I’m a Democrat. I’m a Leftist. And I’m torn.
I really shouldn’t be. Though the Democratic Party and the principles of the Left seem to ideologically align, these two big tents overlap less than I once thought. Most of us are already to some degree familiar with the Democratic Party simply by watching the news. Let’s begin by asking, then: what is the Left?
It’s an important question, but there is no single correct answer; responses from Leftists on our campus will be based upon everything from empathy and a Rawlsian interpretation of liberty to a repudiation of conservatism and an embrace of the agents of change. The question of beliefs and fundamental axioms, of the meaning of one’s identity, is one every politically-minded person should ask of himself or herself — yet one that all too often goes unasked.
Looking back over the past three years, Barack Obama’s Democratic Party has chronicled the importance of fundamental axioms and political identity. Though we may not have seen it as such, his campaign was all about beliefs and principles. Hope, Change and Progress: the famous series of Shepard Fairey posters told us what the man was about. The candidate Obama called for an end to our nihilistic despondency as we realized that we had been sucked into a redux of 1929, while simultaneously fighting two wars, with the promise of “change we can believe in.” He won us over by connecting Leftist principle with liberal policymaking.
His presidency began in the spirit of his campaign. Several media outlets even likened it to FDR’s “First Hundred Days” of restructuring and reform. As the first symbol of the past administration to go, the prison at Guantanamo Bay was ordered to be shut down. A stimulus package to strengthen the economy with benefits for blue-collar Americans was drawn up to counterbalance the TARP bailouts signed by the past administration. Health care reform was next on the agenda, with a public option in the works designed to cover the millions of Americans uncovered.
We know how all that turned out.
Here we stand today. Guantanamo Bay still holds prisoners. Just as George W. Bush was “assured” by the “most senior legal officers” in his government that we did not torture, Barack Obama has been “assured” by the Pentagon that the catatonia-inducing seven months of solitary confinement and strip-downs of suspected Wikileaker Bradley Manning “are appropriate.” We maintain troops in Iraq and have escalated our presence in Afghanistan to the point where some conservative commentators have unflinchingly referred to the conflict as “Obama’s war.”
Economically, we have taken the position of halfway to whatever the Republicans want, promoting a mere temporary extension of tax cuts for the richest Americans, and only some cuts to the public services that benefit working and middle-class Americans. All this is to address a fictional crisis of deficits — only, as soon as we compromise on the point of discretionary spending, to have Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell demand action to cut Social Security and Medicare, lest he and his Republican allies force a government shut down. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has completely neglected the problem of unemployment since extending benefits in December of 2010, and even then only managing to do so at the cost of over $700 billion in “temporary” tax cuts to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans. Democratic Party leadership has shown itself content to accept the GOP’s narrative and lose its connection to Leftist identity that had been so strong after the 2008 election.
What does it even mean to be a Democrat anymore? The painful ambiguity of “hope,” “change” and “progress” has become apparent with time, and our resolve has weakened accordingly. Our agreement to play on the right’s terms has made it apparent that our ideology has morphed into a weak sort of “Republican-lite.” We have grown so enamored with the fantasy of bipartisanship that we have lost our own sense of partisanship — subsequently letting the minority GOP continue to dictate the action (and inaction) of government.
So while the Democratic Party continually shifts ground and gravitates toward compromise, Leftism is an identity. Though it is perhaps too broad to be universally defined, conceptions of Leftism are still concrete; they are based on principle, not policy — more than I can say for my party. I believe in a social safety net, yet my party seems to have accepted the mantra of unconditional small government. I abhor torture, but it’s not off the table for my party. I believe in truth, but my party is ready to compromise on that point.
I am a Leftist. I believe, but my party doesn’t.
Jack Newsham is a freshman in Morse College.