In the U.S. we are awash in politics. In such a presidential election year as this, the mass media cannot talk about anything except political debates. The debates are not very good. The participants mostly use them for repeating slogans and “talking points” instead of actually thinking and demonstrating their ability to reason and their command of the facts on important matters. Some important matters are completely avoided — like, “Senator, if you were president, what would you do about global warming and climate change.”
What occurs to me in watching these so-called “debates” (dog and pony shows might be a better description) is how polarized our ideological thinking is. Partly this is a result of the unfortunate terminology that we have adopted: the Right and the Left. As long as political ideologies are named “Right” and “Left” they are going to be considered polar opposites, unreconcilable extremes on a spectrum. The politicians use rhetoric to manipulate their audience into various definitions of the party’s location on this imaginary spectrum of ideas. John McCain uses rhetoric to paint Mit Romney as a “liberal” and even a “Democrat” while critics of Hilary Clinton insist that she is just a “corportate conservative.” There is a widespread belief in the United States that Democrats and Republicans are basically the same because they both tend to support big corporations and “free trade” rather than “fair trade.”
While there is some truth to this perception, I feel it misses the fundamental philosophical problem. We the people are too ignorant of what ideologies are and how they work. Indeed, for a long time in America the word “ideology” was applied only to communists — those people labeled our “enemies.” Ideology was bad and un-American because it meant that you believed in a creed, a set of ideas, zealously rather than thinking for yourself. It was implied that the American Way is to think for yourself and not embrace a herd mentality. It was implied that having a two-party system rather than a single-party system (as in the Soviet Union or China) permits the citizens to think for themselves and be free of ideology.
Unfortunately this is not the case. Human beings, on the whole, do not like to think for themselves. Many do not have enough factual knowledge to make intelligent decisions about their beliefs. Not only have they never questioned the beliefs of their parents, but they do not even know where the ideology of their parents came from. Ideology is simply a set or system of beliefs. Like a religion, an ideology may be based on myths, legends, or scientific data. It may be based on economic theories, such as Marxism or the Capitalism of Adam Smith, or broader theories of economics such as Environmentalism which insists on taking into account the full range of consequences upon Nature (our “natural resources”) and health in any economic activity, whether agriculture or industrial manufacture.
Religions are a type of ideology, a collection of ideas and images, stories and beliefs, that are based particularly on stories about gods and spirits and our moral ideals of behavior, such feelings as love, compassion, forgiveness, devotion, duty, contentment, obedience. These abstract ideas based upon human feelings and behavior choices are the stuff of religious ideology. We do well to remember that religion is ideology because that will help us to recognize that ideology is not intrisically bad, but like most human systems is something which can be used for good or for mischief.
But our political systems (ideologies) have been rhetorically disconnnected from both religion and economics. Oh, yes, politicians allude to religion and economics, but they seldom question the premises or myths of the particular religion or economic ideology to which they allude. That is, for example, if a politician alludes to religion, it is most often implicitly Christianity because it is still the dominant religious ideology among our citizens, and certainly the oldest, riches, and best organized of the religions. Judaism runs it a close second and that is probably one of the causes of anti-semitism: the two religions are ideological competitors.
But the Republican Party (so-called) and the Democratic Party define themselves as occuping the “Right” and the “Left.” I didn’t understand this imagery myself until I studied the French Revolution in graduate school. The terms come from the Assembly of the People in France before the revolution in which the delegates were elected from the commoners, from the Catholic ecclesiastical hierarchy, and from the nobiity. Three parties, so to speak, though they were not thought of as “parties”. They were three classes of people, subjects of the French crown, not “citizens.” These interests were polarized into the commons versus the nobles. The nobles included the king, the titled land holders, and the princes of the Church, the bishops and other high officials. The ordinary parish priests and other ancillary religious men, like the friars, sided with the common people. The bourgeoisie, which is the French word for “burgers” or townspeople, also tended to side with the lower classes. Farmers and laborers, shopkeepers, servants, craftsmen, and even the wealthy merchants and traders formed an alliance and in the Assembly they sat on the left side of the chamber over which presided the king and his representatives. On the right side of the chamber (“across the aisle” as we say in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives) sat the delegates of the lords and the bishops.
It is worth noting that bishops and high church officials were often of noble birth, the sinecures of office in the Church having been given to the younger sons of lords for many centuries. Since in France primogeniture was the rule and law, only the eldest son could inherit the father’s estate. This meant that younger sons had to be provided with careers and incomes elsewhere and the hierarchy of the Roman Church had developed historically to fill this need as much as to provide spiritual leadership.
So, here is the root meaning of Left and Right politically. In the French Revolution (which followed the American Revolution chronologically), the Right supported the old regime, the organization of society into a wealthy upper class of landowners who ruled over a lower class of laborers. This upper class of lords was a privileged class. They were accountable to the king and to their peers, and to the Pope, but not to the People. The lower classes — townsfolk, farmers, traders, and craftsmen — were all subjects to the lords and could be abused, taxed, and manipulated by those lords just as if they were chattels, which is to say as if they were mere property, human resources to be disposed of and exploited for the noble and glorious purposes of the elite.
