The Perfect Liberal as the Natural Enemy of the Good Progressive

A failure in the defence of centrism

In high school I identified politically as far far radical omg super left. I have a friend who probably considered herself further left of me and were were sort of constantly sparring to see who was actually further left. I’ve written previously on the evolution of my economic ideology but my sociological and governmental ideology really has only become more nuanced or — in a few places — actually gone further left.

But ignore everything that’s actually realistic or true about me. White men on the internet call me a centrist/moderate and add me to “wine mom” lists so clearly they have the right of it.

I participate in the Democratic Party now and despite my deep, almost pathological distaste for social interaction I am dedicated to making the world a better place so I will have substantive conversations about policy in contexts where I can influence it for the better. I consider political activity in the form of involvement in government simultaneously a defence of the rights and liberties my grandparents risked everything to win for me and my duty to society. This causes me to interact with people who have had decades long careers in the relevant professions who really know their stuff. And most of them have been lifelong Democrats.

The other day however, I found myself comforting a retired woman over the confusion caused to her identity by having to call her position “moderate.” I had called her for advice on how to help writing policy for Universal Healthcare. And she did give me some really great pointers. But the problem was she, with all her experience and research and deep understanding of both healthcare and the law was in support of the ACA and apparently had been routinely excoriated as a moderate for this frankly reasonable position.

I gave her my standard explanation of political ideology as multi-factorial and therefore multidimensional and the necessity within the Democratic Party of determining without value judgement what is most important to the party itself before placing positions or even people on an ideological spectrum. I explained that the way I saw it, she was actually far left as she saw herself and that the people who called her a centrist had more in common with Republicans than Democrats because they value the economy and economic policy above all other issues.

But as I was offering comfort to my effective mentor I realised something rather absurd.

We are actually moderates, because when you strip everything else away we’re democrats.

I had been considering ideological positions as if they are static and defining. I considered my belief in complete racial justice including reparations and my belief in women’s bodily autonomy and my dedication to the promotion of clean energy and writing on representational democracy as left or even far left positions in and of themselves. When most people define themselves as left, right, or centre those little opinions of mine would put me in the liberal category every single time. Same goes for the beliefs of the woman whose advice I had requested.

But that’s an outdated paradigm. Sort of.

What struck me is how govtrack.us scores ideology. I’m pretty sure I’ve touched on Principal Components Analysis (PCA) prior and I’ve even already alluded to it in this article and it’s pretty awesome. But if you don’t know how it works or don’t pretty regularly use it go ye forth into that link I’ve provided and check out govtrack’s explanation for it because it’s a really straightforward one that you’ll want for the rest of this discussion.

To really shorthand it, govtrack rates ideology by association rather than issue. So if you “reach across the aisle” you’ll get a far more moderate score than if you work only with members of your own party or no one at all. Theoretically, you could be sponsoring a bill about clean energy powered government funded abortions for immigrant lesbians of colour but if you did it with someone who had only previously associated with Republicans then your govtrack score is going to edge to the right. I mean, good luck with that bill and sponsorship, but I’m illustrating a concept here.

My point is, for this specific rating, there is no actual value placed on the issue being discussed; just the people working on it.

So let’s return to all the things that I generally argue make me a far left radical. Let’s actually specifically talk about abortion. (Hashtag: things you shouldn’t say at Thanksgiving Dinner. Also, I definitely have discussed this at Thanksgiving Dinner.) Depending on my readership — and for someone as enamoured with stats as I am you’d be surprised how little I know about who reads me — some of you will agree with my position on abortion and some of you believe I’m a baby murderer and going to hell. I’m definitely not a baby murderer, but if hell’s a thing, chances are that’s where I’m headed. So no matter what you’re at least half right.

I believe abortion should be available to any and all women and girls who need it for free on request and within about five to ten miles of their house. I believe that abortion should be available in whatever form obstetricians and mothers deem appropriate and that women and girls be free from judgement or censure when seeking it out. I believe that abortion is part of healthcare and that supposedly moral limitations on it are inherently dangerous to the health of all girls and women and limit our freedom, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

Now, that just on its own is a pretty radical position. There are pro-choice activists who might look at the above paragraph and be like, “Wow, this Dr. Schulz character is way out there.” But let’s pretend for a glorious moment that no one disagreed with me or at least that I could get 51% of Americans to vote for everything I set out above. Realistically, no one who’s not at least left-ish is going to go for that but we’re in fantasy-land right now so let’s say I got an even spread of conservative and liberal Americans to vote for my super far left abortion policy.

The simple act of getting a democratic majority to approve of a position rids that position of its ideological bias.

Ignore for a moment that access to abortion, women’s healthcare, and the idea of women having complete bodily autonomy is considered a radical position and just imagine a world where everyone, or at least a majority of everyone were not only okay with it but willing to vote for it. If more than half of the country is for it and that half is more or less an even distribution across American demographics then the idea itself ideologically centres out. The idea becomes a moderate position because an equal number of liberals and conservatives support it.

