Liberty for the Left
The modern Republican party in America is composed of a well-known coalition brought together by Ronald Reagan. Specifically, those who vote Republican tend to fall into one of three categories: fiscal conservatives, “value” voters, and those who favor a strong, active military. Obviously there is a significant deal of overlap and there are exceptions, but these categories provide a thoroughly accurate portrayal of the Republican party.
I find it very strange that there is no analogous coalition on the left side of the political spectrum. I know of no attempt to categorize factions of American Democrats in such a way. There are somewhat informal groupings you can throw together ad-hoc, such as socialists, hippies, and left-populists, but those represent ideologies, not voting blocks. The only group that the press and pundits regularly recognize is perhaps the Greens, but they are a political party themselves.
This may seem silly to get hung up about, but the lack of an accepted classification makes discussing topics about the left unnecessarily difficult. As celebirty chef and TV host Alton Brown once wrote,
To my mind, the greatest analytical tool in the world is classification. Classifying things leads to enlightenment, and enlightenment to deeper meaning. For instance, I used to make really lousy cheesecake until I realized that cheesecake is not a cake, it is a custard pie. Now I treat cheesecake like a custard pie and everything is fine. There was a time when I did not enjoy Steven Seagal movies. Then a friend pointed out that they are all post-modern Jerry Lewis movies. Now I just can’t wait for Glimmer Man III to hit DVD. That’s classification at work.
There has been little effort to frame conversations about American Democrats, and I think that has led to complete ignorance of a large faction of voters who vote Democrat and has left them without a voice. These Democrats are those who fight for a very specific, but also almost entirely inarticulate, brand of liberty.
I propose that in reality there are two primary factions on the left. Just as Republican factions do, they share a large overlap on issues, but the emphasis is completely different.
1. Mainstream Democrats, who believe the purpose of government is to ensure the greater common good and provide more equity than what there is on the free market. If something is morally wrong, the government should fix it.
2. Those who are for individual liberty, but do not agree with the traditional concept of liberty.
(2) has an entirely different emphasis. The issues that I see associate with it include pro-choice; anti-organized religion; strong suspicion of corporations; anti-intellectual property; legalization of drugs. The logical extreme of these positions is leftists anarchism. Democrats who fall into group (1) may agree on certain issues such as abortion, but the logical extreme of their emphasis is socialism, a very different outcome.
I do not have any empirical evidence for this and it is entirely based on anecdotal knowledge I’ve built up quizzing friends and acquaintances over the years. (I did, however, once create a political test that would graph you, and a surprising number of people fell into the anti-government/liberal values quadrant) Still, another way to describe group (2) is to say it is those who want the government to stay out of their lives but do not trust capitalism. To me, that seems like an apt description of a significant number of people, especially young adults. [It's easy to call this social liberalism and call it a day, but it's quite a stretch to think of intellectual property and the role of corporations as social issues]
Furthermore, I do not believe this group is even conscious of the fact that they differ in emphasis from mainstream Democrats. It’s easy to find a voice for any group of Republicans (the religious right, the old right, neoconservatives, etc), but who speaks for these Democrats? Nader is the closest I can think of, but that is a huge stretch. What academics or thinktanks out there are formalizing the core of policy issues I listed into a workable theory? Who is fighting for liberty for the left?
With the talk of liberty, it might seem easy to think of them as “Left-Libertarians“, a label I gave them in the political test I mentioned, but upon further consideration, it seems like a pretty poor classification. The “liberty” fought for by left-libertarians maintains a veneer of classical liberalism, whereas (2) has no such groundings. Left-libertarians may feel empathetic towards it, but the sensibilities and goals of their respective liberties differ substantially. Of course, it must still be said that left-libertarianism is an especially amorphous concept with many competing and contradictory definitions. Some of those definitions do in fact align reasonably well with (2)
Regardless, few in the Democratic party are even aware of left-libertarianism and rightly associate libertarianism with capitalism. Furthermore, even the forms of left-libertarianism that share many standpoints with (2) take a very extreme position. Between it and mainstream Democrats exists an enormous void. For Republicans, paleoconservatives and the “Old Right” (e.g. William Buckley, Russell Kirk) eloquently symbolize such values. While conservatives have many avenues of competing paradigms supporting different forms and expressions of liberty, the Democratic party ignores this altogether.
Democrats must stop skirting the issue of which philosophical principles underscore their idea of liberty. All Democrats need not endorse it, but without a discussion of those ideas and serious academic examination, argument with the right on these issues is severely inhibited. The concept of personal property holds the traditional idea of liberty together. What holds it together for the left? By which process is freedom of choice guaranteed amongst the multitude of social interactions within the state? What are the philosophical underpinnings for such a combination of liberty and equity, where each are continually at one another’s throats?