoleezza Rice's visit to Europe, FOX News White House correspondent James Rosen described France's Institute for Political Sciences as "left-wing." Here's the exact quote, from a Feb. 8 broadcast on Special Report With Brit Hume:
ROSEN: Speaking to one of France's leading left-wing political science academies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged old Europe to put aside the old differences over Iraq...
The institute in question is so left-wing that it claims L. Paul Bremer III as one of its graduates. Other graduates include Jacques Chirac, Francois Mitterand, Georges Pompidou, and Boutros-Boutros Ghali. What Rosen was obviously trying to say was that Rice was speaking to a bunch of recalcitrant Europeans. Left-wing is becoming a synonym for not American.
Obviously there's no way to really stop a group of people bent on demonizing dissenters by the tireless use of some all-encompassing, Satanic label. When even Nancy Pelosi can be described as a "left-wing torch-thrower" (a small California paper used that term last week), it's pretty clear the word is more meant as an insult, to describe a fuzzy-headed refusal to accept patriotic orthodoxy, than it is to refer to a concrete set of political beliefs.
But at some point it says something about you if you allow these labels to stick. Either the left is not being very clear about the winning politics that it stands for, or else the word accurately describes a secret willingness to be constantly abused by bigots, a market niche full of bashful subscribers to Total Pussy Weekly. Because nothing else makes the American left look worse; it can't even change your mind about its name, much less change the world.