Talking American sends me thinking now and again. All the questions about the left and the right came up again the other day, questions that come up more often than I think they should, and which I fear can never be articulated in a way that contains partisan passions. That’s how it is: The terms of political art are almost unique in how contentious and disputable they really are. But this sent me thinking, as I said, so I have some questions and remarks below, and a sketch for a crash course on the politics of left and right — I hope you’ll be interested in this enough to make it possible to have more conversations and, possibly, more clarity.
- Is it worth learning what left and right mean in politics? Where they come from? How we ended up talking this way?
- Do people who talk this way think of it as more than a mere expedient?
- Do people who insist on talking this way have any good faith that’s not limited to partisanship?
- Do people who want to go beyond left and right really get what’s in people’s hearts as per the previous two points?
I might write something serious and respectable about this, but is it worth the time? I do have some provisional remarks, meanwhile, about what seems to me to be at stake:
- Recovering this language of left and right might bring back dispute as coming down on the yes and the no of serious questions. That’s surely needed!
- Another reason, related, is less about pugnacity and more about its ground. Deliberation implies a common ground, which surely is also needed now.
- Further, as with partisanship, there is more than mere denunciation–aspiration is part of it, too. Being on the left or the right seems to involve knowing some things and being serious about what you know.
- Contrariwise, there’s a danger of ending up not being for anything–not knowing even how to associate with like-minded people, for principle, or interest, or because circumstances require striving in common.
One way to think about this is the study proper to the liberal arts. That way of grasping the matter looks like this:
- The French Revolution and 19th century European politics. Left and right conceptions of right and rights and the political community. Some effects of the 19th century problem of progress on later social science and, therefore, on political conversation.
- The end of Progress: Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. The strengths and weaknesses of political liberalism; the corruption introduced by new tyrannies.
- American politics, in relation to its European sources, and separate from the European problem of History. (I fear this would require an addition, comparing America and Europe in the age of modern tyranny, because these things have become confused as well.)
- Postmodern times, when our political conversation is infected with theoretical talk and our political thought is dominated by apolitical schemes and patterns to which we are often blind, often because they come from the sciences. The attempt of political philosophy to recover political talk from theorizing, abstractions, and fashions that serve partisan purposes. (For the sake of completion, it would also be useful to deal with the world that was once run, fought over, and influenced by Europeans and Americans.)