The Left was made up of these exploited peoples, including the comparatively rich burghers (the bourgeoisie). In the Russian Revolution, a century or more later, the bourgeoisie was seen to be extremely rich. In Russia the class system was even more acute than in 18th century France. The bourgeoisie of Russia was enormously wealthy and lived in luxury, and indeed derived their income from rents and land ownership as often as not. The Middle Class, as we call it in the United States, had become landlords, owning real estate that they rented out to others for profit. They also, in Russia, owned serfs. Serfs were workers who were practically slaves; they were tied to the land and treated like chattels. The nobles who owned the vast estates in Russia in the late 19th century were part of a complex hierarchy that was considered a service elite, nearly everyone occupying some role in the government, serving the Tsar who was an absolute monarch and head of the Church to boot.
So, we see that the Left has, for over 200 years represented the People, the “masses” as Marx called them. These are people who are, for the most part, unorganized. They are so exploited as laborers that they haven’t much time to get an education, let alone organize into political parties. Marx’s economic ideas led to the formation of trade union, or labor unions as they are called in the United States. This Left is led by intellectuals who are almost always of bourgeoise birth but who are rebelling against the upper class dominance. The Bourgoisie — which we might see today as the inhabitants of our skyscrapers and office cubicles — are fundamentally divided. They are not part of the ruling class, the lords of Church and State, but they sometimes are so wealthy that they enjoy comparable luxuries and actually aspire to become a member of the ruling elite.
Some of the Middle Class, in other words, is very well off with investments and real estate and full bank accounts and limitless credit. The petty-bourgoisie (petit-bourgoisie in French, which just means “little townsfolk”) are the shop keepers and folks who are not very rich but nevertheless distinguish themselves from common laborers and farmers, especially serfs. In America, these distinctions played out differntly. Partly this is because our revolution and our Republic pre-dates the work of Karl Marx. So, in the United States, the upper class broke away radically from the British monarchy and established itself not so much as a separate class, an elite, but as the top of a pyramid of landholders. From the owners of giant plantations and ranches to the homesteader with his family farm, the American cultural-economic system was considered a continuum. It was only after the industrial revolution and the abolition of slavery that the role of citizen was redefined. We are still in the process of that redefinition.
We were a country of landholders (men) who were citizens of a Republic and had the right to vote and hold office, and own slaves and keep women. There was a large serving class besides the slaves and there was, at the bottom of this hierarchy, the small landowners who didn’t do very well financially. In the cities there was a bourgoisie too, but these at first were seen as people who provided services for the landowners, and they owned land themselves if they could afford to do so. In the United States this citizenry produced by the Revolutionary War deliberately modeled itself upon the citizens of the Roman Republic and the ancient Athenian democracy. Demos (the people) and kratos (rule). Democracy was conceived as a political ideology in contrast to aristocracy (from aristos “the best” or as we might say in English “the people of quality”).
The revolutionaries in America, France, and later in Russia, all were rebelling against monarchy, especially the absolutism that had become the norm in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Those monarchs who survived this cultural awakening of the bourgeoisie and the agrarian Left are the ones who reformed into constitutional monarchies, monarchies limited by the authority of the people expressed through their constituent assemblies, such as the British Parliament or the German Reichstag. In the United States, we didn’t have a king during this transition, and that put us in a unique position. We were the first post-colonial republic in the world and so identified with Republicanism. However, this Repbulicanism has nothing to do with the Grand Old Party, the so-called “Republican Party” that was founded in the time of Abraham Lincoln, who was that party’s first president.
Republicanism was originally the ideology of anti-monarchialism. It held forth the idea that a State could be run without a king, that a president could head the executive authority of the State and be elected by the People for a limited term of office. Now, this idea was not new. The Roman republic had its elected consuls, two officials who served as the heads of State as a team. Consuls were elected for a term of one year and so they did not hold extensive power.
Our choice of models was Greece or Rome and to a large extent we’ve been tacitly arguing over the choice ever since 1776. The Roman Republic was ruled by an elite of landed nobles, the class of patricians and the class of equites, or knights. The rest of the people, including slaves, might be represented but the power did not rest in them. In ancient Athens, the ideal espoused was that all the people participated in democracy. In practice this still excluded women and slaves and minors. But Athenian democracy was less oligarchical than the Roman model. The American model has always struggled between the power of the president and the power of the Congress. Either these two branches of the government are in cahoots or at loggerheads, it seems.
But what about those other two political terms — Liberal and Conservative.
