Evolving Thoughts

Martin Rundkvist, a Swede, has chastised the American body politick for being Right Wing and Even More Right Wing; that is, for lacking a Left in European terms. The American Body Politick, in the person of Chad Orzel, has hit back. Instead of saying that America lacks a Left, says he, say that Europe lacks a Right.

Except it doesn’t. Europe has some of the more Rightish neo-fascists one can hope to find anywhere. So Chad’s rebuttal seems to be a bit misguided. American politics simply is right wing, by which I mean it is conservative or extra-conservative, in the traditions of western political thought. I’ve met leftists from America – they all have this haunted look, which comes from being so marginalised that to be American and Left-wing is to be a contradiction in terms. And they can only live in Manhattan, Austin TX or San Francisco…

The fact is, the range of acceptable political choices in the US simply is compressed compared to the rest of the western world. Sorry Chad; you can’t make out that the imbalance is reciprocal because it isn’t, and hasn’t been for my lifetime. If that irritates you, ask yourself why the perfectly good and meaningful term “liberal”, which elsewhere in the world means someone who defends individual freedom against government intervention, in the US means communist…

Comments

  1. #1 Baratos
    February 3, 2008

    Yeah, there are a ton of right-wingers in East Germany for example. I remember one poll a couple years back that said 60% of East German high schoolers felt the Nazis had a good side. There are still some Communists hanging around, so Germany ends up with extremes of Left and Right Americans can barely imagine.

  2. #2 Ethan
    February 3, 2008

    And they can only live in Manhattan, Austin TX or San Francisco…

    Patently untrue. For example, my wife and I live in Canada.

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    February 3, 2008

    Ipso facto, you are not American. Res ipse loquitur.

  4. #4 Tlonista
    February 3, 2008

    Thanks! I have gotten thoroughly fed up with even left-wing American political blogs because they don’t seem to recognise this — the Democrats are conservative, for heaven’s sake.

    /canadian.

  5. #5 John Pieret
    February 3, 2008

    Part of this might be a matter of definition. Political opinion in the US is probably as broad as Europe’s. The mean (if I’ve got my ill-remembered math classes right) of our political spectrum is almost certainly somewhat to the right of Europe’s. Then there is the fact that our winner-take-all system of government makes minority parties all but impossible, resulting in each party vieing for the middle. This skews our politics towards the most successful party’s center. While Republicans are winning (as now) Democrats move right and when Democrats are winning (from FDR to Reagan), the Republicans move left. In either case, the the range of our viable political choices is, as John says, restricted, but mostly because of our system.

  6. #6 deang
    February 3, 2008

    And the term “conservative” used for such destructive attitudes and policies just sticks in my craw. I know that Americans know what you’re talking about when you use that word (or at least, they know the meaning of it as redefined by Reagan to mean radically regressive), but as an adjective it just doesn’t reflect the content of the position. In that sense, it’s like a manipulative advertising label. I know a lot of Americans who consider themselves to be politically conservative simply because that word sounds so reasonable to them; to a lot of people the word implies wise caution and stability, yet US right-wing policies are so thuggishly destructive of human welfare.

  7. #7 writerdd
    February 3, 2008

    And they can only live in Manhattan, Austin TX or San Francisco…

    Nope. I live in Colorado.

  8. #8 Todd
    February 3, 2008

    And they can only live in Manhattan, Austin TX or San Francisco…

    I live in Iowa and fall somewhere between Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman. Unfortunately, there’s not much I can do about it, so I vote for right wing politicians like John Edwards.

  9. #9 DrYak
    February 3, 2008

    I have to agree with this. Having lived in the US for a good many years as well as France, NZ, SA, etc from what I can see there really isn’t an effective left wing at all in the US. Not to say that there aren’t a lot of really amazing leftists with great ideas and energy, it is just they are so far out of the mainstream that they don’t even make a blip on the radar screen. I will have to add Seattle and Porland to the cities that are comfortably liberal – unfortunately they are surrounded by John Birch country.