Democracy is radical centrism.

I hear some of you smashing your keyboards about the Overton Window and okay, it is a related idea so let’s get into it. I appreciate that the link I provided is from an almost classically conservative think tank but so was Joseph P. Overton so just deal with it. Again, you’d best just listen to the explanation or read their blurb. I find it overly linear, but it’s clean and simple.

I was going to put a graphic of the Overton Window here, but when I did a search all the results were deeply depressing, so instead, you get a cat next to a window. You’re welcome. (Photo by Borna Bevanda on Unsplash)

To shorthand, it should you choose not to click away, the Overton Window describes a range of political positions found publicly acceptable. It shifts and thus things that were once considered extreme might become mainstream or things which were considered mainstream might become unacceptable. Politicians may operate successfully within that range of public sentiment.

But here’s where things get messy. There’s been this idea among activists that they and politicians can move the Overton Window by proposing positions well outside of current mainstream acceptability. This assumes firstly that you can alter public perception simply through discourse and secondly that all political spectra are collapsible and linear. The first point is — not to be too cute — arguable if a bit naive, but the second point demonstrates a complete failure in perception of political ideology. We can statistically collapse multi-dimensionality for political ideology, but that dimensional reduction does not eliminate those variables; it just lets us perceive them as orthogonal sets.

This means that politicians are basically servants to the whims of the people. But guys. That’s the point. It’s called “civil service,” for a reason. Politicians do serve as leaders, but leadership really is primarily about understanding the needs of one’s constituents and providing a path to fulfilling those needs. It’s not about dictating what shall be.

So here’s where I get super radical:

Political ideology is irrelevant.

Quite a few people got super mad at Hillary Clinton when she mentioned that her private and public ideology are different. She expressed the complexity to be able to hold personal values for herself and work for a more generalised position in the public sphere. But for reasons she was denounced as two-faced for trying to explain that.

Ideologically speaking, the position of the Democratic Party has shifted but I’m not going to get into that here. What I will point out is that elected members of the Democratic Party tend to be more reflective and representative of their constituents than Republican elected officials.

This is a picture of the Republican House members of the 116th Congress being sworn in. You can play Where’s Waldo with the women and people of colour with this. Oh yeah, and there’s a dude with an eye-patch. I thought it was a bit on the nose but as you do. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Republican ideology, particularly in the age of Trump overestimated it’s skiing ability, got off at a piste noire of conservative ideology and is currently snowballing its way down the mountain in a screaming and uncontrollable blob of pine needles, batons, and limbs headed directly for a fascist chalet. Not really sure how a chalet could be fascist but just go with it.

The problem with the Republican Party — and this is not just me talking out of my liberal butt, this is something David Frum, a former Republican himself has explained at length in book form — is that the Party seriously misread what its constituents wanted and tried to dictate their own policy. You try to dictate a policy you end up with a dictator. Trump was revenge on the Republican Party elite for trying to foist on them yet another Bush, but he himself is now trying (and failing) to dictate the political ideology of the party.

Democrats don’t do that. Or at least they haven’t for at least half a century. The ability of Democratic Party to listen to its constituency is demonstrated in the election of Barack Obama, the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, and the nomination of Hillary Clinton. Obama would not have been President if the Democratic Party did not listen to “the people,” Pelosi would not be able to lead without her deep and almost intuitive understanding of “the people,” and Clinton would not have won the nomination in 2016 without major support from normal work-a-day Democratic voters.

The argument goes that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi are all mean, bad, no good, moderate, centrists who are resisting liberalism. Honestly though, that’s absurd. I am currently arguing that democratic positions are inherently centrist or moderate and should be, but it’s still absurd to say that Clinton, Obama, and Pelosi aren’t liberal or aren’t liberal in a sense that also makes them good or bad.

Hillary Clinton went undercover to expose racial discrimination in school districts, Obama is best known for Obamacare, and Pelosi pioneered legislation for environmental protections. If we’re assuming political policy is static on an ideological spectrum then these Democrats have persistently supported liberal policy which is also good and helpful to the country as a whole. If we’re allowing for fluidity of policy on the ideological spectrum then these positions become moderate as they are passed into law, but they still remain good.

It is likely that Clinton, Obama, and Pelosi all privately hold beliefs that are further left of the policy for which they advocate, but as “little d” democrats — that is, politicians interested in the will of the people above all else — they are unwilling to impose those beliefs on the populace until or unless the populace calls for it. This is basically why “the Squad,” keeps on getting those chat-boxes saying “it wasn’t very effective” after using “splash,” against people who are basically Gyrados.

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The Squad (Copyright Sugimori)

And this by no means is meant to suggest that politicians can’t speak their minds or advocate for a given position. They can and they should. But if the will of the people differs from that of the politician then it’s incumbent upon the politician as a servant of the people to pass legislation as close to the desires of the people as humanly possible. In an unbiased world, a politician’s own ideology does not matter provided they are faithful to the will of their constituents.