Republicans paint themselves as “conservatives” which in my mind is simply bogus. There is nothing conservative about the Republican party. The only things they seem interested in conserving are private wealth and personal privilege. In this sense they are right-wing. If they could bring back aristocracy overtly they probably would. But a presumptive aristocracy of the rich (plutocracy) and concentration of power into the hands of a few families (oligarchy) are close enough. The ridiculous absurdity of the G.O.P. (Grand Old Party) is that they are not even “republicans”. They would happily destroy the republic in order to more firmly establish the “freedom” of the wealthy patricians in the United States.
Many among the bourgeoisie support this party because they keep hold of the dream of becoming members of the country club. Their goal in life is to amass personal wealth and so they side with those who place the preservation of personal and family wealth above everything else. They will even support this party when it goes against their interests. For example, when the G.O.P. opposes universal health care or social security.
The party has also been shrewd in co-oping certain hot-button emotional issues such as the anti-abortion stance and anti-gay stance which appeals to citizens whose beliefs do not extend beyond the traditional doctrines of various intolerant sects of Christianity. The G.O.P. uses fear to draw in these voter to support their power. The working class folk of rural America have nothing to gain from the G.O.P. holding power except lip service to so-called “Christian” attitudes about traditonal patriarchal values and customs. Hatred of homosexuality, hatred of anyone who is different, hatred of imagination or logic or critical thinking or diversity of opinion. As often as not, such voters also hold racist, anti-semite, and other such ideas about “enemies”. The G.O.P. has capitalized (literally) on this mentality of fear by exploiting the bogeyman of “international terror”. It could be a phrase taken directly and deliberately from the antisemitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Indeed, the G.O.P. seems to be using that document along with Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four as their master strategic plans.
Hold up the bogeyman of terrorism and fear and conspiracy theories the “Liberals” are trying to turn your sons gay, and you can mobilize quite a few votes in America. It is a sad commentary on the American citizenry.
So, what about Liberal? Right-wing rhetoric uses the word more often than the Left and demonizes it in bizarre ways. Liberalism is actually a centrist ideology. It is founded in the simple idea that it is in the interests of the affluent citizens to help out their poorer compatriots. If for no other reason than because it averts rebellion and revolution. Liberalism was developed as a political ideology in order to prevent more radical movements such as communism and fascism to gain a hold on the minds of the oppressed and exploited classes. So, we hear complaints from the “far left” in America that the Democratic Party is not substantially different from the G.O.P. because its politicians tend to support the interests of corporations and employers. This is a distortion when it comes from the Left or the Right. You can identify a centrist ideology because it will be attacked by both extremes.
The Right calls Liberals “fascists” which is a complete abuse of the term. Fascists are ultra-right-wing. There is nothing “liberal” about them. What the Right-wing pundits mean to imply is that Liberals approach the ideas espoused by socialists in wanting government involvement in some key services — such as utilities and healthcare. They want the government to be used as a democratic body to curb the excesses of private industry and private privilege. The Right-wing elitists call this “fascism” mainly to evote a knee-jerk emotional response in the ignorant, but also because they think that any government that interferes with their private wealth and property or aims to regulate or restrict commerce in any way is tantamount to totalitarianism or dictatorship. The claim is manifestly preposterous and logically unsupportable, but then the Right seldom appeals to reason.
And this is another big difference between Liberal and Conservative. The so-called Conservative wishes to keep everything the same, or return it to the 19th century or earlier when business was unregulated. Child labor, even slavery would be consistent with such an ideology of undisturbed capitalism. But they can hardly use those as selling points, so instead they build their public political platform upon obfuscation and tricks, appealing to emotions. If you vote Liberal you vote for killing babies, letting gays get married, and undermining religion, they will say. We must conserve the American Way of Life against its Enemies!!
Liberals seldom stoop to such emotional tactics, which is one of their problems as a political force. Arguably the more extreme liberals even help the Conservatives of the Right by raising complicated issues and moral questions that go beyond conventional religious dogmas, and so drive the frightened fish into the nets of the Right Wing.
It is no wonder that Americans are utterly confused about their politics. The Democratic Party stands for Liberalism and the rule of the people through their representative government, the Congress. The G.O.P. disguises its own desire for absolute power by calling itself “Republican” even though it has nothing to do with protecting a republican form of government. Indeed the word has been almost entirely divested of its original meaning and co-opted by the Right so that rather than being radical and revolutionary, republicanism now is thought to mean “conservative.”
Conservative is a positive term. We do well to conserve those customs and ideals which make our nation noble. But we also do well to let go of things that were mistakes or have outlived their utility. Things like slavery and racism, sexism, antisemitism. These were not good ideals, even though they have been part of the American Way for centuries. Bigotry, chauvinism, jingoism — also not things I would wish to conserve. But do the so-called “conservatives” in America every talk about conserving our virtues and our political diversity and liberty as a society? No, they pretty much just want to preserve their own liberty at the expense of everyone else’s.
Alas, my brother!
Well, we can hope for a change in the wind.