At the Third Parties '96 conference in Washington, DC, January 5-6, C-SPAN televised a panel with the soaring label of "Crossover Politics: Transcending the Old Labels of Left, Right, and Center." This struck a number of participants as quite a flight of fancy. Are we pretending that we can fly without any sense of direction or of the topography of the land? Every new brood resents being tagged with old labels, but the way to go beyond the leg bands the media puts on us is to focus like a falcon on the specific issues and put our talons into the political substance. But perhaps we should first take a bird's eye view of the Left, Right, and Center distinctions.
John Rensenbrink of the Green Politics Network, the main sponsor of the conference, argued that Third Parties '96 had to break out of the conventional categories of Left and Right to build "a broad-based, potentially majoritarian multi-party alliance."
The idea may go back to the 1978 slogan of the German group, Green Action Future, " We are neither left nor right; we are in front." It was taken literally in 1983 when the German Greens first entered the Bundestag and insisted on being seated between the liberal Left (Social Democrats) and Right (Christian Democrats).
This language even entered conventional "middling" politics, as when Bill Clinton informed an interviewer that he has moved neither right nor left; he's moved out in front!
The very etymology of left and right is political. Left has its origins in the negative, with the French gauche meaning awkward, as in a country bumpkin or raw peasant, someone green; the Latin sinister is harmful and dangerous, and the Old English lyft means weak or foolish, paired off with right only in the 13th Century. In old lore, these lesser qualities reside in the poor side of the body, but also in the body politic.
The opposite, right, derives from the Indo-European base, reg-, meaning to lead in a straight line, to direct or rule, as in the French droit derived from the Latin directus, and Latin rex, German Reich, French roi, and English regent for king. It is the strong side of the body, but a right (in feudal English word-smithing) is also a claim by the mighty, the noble, that makes them rich and correct, righteous and erect, sometimes even rigid, though not necessarily in that order.
In 1789 the vocabulary of politics took a bit of a turn in France, when the gauche stood up and demanded their droits. As the various parts of French society took their seats in the Constituent Assembly of 1789-91, the Monarchists were seated appropriately on the right side of the hall, from the chair's point of view, and the radicals were seated on the left, separated by a middle group in the center. During the debate on the royal veto, these parties came to be known as the Left, Center and Right, with other names expressing assigned seats, so that Montagnards occupied the upper gallery or mountain and the party of the Plains sat on the lower floor.
The debate underscored options offered by the left that led toward greater power to the masses and by the right that resisted any loss of power by the elite. From that day on, the terms Left and Right have kept that basic meaning.
These terms were soon vexed by the rise of Robespierres's dictatorship and later quibbles like the rise of fascism (a revolutionary overthrow of the Old Order by a new right mimicking the left) and Stalinism (a tyranny like fascism that paraded under the icons of the Left while devouring the remnants of socialism and humanism).
In spite of all things modern and the rather unfair word-smithing, the term "Left" retained a positive connotation among the masses of the world, and the term "Right" was often avoided by its believers because of its negative impact on the masses.
...the political terms Right and Left probably will be used until a society polarized between masses and elite no longer exists...
Both sides overlook that one cannot exist without the other, since one's meaning refers to its opposite. A leftist utopia is inapt, since it implies a viable elite with right-wing defenses, as is the opposing dream of a perfect hierarchical order, since the right's raison d'etre is the defense of the elite from sinister subversion and riot. Left and Right are like Marx's reflex-categories: no king without subjects, no seller without a buyer, no proletariat without a bourgeoisie, no slave without a master.
If so, then the political terms Right and Left probably will be used until a society polarized between masses and elite no longer exists, and it doesn't do Alexander Cockburn any good to complain, "Why should we be dominated by a political labeling system based on where people sat in the Constituent Assembly in Versailles in 1789? (The Nation, July 17, 1995)."
One of the Crossover panelists at Third Parties '96 expressed his own frustration with the labeling system in a radio interview with Lenora Fulani and Fred Newman of the Patriot Party:I think the main issue here is can we reach across to essentially the Reform Party and anybody that's on the grassroots whether they be right, left or center....I know that you all here at the Patriot Party have actually been... reaching out to all sides of the grassroots, which I commend you for.... I find that the right grassroots is perhaps a little bit more open-minded than the left grassroots. Left progressives tend to think they know everything. That happens within the Green Party a lot....