    I was also annoyed at how “liberal” was used as a catch-all insult for anyone left of Reagan and was very amused to find that in France ‘liberalisme’ is a right-wing laisse-faire capitalist ideology…

  10. #10 Ethan
    February 3, 2008

    Ipso facto, you are not American. Res ipse loquitur.

    Our passports say otherwise. :-)

    Besides, you left out Cambridge MA.

  11. #11 John S. Wilkins
    February 3, 2008

    No True American lives in Canada. But then, no True American is Leftist, either…

    Cambridge doesn’t count unless it’s safe for lefties in the the whole of Greater Boston.

  12. #12 TSK
    February 3, 2008

    Europe, Europe, what do Americans mean with Europe ?
    What *europe* ?

    a) Gun control
    Swiss, Finland : Here, your ordered rifles. Cash or cheque ?
    UK: No guns. No knives (in public places). Several years imprisonment for wielding a knife in public places.

    b) Homosexuality
    Scandinavia: Practical equality, noone cares.
    Poland, Belarus: We don’t like stinking faggots !

    c) Drugs
    Netherlands, Germany: Get some pot for private use. Drink alcohol in the public. Hard drugs still outlawed.
    France: Until 10 years of prison for having small amounts of cannabis.

    d) Women
    Scandinavia: Practical equality. Extremely low violence.
    Spain: One of the highest rate of abuse worldwide. Strong machismo.

    e) Economical standard:
    Germany, France, Norway, England: High standard of living.
    Albania: Welcome to the third world.

    f) Political system:
    – Anarchism
    That are people who don’t accept any goverment. While
    very small numbers, still strong block in the German
    radical left.
    -Communism
    Yes, *the* communism. Allowed and still widespread in
    Poland, Czech Republic and Italy (!). Mostly separated
    in fundamentalists (Stalinists) and more realistic
    factions.
    – Greens
    Fighting for ecology (high gas prices, alternative energy,
    recycling, alternative food) and gender rights.
    – Social democrats, Left wing
    Support power for unions and rights for workers.
    Responsible for the 8-hour, 5-day work schedule (which is
    even followed, not nominal !).
    – Liberals
    More rights for the people, oppose laws, trust in the
    market.
    – Conservatives and Ultra-Conservatives, Right-wing
    That is approaching the USA belief system. The democrats
    have sparks of ideas (gender equality, ecology, no
    discrimination) which are promoted in the European left.
    – Monarchists
    Yup, there are kings and supporters in Europe. UK,
    Netherlands and Spain are monarchies (parlamentary ones,
    but still monarchies). Vatican City, the home of the pope is an absolute monarchy.
    – Fascists
    The rest what has been left of the nazis and their
    supporters.
    Some are trying to give an intellectual impression,
    but most of them are simply thuggish.

    So, what do Americans mean with Europe ? :)

  13. #13 natural cynic
    February 3, 2008

    The media have a lot to do with this. There is usually only the choice between moderately dumb right-wing [WaPo, NY Times, LA Times, ABC CBS, NBC] and scandalously dumb far fight wing [anything owned by Murdoch, Scaife, Wa. Times]. Europe has a much wider array of newspapers coming form different political views that have a greater access to the public. There is more political diversity between the major Paris newspapers than can be seen in all of the popular American media. What gets fed to most Americans goes from mainstream pablum to right-wing crap. Can one expect the political parties to have a wide range of views when only a minor part of the political spectrum can get its message out?

  14. #14 John S. Wilkins
    February 3, 2008

    TSK: The whole point of Martin’s (a Swede) and my (an Australian) posts is that Europe has more diversity in politics than the US does. In fact, Australia has more diversity in politics than the US does (but not as much as – say – Germany).

    Cynic: I think you are right on the money here: the narrowness of the American political spectrum correlates directly with the political views of the media barons in a nation that has little free mainstream media left. The UK (and Australia, despite years of attacks by both parties) has a public broadcaster that is nominally free from political interference, and despite all that actually manages to be politically independent occasionally.

