For many years, I’ve spent copious amounts of time delving into the disciplines of political parties, leaders and ideologies. It’s a fascination that has gradually transformed into an obsession. (Not an unhealthy one, thank goodness.)
What I’ve learned, as have others who specialize in this particular field, is that the political terms “left” and “right” are rather simplistic in nature.
On the one hand, these two concepts help create a rudimentary terminology for an individual’s ideological leanings or partisan tendencies. On the other hand, the different groups and subgroups under a particular political umbrella often have stark differences on politics, economics and culture.
Charles Murray, the well-respected author and academic, wrote this in a July 1 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal: “Social conservatives. Libertarians. Country-club conservatives. Tea party conservatives. Everybody in politics knows that those sets of people who usually vote Republican cannot be arrayed in a continuum from moderately conservative to extremely conservative. They are on different political planes. They usually have just enough in common to vote for the same candidate.”
That’s true. Yet as he also pointed out, “Why then do we still talk about the left in terms of a continuum from moderately liberal to extremely liberal? Divisions have been occurring on the left that mirror the divisions on the right.”
Mr. Murray noted how different liberals and progressives are. While recognizing “the Progressive Era had a political legacy that corresponds to the liberalism of these millions of Democrats,” the two ideologies are diametrically opposed on core values such as free speech and the separation of powers. The word “liberal” has also morphed from its classical individualist roots (which libertarians like Mr. Murray used to identify with) to its modern leftist approach.
Hence, “we should start using ‘liberal’ to designate the good guys on the left,” according to Mr. Murray, and “reserving ‘progressive’ for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state, who think it’s just fine to subordinate the interests of individuals to large social projects, who cheer the president’s abuse of executive power and who have no problem rationalizing the stifling of dissent.”
There’s much truth to this analysis. While I’ve argued there is plenty of room in a political tent for different ideological components, there is no such thing as a united left or united right. Rather, both components survive through an odd balancing act that can sometimes lead to intermittent doses of healthy intellectual discourse — or fierce and occasionally unrepairable political rifts.
The Republicans are having their own issues in this respect. Mainstream conservatives and Tea Party activists are vying for control of the GOP’s political and economic direction. They both claim that only their views and values will properly resonate with the American people.
This has led some conservative activist groups to try to find a more viable route toward intellectual discourse on the right. As noted by Sam Tanenhaus in the July 2 New York Times Magazine, the “reformicons,” which include conservative intellectuals such as Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru, “believe the health of the GOP hinges on jettisoning its age-old doctrine — orgiastic tax-cutting, the slashing of government programs, the championing of Wall Street — and using an altogether different vocabulary, backed by specific proposals, that will reconnect the party to middle-class and low-income voters.”
Indeed, there are different ways to craft a message. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with smoothing over some rough edges in the right’s political lexicon, either. Alas, I fear that this effort could be at the expense of others — meaning groups such as the Tea Party could feel alienated. If that’s the case, they won’t vote GOP, and the party will be left in the deep, dark political wilderness.
The trick for political parties — Republican and Democratic alike — is to ensure different voices are always included, participate in the process, and believe that they “belong” in some way, shape or form. The ultimate goal is, therefore, to be united in theory, and make sure this principle is followed during campaigns and elections.
Unfortunately, very few individuals have the God-given talent to put all the pieces together in a proper order to achieve electoral success. The art of compromise is a skill — and, sadly, it has become a dying art in recent years.
If you ever wondered why a political party can’t seem to get its act together to form a cohesive unit, look no further than the crowded tent of ideologues. Your answer can often be found under the big top.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.
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