It’s been 234 years since the French Revolution, and our primary metaphor for categorizing people politically remains a reference to seating arrangements at the first National Assembly. Which is a bit odd.
Of course, the “left to right” spatial metaphor has some timeless virtues. On many issues, there is a clear continuum between those who demand revolutionary change to achieve equality and those who counsel counterrevolutionary measures to preserve a hierarchy. But the schema also has some obvious problems. Political conflict is not unidimensional. There are people who favor socialist economic change but oppose, say, drug legalization, and vice versa. And many civic questions divide groups that each claim to be upholding the more egalitarian (or traditionalist) position.
Another difficulty arises from the disparate ways we apply the metaphor. In some contexts, your position on the left-to-right spectrum is an index of your commitment to equality, which is to say it’s an expression of your core political values. In other contexts, however, it merely describes your intuitions on questions of fact, such as the likely consequences of a given economic policy or the likely efficacy of a given political strategy.
This dual usage presents a few problems. For one, it leads many to equate empirical questions with moral ones. You cannot determine precisely how much progressive change a majority of voters in a given election will be willing to abide by reflecting on your own ideological convictions. Yet many people allow such convictions to dictate their judgment on questions of fact, while others interpret pessimistic assessments of political possibility as betrayals of egalitarian (or, on the right, conservative) principles.
A minor argument among members of the Democratic Socialists of America this week illustrates this point. The organization recently elected a new national political committee, and its most revolutionary factions gained seats. This led their sympathizers to euphorically declare, “we WON A LEFT-WING MAJORITY.” Socialists more disposed to electoral theories of change took umbrage at this statement. After all, in anti-capitalist circles, one’s position on the left-to-right spectrum is often taken as a measure of virtue. It seemed uncomradely, therefore, for the DSA’s revolutionaries to describe the group’s internal divisions spatially since “the right and left of U.S. politics want fundamentally different things; in DSA, we share a vision for an end to capitalism; we just differ on how best to get there.”
A tendency to equate moral values with empirical judgments may be especially prevalent at the far poles of United States politics. But it rears its head in more mainstream debates, too. Indeed, centrists are plenty capable of letting their ideological commitments dictate their evaluations of economic data or political reality.
In any case, the way the left-to-right metaphor can conflate normative and empirical questions is unfortunate. In some circles, it effectively forbids an unblinkered analysis of political reality while promoting animosity between factions that hold the same basic moral commitments.
One way to elucidate these points is to examine the roots of blue America’s myriad internal divides. To an extent, I think which “type of progressive” one is hinges on how one answers four questions: two normative, two empirical. What I’ve drawn up here isn’t remotely a comprehensive model of ideology in the U.S. For one thing, it focuses exclusively on the “economic” dimension of ideological disagreement, and even within that sphere, it’s pretty reductive. Still, I think these queries provide a rough outline of divisions at the left of center and an illustration of how many of our most vituperative arguments are rooted in questions of fact, about which reasonable people can disagree.
Should we design our economic institutions to maximize the welfare of the collective or to safeguard the prerogatives of property owners?
This is arguably the fundamental normative question dividing the left and right, in the broadest sense of those terms, in the U.S. There are some heterodox right-wingers who prioritize a traditionalist conception of “the common good” over individual property rights, but most conservatives in Congress believe people have a strong moral claim to their market income, which they “earn” in an uncomplicated sense. In this view, the country’s economic institutions are essentially fair, an individual’s earnings are a gauge of their contributions to the nation’s prosperity, and they therefore have a natural right to dispose of those earnings as they see fit.
That right is not wholly inviolable. The government must collect some taxes to finance public safety, the national defense, and a few other core functions. But these taxes are necessary evils that should be minimized to the furthest possible extent.
Just about everyone to the left of center (i.e., every “type of progressive”) rejects this moral reasoning. They observe that the correlation between activities that generate high market incomes and those that produce social value is extremely imperfect. A hedge-fund manager earns exponentially more than a great middle-school science teacher, but the former’s expertise at gaining the upper hand in zero-sum financial transactions contributes much less to the general welfare than a gifted educator’s pedagogy. Similarly, some writers who scribble navel-gazing blog posts about the nature of ideology earn higher salaries than health aides who care for the elderly and infirm, yet society could get by just fine without columns like this one, while it would become barbarous if every nursing-home worker suddenly withdrew their services.