    The MSM seem to be unable to deal with information that fails to fit into a set number of categories, or pigeonholes, in the editorial room. It’s particularly bad in the US, but elsewhere the same applies. But having a diversity of news sources in a diversity of languages helps (I often watch the Russian, German, and French news services available on Australian TV. I don’t understand a lot of it, but I see what they deem interesting, and it’s not what the US does).

    People here and on Martin’s blog have noted that the turn to conservatism of the modern kind is recent – it’s certainly true that contemporary American conservatism is not historically conservative, nor historically liberal either. It’s something else – nepotism, perhaps, or oligarchy. The Democrats echo the social democratic ideals of the past, but clearly they are unable to implement that philosophy, especially in foreign affairs, although Obama is reported here as wanting to demilitarise US foreign policy, which can only be to the benefit of the entire world.

  15. #15 natural cynic
    February 3, 2008

    Another point that can be added to TSK’s list is the variability of opinions in Europe v. USA to the influence of religion in politics. Most of the parties in Western Europe are fairly neutral towards religion, while those who are opposed to religion hardly make it a major issue. Then there are the overtly religious political movements in many countries of Eastern Europe and a few in Western Europe [Spain & Italy]. In America there is only one out atheist in the national legislature and no presidential candidate could possibly succeed without showing fealty to some mainstream religious movement [counting LDS as a major movement].

  16. #16 TSK
    February 3, 2008

    Hi John,
    I just wanted to point out that it is very questionable to address “Europe” together; imagine that someone is talking about the differences in “Asian” or “African” political systems (grouping East Russia, China, Japan, Arabia, India together !).
    The USA is still *one* country; while comparatively small, Europe has some dozens of countries.
    I don’t know if the EU gives other people the impression that Europeans are similar, but this is not the case (even if you mean only “old Europe”). Yes, people are understanding each other and share common values; still there are cultural differences between France and Norway which can be as frappant as going from the US to France.
    I am myself surprised that the EU instances (parliament, euro, European court) are working; it isn’t self-evident.
    The statement that Europe has a broader political spectrum makes only sense if it is implied that *all* countries in Europe have a broader spectrum than the USA.

  17. #17 Lassi Hippeläinen
    February 4, 2008

    “The statement that Europe has a broader political spectrum makes only sense if it is implied that *all* countries in Europe have a broader spectrum than the USA.”

    False. There are about 40 countries in Europe, depending on how you count them. Their cultures and histories are different, and therefore their political maps are different. That alone guarantees a wider spectrum than the USA, which from European point of view is a monoculture (English-speaking + Christian + republic).

  18. #18 TSK
    February 4, 2008

    @Lassi:
    Correct. That was clumsily phrased by me; what I meant is that if I say “Europe has a broader political spectrum than the USA” the statement remains a platitude for exactly the reason you mentioned. And therefore the phrase loses IMO its sense.
    One or several European countries alone is not Europe, so we shouldn’t talk about them.
    So if we want to compare the “Europeans” generally we should state for fairness that every european country has a broader spectrum than the USA; but that is a in my opinion an overconfident statement.

  19. #19 natural cynic
    February 4, 2008

    Lassi: My point is that there is a greater political [and media] diversity within most of the larger european countries than the US.

    And for cultural differences, try San Francisco and Tulsa.

  20. #20 Susan Silberstein
    February 4, 2008

    Yeah, Rund keeps saying “European perspective”. How does that make *any* sense? And he calls himself a lefty liberal, but says until recently he had no interest in the news and only a hazy understanding of Swedish politics. I have to guess that his leftiness comes from books and chatting with other people who are also not paying much attention to the real world.

    As a self-identified lefty who is pays close attention to the news and is very much anchored to the actual events taking place that really effect real people in real places, I’m not impressed with his credentials. Although I agree about the Republican candidates. But then, anyone with any sense does that.

  21. #21 TSK
    February 4, 2008

    : And he calls himself a lefty liberal, but says until
    : recently he had no interest in the news and only a hazy
    : understanding of Swedish politics.

