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Moffat '13: Who is left if no one is right?

Public confidence in American political institutions is abysmal, and it is no great insight to recognize that our national psyche is suffering an identity crisis. Many succumb to the temptation to characterize the root problem as all those greedy, good-for-nothing politicians. While I do not want to downplay the problem of poor leadership, which is certainly a key ingredient in the present crisis, my central claim here is that the political vocabulary in this country is defective, and our simplistic discursive habits deserve the lion's share of criticism.     

More precisely, my contention is that the terms "liberal" and "conservative" — along with their cousins "left-wing" and "right-wing" — stifle our political imagination and inhibit productive decision-making. Together, these allegedly opposed ideologies create the illusion of a singular axis on which any set of political opinions may be plotted. An uncritical acceptance of this idea blinds us to alternative, more useful vocabularies for debate.

My deepest point is that slicing up the political opinion pie into rigid categories, as the liberal-conservative paradigm does, is always itself a political project. There is no neutral ground above politics to stand on so as to allow one to describe the various political divisions objectively. Therefore, any description of the political landscape must be understood as up for debate.  

The liberal-conservative paradigm is, by and large, not taken up for debate. We consistently fail to scrutinize its purpose and validity. We rely upon it as an objective map of political reality, rather than allowing opinions and their authors speak for themselves. It is time for us to become intentional about our political discursive practices and recognize that the left-versus-right picture oversimplifies, misleads and flies in the face of democratic principles.

Growing up, I was basically taught to believe that our two-party system is the natural offspring of two opposed systems of political philosophy. We have the Republicans, who usually take stands on issues like gay marriage, education, abortion, drug regulation, gun laws, capital punishment, social welfare, laissez-faire economics and fiscal responsibility. And, as we should expect from the polar model, the Democrats typically take the other side on these issues. This symmetry, the story goes, is no accident. On the fundamental political questions, the two parties have opposite views.

But what are those fundamental political questions? If we reflect for just a moment, it is quite obvious that no single, coherent political ideology can entail an opinion for all of the various issues listed above. What does gun control have to do with gay marriage, for example? The attempt to make either the Democratic or Republican platform conform to anything like a cogent worldview or philosophy is simply an uninteresting exercise in mental gymnastics.  

One might avoid this problem by suggesting that liberal and conservative are not meant to pick out political philosophies per se, but rather something more akin to personalities or lifestyles. But if this is true, then we have an even greater impetus to dispose of these terms because there should be no place for ad hominem stereotypes in political debate.

My most emphatic objection to this charade is that it enables our politicians to sweep under the rug those issues on which the two major parties are in tacit agreement: issues like the erosion of Fourth Amendment rights, banking reform, campaign finance reform, economic globalization, corruption, the annual budget of the Department of Defense, our present cultural malaise, Internet security, judicial reform, drug policy reform, corporate media and the two-party system itself.

Our reliance on these false political categories also distracts us from historical contingencies and important logical relations that are relevant to particular debates but do not fit neatly into the one-dimensional model. Moreover, incongruous views are often lumped together such that important distinctions are frequently overlooked. Hence, Noam Chomsky is written off by Republicans not because they have read his books, but rather because he is labeled as more liberal than President Obama — the arch-leftist — so he must be absolutely whacko. We could tell a similar story about Ayn Rand in relation to George W. Bush.  

It seems like every other day I read a piece on this page decrying Brown's lack of political diversity. These columns are most often written by individuals who self-identify as conservative and claim that their side is drowned out by liberal bigots. This is strong evidence that the liberal-conservative picture does little more than perpetuate a counterproductive us-versus-them mentality. Let us demand an even more robust ideal of diversity: From now on, we allow more than two sides in every debate!

Jared Moffat '13 is a gadfly and can be reached at




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