Left and Right are Still Important: The Flux of National Debate

Ezra Klein is frustrated with the fluctuation in party positions. His most damaging critique of this dynamic: “Parties — particularly when they’re in the minority — care more about power than policy.” And parties’ fluctuation in their respective policy positions “make the labels “left” and “right” meaningless.”
“Ideological” shifts are due to a variety of reasons. Societal demands change, new issues come and go, economic conditions fluctuate, and foreign relationships strengthen or sour. And while these social changes remake the political landscape, the parties adapt. Elections anoint new political leaders, new politicians are voted in, and old politicians are defeated or retire. Emerging personalities are thrust into the spotlight to articulate party positions on issues. New coalitions emerge within the existing two-party divide (OWS and the Tea Party). New issues, and interpretations of those issues, are adopted all in an attempt to manage change. Support and opposition to policies is conditional on a multitude of social and political factors but it hardly makes left and right meaningless.

However, “ideology” is a moving target. It’s harder to peg party mantras when compromise, negotiation, and social change muddy the water. Does supporting market-based healthcare reform put you on the left? When you are forced to legislate with Republican opposition and a significant conservative wing of your own party, of course it does. However, the broad “leftist” fingerprint remains: they believe the government should provide universal health care. And despite the fact that the ACA is moderately right in its wording, the “right” would have no doubt preferred no healthcare at all. And where exactly do we place Democrats in the history of civil rights? The very same party that passed the most significant civil rights legislation in our history had successfully filibustered its passage for virtually all of American history prior to 1964-65.

And many of the examples used in the article have no ideological base at all. For example, favoring an expansive view of the presidency doesn’t put you on the right or left. Usually, it just means your party holds the presidency. When your party is in control, of course you want to expand power and influence. As fun as “states’ rights” is as a talking point, it has virtually never been an operating ideology. Even the very serious states’ righters in the antebellum South established a centralized government after they succeeded from the Union. Similarly, is opposing the filibuster going to put you on the left today? Absolutely. Will it put you on the left if Republicans win the Senate? No, because minority’s will always have a vested interest in retaining procedural tools to stop the majority’s agenda.

Parties will always exist in this country, they will always try to win elections, and they will always try to legislate their agenda. The fact that Democrats/Republicans are for an issue that they used to oppose should not be viewed as ideological infidelity but a change in our national dialogue. The fact parties no longer try to enact grandfather clauses or poll taxes is a good thing. The fact that the national deficit is a central issue to the upcoming campaign, and that each party has offered proposals to address this problem, is a good thing. Obviously the solution you prefer rests upon your ideological disposition. But the point is that political dialogue changes over time and sometimes very quickly. The fact that parties respond to those changes is not a bad thing. But when parties change their posture on an issue, it does not mean they have uprooted their ideological foundation. It more often means the debate has shifted.