Why I still think of myself as a man of the left (Part 3 of 3)

The hobgoblin of a consistency, foolish or otherwise, haunts precious few partisans on either side of the great divide. Left and right alike are shifting, ideological families. Neither has a shortage of firebreathers and true believers with little tolerance for dissent.


The right in this country "includes a few genuine conservatives, radical libertarians, neoconservatives, social issues reactionaries, evangelicals, foreign policy hawks, e tutti quanti, who have disagreements among themselves" (Mark Lilla). The left is likewise a conglomeration of cantankerous factions that includes socialists (e.g., Bhaskar Sunkara, editor and publisher of Jacobin), democratic socialists (Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Socialists of America), progressives who identify as capitalists (Elizabeth Warren), social justice warriors, gun control advocates, environmental activists, pacifists, left-leaning Democrats terrified of being tarred as soft on defense, and a horde of others.


It gets yet more muddled when one takes into account Trumpism, populisms of left and right, the resurgence of white nationalism, anarchists equally antagonistic toward government and fascists, and the proliferation of crackpots, deplorables, and professional provocateurs adept at exploiting the social-media megaphone, and so it's not all negative, we can now note one former professional provocateur, Milo Yiannapoulos, who is broke and no longer able to make a living as a toxic windbag and all-around buffoon (David Uberti, Milo Yiannopoulos Says He's Broke, Vice News, September 9, 2019).


Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.) (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 51)


When it comes down to it, maybe I think of myself as a man of the left by default. There is not much place on the right for someone who believes that the climate crisis demands government intervention on a scale last seen during economic depression and world war. There is not much place on the right for someone who believes that universal access to health care is a matter of common decency and that government is a better vehicle for this than the private sector. There is not much place on the right for someone who believes that government should play a role in regulation of the financial sector, reduction of disparities in wealth and poverty, education, fair wages, workplace safety, and a host of other things necessary for individuals to have a shot at a good life. There is not much place on the right for someone who questions the efficacy of privatizing functions of government. And on down the line with immigration, race, gender and sexuality, gun control, &c.


The left is where my ideas, principles, and values put me down. Those ideas, principles, and values are conflicting, often at odds with each other, and not readily amenable to reconciliation. What multitudes I contain do not always play well together. The conviction that the role of government in human affairs extends beyond protection of wealth and property and provision for national defense is tempered by knowledge that government, like all things human, is a flawed and frustrating enterprise. Nonetheless, it is an instrument through which we can act together, often contentiously and crankishly, seldom efficiently, to make it as possible as we are able for each of us to lead a good life.


I share with George Will a commitment to the value of individual liberty and autonomy, but this commitment is tempered by the conviction that we are social creatures thrown into a world not of our making where no right is absolute. I have a vague recollection of a teacher, perhaps as early as elementary school, fifth or sixth grade, explaining to us that freedom does not mean license to just do whatever the heck one wants to do. My liberty and autonomy always bump up against the liberty and autonomy of others.


I do not buy the concept of man as homo economicus, a being whose essence is the rational pursuit of self-interest and "optimal, utility-maximizing outcomes." Maybe I am just too much a romantic to accept this paltry account of human existence that has no room for life of the spirit, art, poetry, the sublime, selflessness and sacrifice for others, the philosophical impulse, the religious impulse, and so much more that makes it worth being here in this often despicable world. It may have some utility when behavioral economists are engaged in armchair theorizing of an idealized sort not to be taken literally. Even there it is simplistic and ignores aspects of existence that cannot be reduced to rational calculation. Yet this is a fundamental tenet of right-wing economics. Serious economists may take it for what it is. Partisans treat it quite as God's own truth in their rhetoric and political agendas.


I would like to see some humility, a willingness to acknowledge the possibility that one could be wrong, that others can in good faith come to different conclusions, and that disagreement is not tantamount to heresy. I think there is a place on the left for someone like Amy Klobuchar, who describes herself "as a progressive conservative in a very important way. If you're going to be a successful progressive, you have to make progress...[you have to be] a person that goes to work for their constituents and get[s] things done" (Jeremy Hobson, 2020 Candidate Amy Klobuchar Says Her 'Optimistic Economic Agenda' Will Attract Voters, NPR, September 9, 2019).


I hope there is a place on the left for someone who agrees in principle with much on the agendas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders while recognizing that implementation of those agendas will be challenging even if the Democrats manage to swing the Senate while holding the House. Progress if it comes will be piecemeal, in bits and pieces, incremental, to use a word despised by some of the comrades. Outcomes tend to be problematic. They do not always honor our noble intentions.


Maybe this is all just whizzing into a wind that will only blow it back at us. The same ideas, values, and principles that put me on the left compel a dogged insistence on the value of free thought, free speech, and toleration of dissent. They also compel me to encourage kindred spirits to keep faith in what can seem a quixotic mission to save the left from itself, if nothing else to stop the left from alienating potential allies in silly and irrelevant ways.


These are the kinds of things I have in mind when I say that I still think of myself as a man of the left and that I still believe there must be a place on the left for voices of principled dissent if the left is to be relevant.


Part 1, September 13, 2019

Part 2, September 14, 2019


Memo from the Editorial Desk


A minor, nonsubstantive revision was made shortly after this piece was published. In the concluding paragraph, "people like me" was changed to "voices of principled dissent."


It occurs to me now that I should have noted at the conclusion of Part 2 that Charlie Sykes and his crew at The Bulwark, Tom Nichols, Jennifer Rubin, Rick Wilson, and others are engaged in their own mission to save conservatism from the "ugliness, brutishness, baseness, and ignorance" (channeling Mark Lilla again) that permeates the Trumpist right. I believe that the excesses of the right at present pose a greater threat than those of the left. There is room for good-faith disagreement on this point. The more important point is that Sykes et al. are people of integrity and honor with whom I can, and do, differ in good faith on matters of political philosophy and on issues of the day.

David Matthews

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