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Monday, January 17, 2011

"The 'Left'"

Over at the liberal New Republic website, Jonathan Chait has a brief but enjoyable post (with a great graphic) observing that he is not a leftist, arguing that the left has minimal impact in current American politics and is therefore, for him, not worth discussing much, and noting that he gets criticized by the left when he disagrees with it and criticized when he ignores it.  Nothing especially dramatic or non-obvious, but it provides a nice window for thinking about arguments over the state of political rhetoric in the past week.  

Some liberals, without doubt, reacted instinctively to the Tucson shootings by pinning them, directly or indirectly, on the rhetoric of some (but not all) voices on the right.  My Facebook friends' updates bore witness to this.  But many didn't, and few who did as an initial matter seriously pressed the point.  A larger percentage of people on "the left" may have done so.  But Chait is correct: the left is a minor class in American politics.  (Perhaps not in the blogosphere, but if you rely on the blogosphere to take soundings of American politics, you're already lost.)  Many like to say that the academy itself is leftist, although given the apparent contempt with which those critics view academics and their repeated assertions that the academy doesn't represent America, I'm not sure how much we should care about this.  It doesn't happen to be true of the legal academy, in any event, which skews liberal but definitely not left.  (There are exceptions, of course; but with all due respect to SALT members and the like, not all of whom are genuine leftists, they have minimal numbers in the legal academy and even less influence.)

Yet my Facebook friends' updates (my "friends" tend to range fairly widely on an ideological axis) were also full of accusations that "the Left," usually capitalized, had taken advantage (or, immediately and anticipatorily, that "the Left" would take advantage) of the shootings for their own ends.  What are we to make of this?  One possibility is that they were wrong, but that's an overstatement; some leftists did accuse the right or far right of being responsible for the shootings.  A better possibility is that they were correct but didn't really have "the Left" in mind; they had "liberals" or "Democrats" in mind, in which case they were basically wrong.  Finally, perhaps they did have only "the Left" in mind.  If so, however, they were speaking about a minor subset of the American social and political scene.  That's fine, as long as they realize they were speaking about a trivial number of people (both in terms of numbers and influence).  I have nothing against conservatives fulminating against "the Left," any more than I have anything against liberals fulminating against, say, the Birchers.  Everyone is entitled to a relatively trivial hobby.

None of this is meant to make light of those conservatives and right-wingers--bloggers, politicians, and such--who have received death threats from their opponents at different times (as have some liberals and leftists at different times), and whose view of events was likely to be skewed by the unrepresentative sample they confronted.  It is worth noting, however, that, on their logic as I understand it, we can draw no conclusions about "the Left" from those who make death threats: they're just lone nuts and say little about the influence of leftist rhetoric--which, in any event, is vanishingly small in American politics.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 17, 2011 at 01:28 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I've been horribly disappointed by the responses to the shootings in Tucson, both left and right, along with whatever other groupings you'd like to provide, and your post's conclusion highlights the trouble. We had those on the liberal/left side insisting that this murderer was motivated by right-wing politics, and the right/conservative side insisting that he was a nut, and that politics had nothing to do with it. And the liberal/left side made (and evidently continues to make) lots of unsupported assertions about his actual politics, and conservatives continue, wrongly, to describe his politics as nothing but nonsense. His politics were wrong-headed, but wrong-headed left-wing radicalism isn't anything new or unprecedented and isn't in itself nonsense, and that's what his politics are. Now, I don't want to draw a straight line from his left-wing radical politics to the shooting, that would be beyond the evidence at this point. But the evidence is suggestive, and it's certainly appropriate to ask why so many on the liberal/left have allowed the cancerous conspiracy theories that the Tucson killer believed in to circulate without condemnation or refutation. Certainly if we're going to talk about the power of rhetoric, we should talk about the power of a widely circulated accusation that the US government murdered thousands of citizens so that it could start a war. And yet even now I am guessing that you would have a hard time finding prominent liberals/leftists to condemn that theory.

Posted by: Thomas | Jan 17, 2011 9:24:38 PM

I'm reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with a professor at a top 20 law school about the political views of one of his faculty colleagues. "He's a real right-winger," the professor said, "he is *very* conservative." I replied, "Does he vote Republican?" To which the professor responded, "No --he's not THAT conservative."

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 17, 2011 6:18:20 PM

Center-left and center-right?

Posted by: anymouse | Jan 17, 2011 6:06:20 PM

Jonathan, alas I lack time for a proper response. I do think it's largely a question of definition, although I am trying to go on a general and not personal sense here; I also think that it takes more to be "the Left" than being to the left of the average Democrat (just as I think "the Right" is not everyone to the right of the average Republican, although I suspect my own priors, which I'm not defending, would lead me to do more lumping in this area than I would on the left). And I think both of us agree that treating "left" as synonymous with "liberal" or "Democrat" doesn't get it right, and the same for "right" and "conservative" or "Republican." That's not a full response but it's the best I can do at the moment. Cheers, PH

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 17, 2011 5:40:55 PM

Isn't this all a question of how terms are defined? What does it mean to be part of the "left"? Does it take more than being to the left if the average Democrat? If so, what?


Posted by: Jonathan H. Adler | Jan 17, 2011 5:36:23 PM

A fair question. Responses: 1) I think there *is* a left in the United States, just not much of one. 2) I do think there is a difference between what we generally mean by "conservatives" and what we generally mean by "the right" or, certainly, the "far right." 3) I think "the right" in the US is currently larger and more significant than "the left."

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 17, 2011 3:49:58 PM

So is there a "right" in this country or just conservatives or whatever?

Posted by: anymouse | Jan 17, 2011 2:01:01 PM

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