Lenora Fulani had joined Fred Newman in the early 1980's to build the New Alliance Party, declaring it a " black-led, women-led, multiracial, pro-gay, independent political organization." Downplaying its origins in Lyndon LaRouche's cult, NAP recruited a following in New York City and elsewhere through its own cultish social therapy, which required joiners to do "self-empowering work," usually in one of NAP's organizations. Despite its claims, as Jill Nelson pointed out in Ms. Magazine (May/June 1992), "You'd be hard-pressed to find any progressive organization—gay, straight, black, whatever—that will align with NAP."
The NAP was criticized for rule-or-ruin tactics, disrupting the National Welfare Rights Organization and the People's Party, ripping off supporters of the Rainbow Coalition, and nearly wrecking the California Peace and Freedom Party. The Federal Election Commission fined its 1992 presidential campaign $612,557 for fraudulently claiming that amount in federal matching funds.
In April 1994 the NAP officially dissolved into the Patriot Party, a small group mainly in Pennsylvania that had networked briefly with Gov. Lowell Weicker, Gordon Black, a pollster who joined Ross Perot, and other independents.
As Perot put his Reform Party on the California ballot in late 1995, the Patriot Party announced it was merging, but it has kept a separate identity.
In a January 31, 1996 "Open Letter to Third Parties '96" from the National Independent Politics Summit, Ted Glick and others criticized the idea of "transcending left, right and center" where "in addition to the participation of Greens, Socialists and other progressive groups, the Libertarian, Patriot and Reform parties have been invited to participate."
One observer commented that,To be fair, a lot of the people advocating these left-right-center alliances are only advocating it on a limited basis-that we can work together on the 'political democracy' issues (ballot access reform, proportional representation, campaign finance reform, etc.)....But somehow, along the way, they began deluding themselves that we were political soulmates.
Linda Martin, a key organizer of TP '96, had a clear motivation for the conferences: "I watched in horror from my seat in suburban Virginia and saw them [the GOP] mount a major assault on all the government programs, services and protections I hold dear... while the so-called progressive dems stood silently by...and the "New Dems"...[and] nearly all our elected politicos have now joined the ridiculous Balanced Budget Chorus."
For independent progressives, however, this divided them, not only from the Congress and the White House, but also from the new Right and Center parties. In reality, Linda Martin's stance was impossible while nestling with the Libertarian, Reform, and Patriot parties. These groups are equally frenzied about zeroing-out the budget deficit and proclaiming victory over a bombed-out welfare state, a fixation comparable to the start of the US war in Vietnam.
The budget mania was promoted by former Sen. Paul Tsongas in the early 1992 primaries, and the baton was picked up by Ross Perot. After his election, Clinton and the New Democrats dropped their job stimulus platform to please the Fed and the big money markets and substituted Perot's platform. Democrats in turn found themselves co-opted by the GOP budget Hawks and nudged to a seven year target.
In an "Open Letter to the White House" last November, Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund said the destruction of social programs in the name of saving children from future indebtedness "...is the domestic equivalent of bombing Vietnamese villages in order to save them." In fact, the deficit was largely a legacy of Cold War military spending and the parallel neglect of the inner cities and schools.
In sharp contrast, the Libertarian, Reform and Patriot Parties all joined the flight of the Hawks, with the Patriot Party saying, "it is necessary for the federal government to adopt a balanced fiscal budget on a yearly basis, beginning with the year 2000."
On the contrary. For the sake of future generations, the Doves must prevail if we are to reduce poverty, disease and crime, co-existing for a time with the dreaded Red regimen of deficit spending. We need to plan a balanced economy, not a balanced budget.
We should also meet the "right grassroots," testing their open-mindedness, and convincing them that their concern for popular sovereignty puts them on the Left with us, and not with rich power brokers.
And we should absorb a warning: "The next Left could fail if, like the mainstream liberals, it ignores the structural nature of the crisis, or if it backs off from the advocacy of that bottom-up democratization of the economy that is precisely what separates it from the shrewd Right (Michael Harrington, The Next Left, Henry Holt & Co.: New York, 1986)."
We need to enlist the millions of students, workers, women, minorities and the poor who are the intended victims of the Hawks, and that cannot be done if these birds of prey are the first ones invited into the nest. Third Parties '96 has to articulate a new strategy, nurture its real offspring of progressive state parties, and create real alliances with real allies.