    Uh, forget anything which you have learned in America about
    identifying a left. European “lefts” or “liberals” cannot be pinpointed to a specific behavior, Rund would wonder about your charge.
    There are social workers fighting for a specific purpose: homeless people, day care, schools for handicapped people, criminals etc. who are very critical of the system (and therefore considered left), but don’t care a damn about political, regional or world events or news. Communists which are strictly organized, but very well-educated about the world politics and pursuing regional politics aggressively. And…and…and. One very big problem as John already mentioned is that the mass media in the USA prefers contrasts and well-defined positions which gives the total wrong impression that they show all possible behavior.

  22. #22 brtkrbzhnv
    February 4, 2008

    Someone seriously needs to devise a way to measure political distance (so that we can calculate political diversity), or this discussion will continue to make pretty much no sense. I mean, the Swedish Riksdag has a lady people who wants to socialize everything and a dude who wants essentially free trade; the American Congress has a dude who want to torture people all the time and another who doesn’t think torture is ever justified – so which parliament is more diverse? “Not even wrong” is my verdict.

  23. #23 Oran Kelley
    February 4, 2008

    “Why is there no socialism in the US?”
    Werner Sombart, 1906

    Not only is this question old, it was an obsession of American comparative politics for 80 years or so. So its pretty well treated. I suggest folks who are really interest might read about rather than blather on about the question. Or at least read then blather on.

    I guess I have a hard time understanding the chastisement: in the interests of political diversity, the US should look more like all the other first-world countries?

    I’m fairly far to the left, and frankly I don’t care whether the spectrum of American politics is aesthetically pleasing to Swedes. We’re different and probably bound always to be be. Too bad for you, I suppose, if you find that to be perturbing.

  24. #24 natural cynic
    February 4, 2008

    “Why is there no socialism in the US?”
    Werner Sombart, 1906

    [snark] There is socialism, but only if you are rich[/snark]

  25. #25 Oran Kelley
    February 4, 2008

    People here and on Martin’s blog have noted that the turn to conservatism of the modern kind is recent – it’s certainly true that contemporary American conservatism is not historically conservative, nor historically liberal either. It’s something else – nepotism, perhaps, or oligarchy. The Democrats echo the social democratic ideals of the past, but clearly they are unable to implement that philosophy, especially in foreign affairs, although Obama is reported here as wanting to demilitarise US foreign policy, which can only be to the benefit of the entire world.

    There has been a general turn rightwards in Western politics in the last 30 years or so brought on by the capital flight/capital strike/stagflation crises of the 1970s (remember Thatcher and Kohl and the scary successes of LePen?). This, too, has been written about quite a lot–interesting stuff from the Germans on this particularly (there was a lot of discussion in the mid-80s surrounding Habermas’s writing at the time, i think).

    And what, precisely, would be the actualization of “social democratic ideals” in foreign policy? I don’t think there is a ready answer to that question.

    And what do you (or Obama) mean by “demilitarize?” Would that mean no more military interventions and a free hand for such champions of “social democratic ideals” as Milosevic? Not that I’m a big fan of interventionism, just I think you are being a bit free and easy in assuming that we all know what a *good* foreign policy might be.

    And the fact that American conservatism may be oligarchic or nepotistic (no argument here) hardly explains its popularity.

  26. #26 TSK
    February 4, 2008

    Thanks for the keyword on Sombart; looks like an
    interesting read. Google finds a big amount of discussion
    on the theme.

    But it is more than political diversification; it is a lack of personal diversification. It is perfectly possible for me to imagine such a person:
    – atheistic
    – environmentalist
    – Gouldian darwinist
    – anti-abortionist
    – for equality of homosexual relationships under law
    – against drugs in any form
    – patriotic
    – pro free gun laws

    Uncommon, but possible. But I always get the impression that Americans find these combinations practically impossible. Kenneth Miller was several times called “creationist” because he is a theist; even after defending evolution before court.

