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OPINION | CORALIE KOONCE: Upside down

Right and left labels inaccurate by CORALIE KOONCE SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | October 24, 2020 at 9:24 a.m.

People toss around the terms "left-wing'' and "right-wing" (or the synonymous "liberal" and "conservative") as if we actually know what they mean. But it's been a long time since 1789 when monarchists sat on the right side of the French Assembly and revolutionists on the left.

Once, political ideologies represented opposing interests of different socioeconomic groups: Europe's new middle class versus the aristocracy; American workingmen versus coal and steel barons, or farmers versus the railroads.

But the United States also struggled with slavery and Jim Crow, nativism, imperialism, and women's rights. Eventually we added in the culture wars. To our greater confusion, the right/left division now incorporates religion, regional rivalries, racial justice, conspiracy theories, rural versus urban, gender issues, militarism/pacifism, immigration, states' rights, anti-intellectualism, environment, science, police reform, the mainstream media, and more.

It's hard to fit all that into the old paradigm.

People use political parties as a shorthand for left and right. That's lazy and inaccurate. In a 2018 Gallup Poll, about half of Democrats described themselves as either moderate or conservative, while 51 percent self-described as liberals. Most Republicans call themselves conservative, although they differ on cultural issues and foreign policy. Republicans aren't Nazis and Democrats aren't Venezuelan socialists. That's all partisan nonsense.

According to Wikipedia, the right is built on ideas like authority, hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, religion, and nationalism/patriotism. The left is energized by freedom, equality, brotherhood, rights, progress, reform, and internationalism. Traditionally, Republicans were the party of business and limited government, while Democrats represented working people and unions. Race, always an underlying issue, caused the South to flip from solid Democrat to solid Republican 40 years ago. Under Trump, Republicans have moved further right toward ethnonationalism.

Right and left both defend rights--different ones. The left worries about civil rights, First Amendment rights, women's right to control their bodies. The right is concerned with the Second Amendment and rights of business or property owners or individuals to be free of government regulations.

The nation's founders--all too aware of the religious wars that had roiled England and Europe in the previous century--did not set up this country as a Christian nation. The Constitution mentions religion in only three contexts: freedom of worship, no state establishment of religion, and no religious test for office. Today, evangelicals in particular have brought sectarian concerns into the body politic, proposing to define national morality, taking sides in the Middle East, and strongly supporting the Republican Party. Meanwhile, 26 percent of us don't identify with any organized religion and 7 percent of us belong to non-Christian religions.

Let's keep our diversity out of any left/right dichotomy.

Environmentalists, conservationists, and climate activists are often lumped together as left-wing because of perceived conflicts with certain corporate interests. However, many business leaders recognize that if grave problems like climate change are ignored or denied, they are likely to cost more money in the long run--as well as costing lives. It's a matter of thinking 20 or 30 years ahead instead of the next quarter's profits. Is that right or left?

Reform, associated with the left, is not only about changing laws or practices to achieve greater justice or for the people's welfare; reform is also about cleaning up corruption. In this, left and right should agree.

What the right calls "the liberal media" the left calls "corporate media" because a handful of multinational corporations control most of America's mass media. Those who accuse the mainstream media of disseminating "fake news" sometimes appear to be talking about only two cable news networks--CNN and MSNBC--and two newspapers--The Washington Post and The New York Times--out of hundreds of dailies.

The so-called "liberal media" isn't interested in promoting actual left-wing ideas. It totally ignores American thinkers and writers on the left such as Noam Chomsky, who is internationally respected both as linguistics scholar and political commentator. Noted investigative reporter Greg Palast can't publish his hard-hitting exposes in U.S. mainstream media and must find an audience in Rolling Stone or on BBC.

Ironically, a vibrant liberal or left-wing media actually exists, consisting of periodicals such as The Nation (founded 1865), Mother Jones, In These Times, The Progressive, CounterPunch, Adbusters, and others; daily newspapers The Irish Times, The Guardian (UK), Belgium's Le Soir, and Haaretz in Israel; and numerous websites.

Terms such as left-wing, right-wing, and liberal appear to be more useful for insulting one's political opponents than for accurately describing their beliefs and ideologies.

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Coralie Koonce is a writer living in Fayetteville. Her latest book is "Twelve Dispositions: A Field Guide to Humans."

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