Separately, progressives contend that high earners are not the sole authors of their own prosperity. Their acquisition of skills is underwritten by collectively financed and maintained social institutions. The productivity of their enterprises is enhanced by public infrastructure. In many cases, their incomes are inflated by unjust labor practices or statist economic rules, such as the patent protections that juice the returns on intellectual property.
Finally, on a more philosophical level, even qualities that seem innate to individuals are attributable to forces larger than themselves. No one determines their own diligence and intelligence through sheer personal agency. A combination of genetic endowments and early-life environmental conditions goes a long way toward structuring our personalities. To the extent that mere fortune determines these differences, there is little justice in consigning the unlucky to the market’s verdict on their entitlement to a high standard of living.
Not everyone left of center endorses all of these arguments. And some believe individuals’ perceptions of entitlement to their market income deserve some consideration. But ultimately, to be on the broad left in the U.S. is to believe the primary measure of an economic order’s justice is its success in promoting the collective good, not in maximizing the liberty of the propertied.
What does it mean to maximize the collective good?
Those who agree that individual property rights must be subordinate to the general welfare can disagree about the latter’s definition. Indeed, there is likely a near infinity of ways to conceive of the collective good; I can’t possibly provide a comprehensive account here. But to demonstrate the limitations of the left-to-right metaphor, it may be sufficient to describe three broad answers to this question.
Virtually every type of progressive sees some value in material prosperity, ecological health, and worker autonomy. But disparate factions place varying degrees of emphasis on these goods.
“Cornucopians” believe the general welfare is best advanced by maximizing material prosperity in relatively conventional terms. They recognize the importance of environmental sustainability and other quality-of-life concerns, but they contend that technological progress and economic growth are liberatory forces that free humans from needless toil and deprivation. And they insist humans can reconcile further technological advances and increases in consumption with ecological limits. Thus, they favor economic institutions that will maximize material plenty.
“Greens,” by contrast, are uninterested in maximizing consumer welfare as conventionally understood. They insist the capacity to purchase a wide variety of goods contributes less to human happiness than people tend to think. And they believe the welfare of nonhuman animals and the natural world must be given a great deal of weight in any just conception of the common good. Beyond these normative commitments, Greens believe it is empirically impossible to reconcile ecological sustainability with dramatic and sustained increases in economic growth. They therefore favor economic institutions that reduce humanity’s negative impacts on the rest of the biosphere while advancing our species’ well-being in nonmaterialistic ways, such as through expansions in leisure time and improvements in air and water quality.
“Liberationists,” meanwhile, put a premium on minimizing the unfreedom and alienation of working people. They care more about eliminating exploitative labor relations than maximizing prosperity as conventionally defined. They would concede that a fully democratic economy may not produce as much as a market-oriented one but that the right to exercise autonomy over one’s working life is more important than material plenty.
Obviously, there are potential overlaps between these perspectives. Some Cornucopians believe the purpose of maximizing plenty is to enable workers to live more autonomous lives without suffering reductions in living standards. Those concerned with ending class exploitation are often also committed to animal liberation. My point here is just that material plenty, environmental justice, and worker autonomy are distinct goods. And disparate factions on the broad left put different degrees of emphasis on each one.
To the extent that the “left to right” spectrum gets overlaid across these viewpoints, Greens and Liberationists tend to be described as more left-wing than Cornucopians since the former’s values are more antithetical to those of our existing economic order. But trying to characterize these divisions with reference to points on a single continuum doesn’t make much sense. To put a somewhat greater premium on maximizing living standards for the least well off than on minimizing environmental disruption does not make one less egalitarian than someone with the opposite priorities in any clear-cut sense.
Which economic institutions best advance the collective good in practice?
Even those who share a conception of the collective economic good may disagree about precisely which institutions are most likely to bring it about.
Among Cornucopians, there are “Left Neoliberals” who believe that loosely regulated markets combined with a strong social-welfare state will maximize prosperity. In this view, though markets and private-capital ownership are not morally sacrosanct, they happen to have beneficent practical effects. The price mechanism is an unparalleled technology for aggregating the economic desires of large groups of people. The market’s inequalities channel humanity’s innate desire for prosperity and status into activities that produce utility for the collective. And widely distributed capital ownership serves as a check against the threat of centralized power. The private sector is not a sufficient manager of the economy. The state must correct market failures, such as its inability to price the externalized costs of production (e.g., pollution). And the government must ensure that the least well off benefit from collective prosperity by redistributing wealth through cash transfers and social programs.