    As a foreigner I don’t know much about the USA, but there seems always a contrast. Red vs Blue. Theist vs evolutionist. And its never a dissent or simply a fight, it’s always a war. “Culture War”,”War against Drugs”,”War on terrorism”. It is not a question that the USA should become Europe, it is the question that the insistence on quarreling and groupthinking robs the people of their freedom of action. I would like to hear that I am wrong, but that is my personal impression.

  27. #27 yogi-one
    February 4, 2008

    The US media has pretty much fallen out completely as far as being a reliable news source. People don’t even expect it to be anymore. People are surprised (those that even watch) when some propagandist from the networks says anything even remotely related to real life. Ususally they don’t.

    I stopped watching along time ago. Even the 8-year-old in my house gave up TV – voluntarily. I flipped onto cartoons one day when babysitting only to be told “I haven’t been watching TV because it’s boring.” Eight years old. Get the picture?

    Everyday I see diversity. I see Americans of every stripe, who have family roots in all the inhabited continents. Working around technology, I hear several different languages constantly. Most of these people were either born in America or have gained their citizenship. They are Americans by either definition.

    This is not reflected at all in the mainstream media.If an Asian person is cast he’s either a Kung-Fu person or a Geisha girl. Blacks, of course have not escaped TV stereotyping either, nor have Hispanic people.

    I would venture that most people’s political views are also not represented. I know mine aren’t.

    I would not hesitate to call America a Capitalist Oligarchy. Profit drives everything, and all policy is geared toward supporting a very small superwealthy class.

    What I notice is that most Americans are simply unwilling to admit that, even though they know it’s true.

  28. #28 Oran Kelley
    February 4, 2008

    The US media has pretty much fallen out completely as far as being a reliable news source. People don’t even expect it to be anymore. People are surprised (those that even watch) when some propagandist from the networks says anything even remotely related to real life. Ususally they don’t.

    I stopped watching along time ago. Even the 8-year-old in my house gave up TV – voluntarily. I flipped onto cartoons one day when babysitting only to be told “I haven’t been watching TV because it’s boring.” Eight years old. Get the picture?

    Everyday I see diversity. I see Americans of every stripe, who have family roots in all the inhabited continents. Working around technology, I hear several different languages constantly. Most of these people were either born in America or have gained their citizenship. They are Americans by either definition.

    This is not reflected at all in the mainstream media.If an Asian person is cast he’s either a Kung-Fu person or a Geisha girl. Blacks, of course have not escaped TV stereotyping either, nor have Hispanic people.

    I would venture that most people’s political views are also not represented. I know mine aren’t.

    I would not hesitate to call America a Capitalist Oligarchy. Profit drives everything, and all policy is geared toward supporting a very small superwealthy class.

    What I notice is that most Americans are simply unwilling to admit that, even though they know it’s true.

    I haven’t had a TV in ten years, and this is even worse than TV.

    C’mon folks, let’s not be stupid! TV is a natural turn-off and yet practically everyone watches?

    American media is a stopped clock?

    Sorry, I’ve seen the news on occasion, it isn’t that bad, and pretending it is does no good. Grow up and try to be honest with yourself a little.

    For example: lets’ have a list of all the Geisha girls and martial artists currently featured on prime time TV. That’d be a pretty long list, I’m sure.

    Perhaps the reason the US has no leftist politics is that yogi-one is your typical partisan?

  29. #29 Felicia Gilljam
    February 5, 2008

    Interesting discussion. But, err, his name is Rundkvist. Not Rund.

  30. #30 Bee
    February 9, 2008

    Oran Kelley, #28, quote:”American media is a stopped clock?

    Sorry, I’ve seen the news on occasion, it isn’t that bad, and pretending it is does no good. Grow up and try to be honest with yourself a little.”

    The US’ closest neighbours beg to differ: American television news often does not sync with other countries’ news sources on the exact same public/political/social issues and events. Sometimes what Canadians see on American TV news is, from our POV, eye-poppingly slanted, missing key facts, a-slosh in moral judgements and religious jargon, and amusingly over-excited and oversexed.

    You don’t see it, possibly, because it’s familiar, normal to you.

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