What is the difference between a liberal and a leftist?

In the concurrent GD thread, “Who’s meaner? The left or right?” – http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=262226

I made the following post:

A bit later Paladud posted:

To which I replied:

To which 2sense replied:

To which I replied:

At least that’s my opinion. I think defining the distinction between a “liberal” and a “leftist” is very important even at a time when the left is politically marginalized. (Socialism as such, of course, has been politically marginalized in this country since 1917 and was not that big a deal before then, but the left in general has had a lot more vitality than it has now.) Do any of you have a different definition to offer?

I should add – liberals, in my opinion, differ from leftists in that they are concerned with less fundamental, more meliorative things: Affirmative action, the death penalty, welfare, Medicaid, gay marriage, gun regulation, indoor smoking bans, equal pay for women, etc. Liberals could get their way all the way on every one of these issues, and the distribution of wealth and, more importantly, of power in our society would remain exactly as it is now.

Ask ten people, get ten different answers.

In classic lefty terms, “liberals” are distinct from “radicals” in one essential regard: a radical holds that the entire system is founded on inequality and oppression. As such, it cannot be “fixed”, nor can it evolve into a more acceptable form. Some radicals differ slightly, saying that it can evolve into a more equitable form, but only enough to ensure the temporary survival of a doomed system.

I am closer to a radical than a liberal, being on the conservative wing of the extreme left. But I hold that history demonstrates that it is possible and worthwhile to negotiate progress, especially when progressives negotiate from strength, the Labor Movement in America being the prime example.

Of course, some of our fellow citizens are convinced that money and power is already in the hands of the wise and the just, and no such adjustments need be made. They are wrong.

I have no interest in seeing Paris Hilton shipped off to a Proletariat Reeducation Camp to study Chairman Mao Thought. On the other hand, the notion that the CEO deserves 10,000 times the salary of a laborer is contemptible and fundamentally unjust, and the working man is justified in using whatever means necessary to seek a redress of grievances. But if we can obtain justice without sacrificing our humane ethics, we are morally bound to do so.

Besides, liberals are wussies.

That is a VERY conservative number for some CEOs O_o

As a wussie, I can only say I was made that way by watching my fellows when it came time to actually organize a union at a place where I worked. The truly revolting behavior of some of the leaders from inside the workplace involved, who sold themselves to management for very little indeed, made me take a strictly neutral stance ever since in labor/management disputes.
This cynicism extends to everything. I always thought that my fellow citizens would, if stressed, be capable of the same evil as anyone else, and the torture of suspects after 9/11, from New York to Afghanistan to Iraq, bears that out.
This Administration got only slightly fewer votes last time around, and this time around they stand a chance of getting slightly more votes. If they win the election, it would only bear out the above, once again, as this is a truly evil Administration.
As a radical, you have to believe that people are worth fighting for that hard. I don’t. And the evidence, I think, pretty strongly weighs in my favor.

Then what’s the point of any political activity of any kind?

[BobcatGoldthwaite]I’m pretty sure a Leftist has more dark meat.[/BobcatGoldthwaite]

Really? If we assume our labourer makes $20k (I don’t know about US salaries, I’m converting from a low UK wage), that puts our putative CEO on $200 million, a salary I don’t believe is commonplace, and certainly is not “very conservative” by anyone’s measure (even the CEOs’). In fact apparently that’s about the most anyone has ever been paid, and that takes into account the conversion of an awful lot of stock options.

What is the difference between a liberal and a leftist?

Liberals bathe at least occasionally?

Right, I was doing really stupid math, my bad.

OK, 10,000 times the salary it is.

Brain Glutton: a radical would go out and demonstrate, organize boycotts, take the side of the workers in most labor/management disputes, etc. To do that you have to believe that most people are inherently good.
Not speaking for all liberals, but we don’t engage in this to quite the extent of a radical. Nor do a lot of us, anyway, really believe the workers are always right. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. Being cynical doesn’t mean you think exploitation and oppression are right, just that it’s not always exploitation and oppression.
We do believe they have the right to organize, of course, something a lot of conservatives don’t. And conservatives of course will pretty much always take the side of management.