But then there are “Cornucopian Socialists” who believe market capitalism generates more material scarcity and social injustice than a democratically planned economy would. After all, the number of economic activities that are socially useful is far larger than the number that are profitable. Under contemporary capitalism, America’s poor are often confined to overcrowded, low-quality housing, or else to the streets, since it is not profitable to build nice, comfortable homes for people of their station. Under socialism, by contrast, the demos could choose to make housing drastically more abundant than it is under capitalism.
“Social Democratic Cornucopians,” meanwhile, exist somewhere between these two poles.
It’s obviously coherent to describe proponents of a planned economy as “more left-wing” than champions of Left Neoliberalism. But at least in principle, a person who is as ideologically committed to the interests of the working class as a socialist could nevertheless arrive at the empirical conclusion that a mixed economy will advance those interests better than a planned one. Indeed, this does seem to be the overwhelming view of actual working-class people in advanced industrial economies, however flawed their understanding of political economy may be.
Similar empirical disagreements divide our other ideological groups. Among Greens, there are “Ecoliberals” who believe a mixed economy with extensive environmental regulations would best balance the competing imperatives of human and ecological flourishing, and there are “Ecosocialists” who believe only a planned economy can reconcile these two ends.
“Statist Liberationists,” meanwhile, believe the dual imperatives of abolishing labor exploitation and ensuring the performance of socially necessary labor can be accomplished only through a centralized authority with a monopoly on violence. “Anarcho-liberationists,” by contrast, believe properly liberated individuals will be sufficiently altruistic and communitarian to organize themselves economically without the aid of state institutions.
What is the most effective way to make progress toward economic justice?
Finally, even among those who agree completely about what the end goal of political economy should be, there are disagreements about how best to pursue that ideal.
So within every ideological faction listed above, there are “Electoral Optimists” and “Electoral Pessimists.” The former believe there is either (1) already a latent democratic majority for their cause or (2) a way to create such a majority through advocacy in the very near term. The latter group, by contrast, believes most Americans reject their vision and can’t be persuaded to adopt it in the near term (at least, given durable facts about the nation’s media and civic environment).
Then there are further divisions within these groups. Some Electoral Optimists are “Democratic Reformers” who seek to unlock their latent majoritarian support by pressuring the Democratic Party into embracing their agenda through primary challenges, organizing, and advocacy. Others are “Iconoclasts” who believe they can tap into that majority by organizing an independent third party to advocate for their program in an unabashed and uncompromising fashion.
Some pessimists, meanwhile, are “Harm Reducers” who believe the Democratic Party should flout its own normative preferences on some subjects for the sake of ensuring the right’s disempowerment. “Post-electoral Pessimists,” by contrast, simply disengage from partisan politics to focus on other forms of political activity that will theoretically advance their preferences more effectively, such as union organizing, consumer boycotts, shareholder activism, or violent revolution.
Anyhow, take the seven distinct ideological tendencies sketched above (Left Neoliberals, Cornucopian Socialists, Cornucopian Social Democrats, Ecoliberals, Ecosocialists, Statist Liberationists, Anarcho-liberationists), multiply them by the four distinct strategic tendencies within each one (Democratic Reformers, Iconoclasts, Harm Reducers, and Post-electoral Pessimists), and you get 28 different types of progressives.
Of course, all these names are silly and the categories somewhat arbitrary. My main aim here is just to demonstrate that our ideological orientations are determined by a combination of normative and empirical judgments. And when the “left to right” metaphor leads us to conflate the two, it can undermine both our intellectual honesty and our generosity.
This point is best illustrated by the way we characterize the left’s internal disagreements on that fourth question.
Generally speaking, within the most progressive ideological tendencies, we tend to say that both Democratic Reformers and Iconoclasts are “more left-wing” than Harm Reducers. In fact, since we are so far away from the point at which the normative disputes between, say, Democratic Socialists and socialists have political relevance, the most prominent debates within blue America often concern fundamentally empirical questions about political reality. As a result, the discourse’s litmus test for belonging to a given ideological group is frequently a question of fact rather than ultimate value: Is one Democratic candidate significantly more likely to win a general election than another? Would Democrats campaigning on [insert position] dramatically increase the probability of Republican victories?
