While many commentators believe the country is more divided than ever, there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree on. Political discourse has seldom been so poor. I’ve been reflecting on this as I’ve read comments on blogs I post as a contributor at Sound Politics. While some people weigh in with thoughtful and informed contributions, too many resort to ad hominem attacks, labeling policies as being left- or right-wing or Democrat or Republican, or worse. None of this contributes to healthy debate, builds consensus or encourages others to get involved.
Ordinarily I ignore these sorts of comments. However, in a post recently on the subject of Seattle’s appalling homeless problem one person who regularly comments, Doc Z, chimed in on my suggestion that one of many reasons some homeless people can’t afford housing is excessive regulations around land use. He wrote “Anti-regulation. How Republican of you.” After mentioning that I’m not a Republican, I responded along the following lines:
First of all, it doesn’t matter to me whether policies come from Republicans or Democrats. I weigh them on their merits.
Second, I support the idea in President Obama’s recent budget to encourage states to deregulate occupational licensing. Does that make me a Democrat? If you oppose the President’s plan, should I say “How Republican of you”?
Similarly, I’m thrilled that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray – a Democrat – supports deregulating the Cable-TV code. It was intended to increase competition, but in reality restricts both choice and competition.
Anti-regulation. How Republican of Murray.
Labeling these policies in this way does nothing to advance the debate nor does it help determine their merits. Rather, it poisons the well, introduces bias and discourages discourse.
After this exchange, I recalled a speech on the topic of the use of the terms left-wing and right-wing by my father 16 years ago, which reminded me that these issues are by no means new. In it he noted:
[P]arties conventionally regarded as being on the extreme left and the extreme right have had much more in common than they have had points of difference. Supporters of communism and various versions of socialism on the one hand, and Nazism and Fascism on the other, all believed in controls, economic planning, dictatorial government and the supremacy of the state over the individual. Mussolini was by origin a fanatical Marxist and Nazism meant National Socialism.
Noting that the issue began even further back, he also quoted a passage from a book by Samuel Brittan from 1968, “Left or Right: The Bogus Dilemma“:
The left-right spectrum today obscures more than it illuminates. Political discussion, and perhaps even the conduct of politics, would accordingly benefit if it were to be used much less frequently. For not only is the spectrum concept misleading as a classification of political differences, but its persistence in current discussion has a positively harmful effect. It leads … to the muffling of important issues, to a bias in favour of certain viewpoints against others, and to the erection of unnecessary barriers between those who should be natural allies.
In concluding, dad noted that while labels can be useful as shorthand:
The problem arises when they lose their meanings, hinder rather than help communication, or just become pejorative terms that cloud debate. When that happens, as with the ‘right-wing’ label today and increasingly the ‘left-wing’ one as well, we would do better to shed them as useless abstractions. Instead of being stars to steer by, they become black holes.
Unfortunately these words are as true today as they were nearly two decades ago.