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Left and right in America

16 November 2010

I’ve long been aware that American views of politics have been different from those of the rest of us, and that terms like “left” and “right”, and “liberal” and “conservative” mean something else over there. During the US presidential election campaign two years ago the candidates of both the main parties were placed by the Political Compass website in the right-wing authoritarian quadrant. The difference was that the Republican Party candidates were more extremist, and the Democratic Party candidates a bit closer to the centre, but they were all on the authoritarian right. The only exception seemed to be Dennis Kucinich, but you don’t hear much about him any more.

So when Americans talk about “left” and “right”, they generally seem to mean someing different from the rest of us, because both their left and right are on the right.

For people outside America, it’s often hard to tell the difference. Obama campaigned on a platform of “change you can believe in”, but after two years, really, what has changed? American soldiers are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are they still in the former Yugoslavia?

And then I thought I had discovered the main difference:

Hat-tip to

But a moment’s reflection showed that that was way too simplistic.

Yes, American “conservatives” do object to their taxes being spent on saving people’s lives, especially in health care. And American “liberals” do object to their taxes being spent on killing people, especially overseas, by military means (though that doesn’t seem to deter the politicians they vote for from doing it).

But American “liberals” are generally not so averse to killing people in their own country through abortion and American “conservatives” might not be so averse to their tax dollars being spent on preventing that.

A few years ago there was some talk in the US about “compassionate conservatism”. I’m not sure exactly what those who used the term intended it to mean, but it seems that both “liberals” and “conservatives” in American terms seem to be pretty selective in their understanding of compassion. So there is still no easy way for outsiders to distinguish between them, and one is tempted to say “a plague on both your houses”.

What got me going on this topic?

I suppose it was a film I watched on TV last night that set me off. It was called Swing vote, and seemed to be based on the 2000 US presidential election in which the result was not known for several weeks because of recounts, and in the film the whole election hung on one man’s vote, and he was more interested in booze than ballots, and the entire apparatus of the political parties was concentrated on winning his vote, with the campaign managers of the parties changing their policies according to his slightest whim. It wasn’t a very good film, and it wasn’t particularly profound, but it did show how political expediency often overrides principle. And that is something in American politics that is easy to understand, because that is pretty universal, as some of the groups who supported Jacob Zuma’s bid for the presidency of the ANC have discovered to their cost.

And in American politics, whichever party is in power almost invariably ends up applying the worst policies of both parties and the best policies of neither.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 November 2010 2:18 am

    Actually, those of us who oppose abortion and who understand that it costs money to prevent are not “conservative”. Anti-abortion “conservatives” merely want to make abortion illegal (to the extent they want to do anything other than use it as a wedge issue during election cycles). They don’t necessarily want to end it. That would require increasing spending on “welfare” and they are absolutely opposed to that.

  2. 17 November 2010 2:19 am

    BTW, on the grid, I place directly above Brian Moore on the horizontal axis.

  3. 21 November 2010 1:53 pm

    This was a really interesting post. I always learn something when I see how Americans are perceived by those from other countries.

  4. Elliott P. permalink
    23 November 2010 12:26 am

    I’m not sure this is correct: “Yes, American ‘conservatives’ do object to their taxes being spent on saving people’s lives, especially in health care.” Most conservatives would argue that the health ‘care’ others are wanting them to subsidize will actually COST more lives, not save them, through rationed care.


  1. Thou shalt kill « Khanya

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