It’s perfectly coherent to say that someone who believes the Democratic Party should campaign on the abolition of factory farming is “to the left” of someone who believes the party shouldn’t take a strong stance against that atrocity. But if the latter person is herself a vegan who simply believes the primary consequence of Joe Biden’s calling for a drastic reduction in the supply of cheap meat would be to ensure Donald Trump’s election, then this description is a bit misleading. The true measure of a person’s commitment to egalitarianism can’t be their degree of indifference to public opinion.
This is what makes the conflation of normative and empirical questions so ill advised. Most people generally develop their ideological commitments before they acquire informed opinions about the bounds of political possibility. Typically, you need to feel a deep investment in certain political outcomes before you’ll bother to parse the General Social Survey, voter file data, trends in the electoral behavior of demographic groups, etc. To the extent that your ideological identity forbids you to impartially analyze such evidence — or simply prohibits the consideration of certain factual conclusions — you’re going to be at a high risk of doing something counterproductive. After all, though it is possible that the truth about the practical consequences of a given political tactic will always be convenient for your moral preferences, there is no reason to expect this to be unerringly the case.
In the 2020 election, Bernie Sanders was the candidate who best represented my political beliefs. But the most salient debate in that year’s Democratic primary did not concern the relative desirability of single-payer health care or a public option. Rather, it was whether the race’s progressive candidates would have a significantly lower chance of defeating Trump than its moderate ones would. This was the question that most concerned Democratic primary voters, whose main objective was to exile a racist demagogue from the White House.
As a pundit, I had a responsibility to provide some factually grounded insights into this question. As a progressive, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to do this if the facts had indicated that Sanders would indeed be a highly risky general-election candidate. Fortunately, the best available indicators of “electability” — the candidates’ approval ratings and standings in hypothetical general-election polls — both indicated Sanders would be competitive against Trump. There were reasons to wonder whether this would remain the case after the GOP invested billions into fomenting a new red scare. Still, there was some basis for me to say what my ideological in-group wanted to hear.
If Sanders hadn’t run, however, and Elizabeth Warren had been the sole standard-bearer of the Democrats’ progressive wing, I would have been in a less comfortable position. Virtually all available data indicated that Warren would have been a relatively weak general-election candidate. In her Senate contests, she had consistently underperformed the partisan lean of her state. One poll in May 2019 found that only 43 percent of Massachusetts voters expressed a favorable opinion of Warren. In the New York Times’ polling of hypothetical general-election matchups in battleground states, Warren had the advantage over Trump only in Arizona. Biden, by contrast, bested Trump in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida.
Analytically, I believed it was more likely than not that Biden would give Democrats a better chance of victory than Warren in November 2020. But if it had been a two-person race between them and I had been asked to weigh in on that question, I would have had some difficulty in forthrightly saying what I thought was true. To do so would have been to mark myself as an adversary of the movement I most identified with and a defender of the Democrats’ “right wing.”
And yet, in hindsight, it seems hard to argue that it was unambiguously in the progressive movement’s best interests for the Democratic Party to nominate Warren instead of Biden in 2020. Ultimately, only tens of thousands of votes separated Biden from Trump in the Electoral College’s decisive battlegrounds. Given that polling that year tended to overrepresent college-educated voters with high levels of social trust — one of Warren’s core constituencies — there is reason to doubt that surveys had underestimated her electoral strength. Meanwhile, it now seems clear that progressives greatly overestimated the actual substantive distinctions between a Biden presidency and a Warren presidency in 2020. Biden did not impose the ideological limit on legislative possibility during his first two years in office; Joe Manchin did. The White House’s economic team and regulatory appointments, meanwhile, have consisted largely of Warrenites.
At the very least, with the information we now have, it is plausible that the progressive movement would have done grievous damage to its own goals had it persuaded Democratic primary voters to ignore evidence of Warren’s weakness. Yet because we conflate normative questions of ideological commitment with empirical ones of political reality, it would have been very difficult for any progressive in good standing to make the case for taking that evidence seriously in 2020 had there not been an alternative left-wing standard-bearer in the race.
The “left to right” spectrum can provide a useful way to describe a given person’s or faction’s degree of commitment to social equality. It can also be a useful way to describe the degree of radicalism they deem tactically prudent. But we shouldn’t confuse one usage of the spatial metaphor with the other. Equating moral judgments with empirical ones renders an ideological tendency less capable of adapting intelligently to new information. And it drives needless hostility between people who share a fundamental commitment to making this world kinder to the least fortunate.