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Right, Left, and Center

Explaining the terms.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 20, 2001

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Right, Left, and Center_James Leroy Wilson-Explaining the terms. So President Bush must move to the center. That's what Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt insist. And they are able to back it up, to. With Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont defecting from the Republican Party, we now have a center-left majority in the controlling the United States Senate, to balance the slim center-right majority in the House of Representatives.

Have you ever stepped back and wondered what the heck we're talking about? What do the Left, the center, and the Right mean? Take the list of issues, and leftists will be near-unanimous on one position and the right, or at least the American conservative right, will take a different position. From personal lifestyle choices to genuinely public affairs like security and the environment, people of ideological conviction take predictable sides. Both the Left and the Right use words like "individual rights" and "morality" but in different ways. Moreover, both appear, to the critical thinker, to be both narrow-minded and logically inconsistent. I won't try to explain all the inconsistencies, but I will try to explain the difference between Left and Right.

Loyola political science professor Robert Mayer of Loyola-Chicago explained to me that the distinction all boils down to equality. That opened my eyes, and many issues, many supposed inconsistencies, were clarified. To believe that the government is responsible for ensuring that everyone enjoys equal rights and benefits from society, is to be on the left. To be on the right is to explicitly reject that.

The American experience requires some differentiation among factions of the right. To believe that the government isn't in the social equality business does not necessarily make one a white supremacist, a fascist, a slave apologist, an intolerant theocrat, or a monarchist. By today's standards, George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were as much if not more right-wing than King George III, against whom they led our revolutionary War of Independence. But they were right-wingers of a different stripe, that is, they were republicans holding that power over civil affairs is not a birthright but must be earned. The typcial American conservative, following the individualist political theory of John Locke, values highly individual equality under law and in politics and government, believing their purpose to be protecting individual rights. What the American right-winger does not insist, however, is that the government should redistribute wealth or force upon its citizens relaionships that they do not desire without a public justification. Economic disparity and private forms of elitism and discrimination may be tolerated, and the conservative justification to mitigate or outlaw such ineqaulity is to prevent civil war or some other social collapse, not because the conservative believes citizens have an unalienable right to force others to serve their needs. Conservatives take public action for realistic, not idealistic, purposes.

So the real difference between the left and right are the individual's claim as a citizen: should citizens be equal under the law and equally eligible to participate in the political process only, or does every citizen also have a moral claim to share in the prosperity and benefits produced by civil society at large?

More directly, the left and the right disagree on matters of fairness, justice, and liberty. For the American conservative - at least, this one - liberty is essential. Liberty is the very right to exist, to secure one's own life and property through law and mutual defense, and to move and trade. For the liberal, these factors are subordinate to enshrining everyone's rights to enjoy the wealth and benefits that civil society produces. For the right-winger, justice is security of life and property through law; for the left-winger, justice is based on what best helps the least advantaged. The conservative believes in preserving the established laws and Constitutions, the liberal believes in change to achieve equality.

That leaves the "center," the place our President should supposedly move to. What is it? In America today, I think it is the place in which the plurality of people, raised on conservative principles but also on liberal programs, would stand. They are not opposed, in fact prefer to continue, liberal programs (Medicare, Department of Education) but are opposed starting new ones (socialized medicine). They don't mind a tax cut for themselves, but resist cuts for people of higher incomes.

As Bush has already compromised much in his tax cut bill and his education bill, we can assume that Gephardt and Daschle's call to move to the center means just two things: appoint pro-choice judges and ditch any partial privatization of Social Security. To them, the center is made up of people afraid to challenge liberal orthodoxy, and they hope Bush becomes one of them. But of course, by letting Democratic Senators dictate the composition of the federal judiciary, Bush would lose his conservative base. And by backing off on Social Security reform he'll tell the under-40 crowd that he's gutless and unworthy of the office. By asking Bush to move even closeer to the center than he already has, Gephardt and Daschle are in effect asking Bush to lose the '04 election. Like father, like son. Time will tell.

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