Thanks for opening this thread, BrainGlutton. It made me think things over and refine my terminology. “Leftist” comes from “leftwing” and conceptualizes ideology as a straight line. Such a simple construction can’t account for every variable so we have to recognize that whatever terms we use are generalizations. Also lets remember that these generalizations are constructed with America in mind. They don’t necessarily fit the politics of other nations.

I consider the personal belief about human nature to be the fundamental division of ideology and cut the line in half by asking a simple question, “Do you believe that people in general are good and can be trusted?” Those who generally trust people are on the left and everyone else is on the right. ( See Note 1 ) By my standards I’m not sure pantom is left of center. He doesn’t seem to have faith in human nature.

But there is more to “leftwing” than just being left of center. The word comes from the seating in the French Assembly but the terminology is military. On the traditional battlefield there were the left and right wings of an army as well as the center. Thus the division is not binary but tertiary into leftists, rightists, and centrists. A person with some faith in humanity but distrusts change might well consider themselves a conservative but I would call them a left-leaning centrist. A right-leaning centrist might be a believer in Original Sin who favors progressive taxation and gun control.

So everyone on the left is a leftist but they can be further defined. I think elucidator is on the right track though I would replace “radicals” with “socialists”. The left has no monopoly on radicalism; there are radical conservatives. ( See Note 2 ) Liberals try to fix the system while socialists believe it is founded on inequality and oppression and can’t be reformed. Note that this conception is basically economic. I have met socialists who revere the Constitution and believe the economic system that grew up under it is the problem. Are they more radical than me who would replace the Constitution but only reform the market system? I don’t think so. Socialists think liberals are wussies; we liberals tend to think of socialists as unrealistic.

Note that I am talking about trusting people in general and not every single person. I am uninterested in conservative interjections concerning what they think are inconsistancies of liberal ideology but really reflect a lack of trust in individuals.

No, “radical conservative” is not a contradiction in terms. Conservatives want to conserve the past. That is, they resist change. Radical conservatives embrace change. They want to remake the country in the image of what they imagine the past must have been like. They seek to turn back the clock to a time that never existed. Americans are especially vulnerable to radical conservative dogma because, even here amongst the educated and politically aware SDMBers, we are mostly ignorant of our history.

Replace the Constitution with what?

BTW, I think it defines “leftist” too narrowly to assume every leftist wants to put an end to capitalism and the market system. I consider myself a leftist, a socialist in fact, but I don’t want to end the market system (which can’t be completely done, anyway – commerce will simply re-emerge in the form of a black market). The market system has the advantage of being self-adjusting – i.e., the actual consumers of good services can estimate what their own needs are better than a team of economic planners in the capital. Stalinist state planning does work, within limits – it works for the purposes of basic capital formation. It enabled Russia to grow from an agricultural power in 1917 to an industrial power that could meet Germany on equal terms on the eve of WWII. But it can’t fine-tune itself efficiently. As Lester Thurow put it in Economics Explained (Touchstone 1994):

No, what I envision for America is something more along the lines of the New Deal on steroids, or Swedish social democracy – corporations, labor unions and the state managing and directing the economy in close partnership. I’ve discussed this with our board’s token Marxist, Olentzero (where are you, O?), in a couple of threads and he doesn’t believe that would qualify as “socialism” at all, but I beg to differ.

And I think other models also deserve consideration. The most persuasive and plausible utopian novel I’ve ever read is Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), set in a future America where there has been some kind of political revolution led by the Greens – presumably a nonviolent revolution, but no details are given. Everyone is guaranteed an annual income of $10,000, even if they don’t or can’t work, and nobody is allowed to have more than $100,000. This prevents the existence of poverty while still allowing plenty of room for ambition and achievement – “everybody wants to be a Hundred.” Most economic activity is done by private companies; the state’s main role is to keep them small, to break up any corporation that grows beyond the size where every officer and employee can know every other personally. It’s not a final formula for utopia, but it’s a good starting point for thinking about it.

I think what being a “socialist” really means is being committed to the process of finding a more just and egalitarian and efficient and sustainable way to run the economy, not being committed to any particular model of a socialist economic system. That process, once begun, would involve a lot of trial and error and experimenting, and if we ever arrive at something satisfactory, it might be something – something clearly distinguishable from free-market capitalism (assuming that’s what we’ve got now) – that does not resemble any form of socialism that has yet been tried.