If a politician is behaving in accordance with the tenets of democracy and their oath of office then they will necessarily appear centrist or moderate in their actions.

A politician behaving appropriately will take incremental steps towards a solution favoured by the majority of those they serve — not just those who elected them — even and especially where that means working with people they do not consistently agree with. This is a good thing. It means that politician is able and willing to put their ego aside to better serve the people and their country.

So, where does this leave me, and where does it leave me relative to the angry men online who threaten to dox me over my failure to hand my suffrage over to them?

The answer is: it depends.

Once again most of my views have either become more nuanced or gone further left. In no case can my ideology be described as having shifted right. So again, if we’re considering ideology as static on a given spectrum then I’m still as far left as you can go before dropping off into the abyss. I assume there’s turtles down there.

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Actual footage of me presenting my Dream Policy Platform. That’s not photoshopped. Those words actually hovered about my head the entire time I was doing that. (Legally Blonde 2 Copyright: MGM 2003)

On the other hand, the Overton Window has shifted. This is not due to people like me shouting and carrying on about what we want, it’s just a thing that happened and will continue to happen with little or no agency on our part. Fortunately for me, the Overton Window has shifted such that even my more outlandish positions are now relatively acceptable. Some of you might prefer stipulations or regulations or a slightly more conservative position on the things I would put down as my Dream Policy Platform, but at the moment the majority opinion has shifted such that my leftist ideas are things that could actually be signed into law. At this point, because I’m now heaped in with the majority of Americans then presumably as there would be someone else on as far right as I am left agreeing with me we’d ideologically cancel each other out and our position would then be moderate or centrist.

From the static viewpoint where policy defines ideology it’s not really possible to be further left of me. But if you define ideology based on who a person is willing to work with or share a majority vote with then it’s quite easy to be further left of me. All you have to do is refuse to work with anyone at all. In that sense I’ve actually never been extreme left. There have been times when I’ve edged rather far left because I have this policy of not working with white supremacists, but I will work with any reasonable decent person who’s not busy trying to dox me or SWAT my friends.

But this is the problem with ideological purity. Many of the things used against me to “prove” I’m not liberal enough are my advanced degrees, prom pictures, my femininity, that I’m in a relationship, and that certain people follow me on twitter. Those can describe me in various often superficial ways as a person and may influence or inform my ideology, but they don’t define my ideology. But of course my actual ideology for the “ideologically pure” is not the point. The point is to prove that I’m unworthy of my vote or influence or voice and therefore not worth associating with. Association with me means that you have to accept realities that do not necessarily uphold your dream. I’m willing to reach across the aisle so association with me could even — by the transitive property — associate you with *gasp* conservatives.

Some of you will need a fainting couch after my scurrilous implication that you would associate with conservatives. I shall fetch the smelling salts to aid with your vapours, I do declare.

But, the fact of the matter is if you want to get anything done you’re going to have to at some point speak politely and negotiate with people you really don’t like or have no commonalities with. Doing this should not impugn your “ideological purity,” and maintaining your purity at the cost of real change is not progressive or in any way helpful.

You can sort of think of the Overton Window as a diplomatic “win-set.” To get a thing to happen you need to decide what set of outcomes are acceptable to you with the understanding that you may not get everything you want. You do also have to determine what outcomes will cause you to slam your fist on the table and storm out. The other party or parties will have similar conditions. Where they overlap is where you can compromise and get everyone a not-great-but-not-terrible outcome.

If you as an individual completely dissociated from policy or legislation want to be super far left not due to your ideological positions but due to who you will and won’t associate with then that’s your call. You can even do that and be an activist. The reality of extremism is that there’s not that many people on the extremes so I don’t know that you’ll have a huge movement. Liberals and liberalism is supposed to attract rational people and promote rational thought so maintaining ideological purity or rote unquestionable or arbitrary tenets in a supposedly liberal movement is not going to last. On the other hand, cults are also a thing that have happened, so provided you promise not to steal things and poison people, you do you.

But if you do want to be a politician — or if you want to be an effective politician and good leader — then you are going to have to sacrifice your ideological purity. You are going to have to work closely with people you disagree strongly with, you are going to have to compromise, and you are going to have to sacrifice the perfect in favour of the good.

If you don’t want to compromise, or insist your politicians and leaders don’t then what you want is an autocracy.

You may be envisioning a benevolent autocracy, but it’s still an autocracy. And autocracy is super far right. Basically, what I’m trying to say here is the idea that you can be so far left that you end up being far right does actually have some merit. If you want something that is not democratically supported and are unwilling to make compromises in order to protect an arbitrary image of yourself then the only way for you to get what you want is by eliminating the democratic process. Likewise, anything regardless of how far left it may once have been, once agreed upon by the majority of the people becomes a moderate or centrist position.

So I guess I am actually a moderate. I guess that woman I look up to is a centrist.

We have liberal values to be certain, but the more and more of those values we translate into policy or law the more moderate our positions become not because we’ve changed, but because we’ve changed the system.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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