The important thing is that we socialists have to repudiate what has been called “the theology of the final goal,” of thinking of socialism of something that is to come after capitalism. Socialism might just mean a moderating, ameliorating political force within what remains essentially a market system – which is what they’ve got in Sweden. (At least, that’s how it was when I read Socialism: Past and Future, by Michael Harrington (Little, Brown: 1989). My knowledge of Swedish social democracy might be out of date by now.)

Furthermore – I think the Greens qualify as “leftists,” and “decentralization” is one of their Ten Key Values – which is about as non-Stalinist as you can get. (Which is why I haven’t joined the Greens – I’m a Hamiltonian, not a Jeffersonian; I think some problems can only be solved by action at a national level, or even higher.)

Well said miljroy.

It keeps us knowing how you think.

That would be a whole 'nother thread, I’m afraid. Suffice to say that I think it would be something you could live with. In fact, if I had to choose another SDMBer to write us a new constitution I would pick you.

I agree and that’s why I didn’t do so. I seperated everyone into three groups: rightists, centrists, and leftists and then broke the leftists down into liberals and socialists. Only the socialists oppose capitalism.

I’m afraid I agree with Olentzero. I wouldn’t consider you a socialist; at least not here in America. In more civilized nations where the Reds weren’t denied freedom of speech and freedom of assembly the term has taken on other meanings as Socialist Parties of various countries proposed policy but here in America socialism is still in it’s pure form. It never had to be practical because socialists never faced the necessity of compromise that comes with holding political power. Here it still refers to someone who believes that ownership of the means of production belongs to the workers. You don’t fit the bill.

In fact, your quote neatly encapsulates my own liberal economic philosophy. Socialism might have been a wonderful system if free markets hadn’t been invented but they were and command markets will never be as efficient and thus can’t compete. Wishing won’t change that. As I said, us liberals see the socialists as unrealistic.

Of course us Greens are leftists. And while I’m Green I agree about decentralization. America has way too much of it now. That’s the one tenet of the Party I don’t follow. The nice thing about being in a party that won’t win is that you don’t have to sweat details like that.

No doubt . . . but, as a politically concerned and aware person, wouldn’t you much rather be in a position where you do have to sweat details like that? Because you might be able to exert a real influence on public policy?

Suppose we enacted political reforms that made it possible for third parties to play a meaningful role in American politics? For instance, instant-runoff voting and proportional representation.

In an article in The Atlantic Monthly, August 1992, “A Radical Plan to Change American Politics” (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/congress/lindf.htm), Michael Lind discussed the practical effects of electing the U.S. House of Representatives by the multi-member-district, single-transferable-vote form of proportional representation:

Now, if that were to happen, don’t you think you could find a congenial home in the Social Democratic Party? And wouldn’t you like that better than belonging to the Green Party or the Democratic Party?

At this point in American history, electoral-system reform is more important than anything else. It should be the number-one item on the agenda of all left-wing, right-wing, radical centrist, and libertarian parties.

I am a Socialist and identify very much with Brain Glutton’s description of his position. And I haven’t given up on reforming our government through our Constitution at all. I want most of the things that Liberals want, but with even more economic reform.

By coincidence, Brain Glutton mentioned Sweden. I was thinking of what I saw in Denmark – only without the monarchy.

I think it is a common misconception that Socialists want to completely revamp the government. Speaking for myself, I want to see affordable health care, functioning educational systems and an end to poverty. What’s not to love?

We have some parts of our government that are socialistic already and no one seems anxious to give them up – fire departments, police, libraries. Schools can do with a complete overhaul.

I support welfare reform. (If nothing else, give as many welfare recepients as possible jobs overseeing welfare reform.)

Turn copies of next year’s national budget over to the G.I. generation who want a little extra money. Let those who survived the Great Depression and WWII go over it with their expertise. They will have the Pentagon washing out and reusing coffee filters, but our troops will have the protective gear that is needed.

But, I digress…

Really, I’m a farily optimistic person. I believe that people can be motivated to take pride in their work by something other than just greed.

Meanness is not universal at the extremes; I can think of several members of the current administration on the far right and of LaRouche on the far left as far as vehemence goes; I’m sure the majority is pretty civil on either side. If media blowhards are included, of course Moore and Franken cannot measure up to the sheer rage of Coulter and Limbaugh: the former two are not terribly far from center.