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What "Professional Left"?

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Last week, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs raised ire by castigating "the professional left." Was this a calculated but unnecessary Sister Souljah moment or a cri de coeur prompted by ingrate liberals? Who knows what he was thinking! All that is sure is that Gibbs unwittingly provided yet another "teaching moment."

Gibbs' targets were a handful of newspaper columnists and the evening lineup on MSNBC, plus a few influential bloggers. I suppose it is fair to call these people "professionals." But it is misleading to say that their complaints come from the left. Gibbs's targets are Democrats, not leftists; unrecontructed Obamaphiles who fault Obama only for not embracing the positions he campaigned on. Candidate Obama was barely a mainstream liberal; he was certainly not a man of the left.

Let me explain by clarifying some terms. From the time of the French Revolution, when the more radical delegates to the National Assembly seated themselves to the left of the presiding officer, left has designated a relatively stable, though evolving and multi-faceted, political orientation; and right took on a corresponding, contrary meaning. These polar points constitute a spectrum along which policies, programs, and political parties can be arrayed.

Very generally, the Left is dedicated to deepening the revolutionaries' commitment to "liberty, equality, and fraternity (community)." Tradition, authority, and order are core values for the Right. Socialists of all types, most anarchists and some liberals are on the Left; conservatives are usually, though not necessarily, on the Right.

The terms left and right are also relational metaphors: left is defined in contrast to right, and vice versa. Thus political parties and social movements of the left have left and right wings, as do movements and parties of the right. The mainstream spectrum in the United States has never moved into genuinely left territory, though there have been moments when a genuine left was on the threshold of gaining entry. But the mainstream has always had a left and right wing, usually described as "liberal" and "conservative," respectively.

In a different, more theoretical, sense, liberalism has long been Topic A for political philosophers. There is no consensus on what the idea implies, but it is plain that on any plausible construal the entire mainstream spectrum in the United States is liberal; everyone is committed to limited government, individual freedom, the rights and liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and to a host of other characteristic liberal positions.

The situation invites confusion. Both liberals and conservatives are philosophically liberal; and liberals are too wedded to the status quo to count as leftists, though they do comprise the left of the mainstream spectrum.

Our mainstream is pitched far to the right because in our duopolistic party system, the left has never had representation. Liberals are therefore ensconced in parties (in recent years, just the Democratic party) where genuine leftists have no place.

We call the right of the mainstream "conservative," but the description is even less apt, not just because conservatives are philosophical liberals but because they are not really conservative. How could they be when we Americans have no aristocratic or theocratic traditions to conserve? Our conservatives are shills for capitalism; and if there is anything on which everyone agrees, it is that capitalism upends traditional practices and institutions; in other words, that it is inherently anti-conservative. The Communist Manifesto got it right: under capitalism, "all that is solid melts into air."

From time immemorial, real conservatives have advanced reasons for upholding traditional ways: some have to do with the nature of governance; most focus on the importance of traditional arrangements for assuring civil order. These justifications typically place conservatives on the right - on the side of authoritarian political, ecclesiastical and familial mechanisms of social control. However a left conservatism that focuses on advancing liberty, equality and fraternity in ways that are continuous with received practices and institutional arrangements is also imaginable.

In any case, except for a few outliers whose conservatism is imported from Britain or continental Europe, we have no professional conservatives. But because we have a genuine right, indeed a radical right, we do have professional rightists (allowing that the word "professional" makes sense in this context).

Similarly, we have professional liberals. Let Gibbs rant against them; if it hastens their disillusionment, maybe then they will stop cutting Obama so much slack. Any challenge to Obama's wars, his cow towing to Wall Street, his feeble efforts to impede environmental catastrophes, his encroachments on civil liberties, and his milquetoast reforms that enhance the power of the profiteers that make them necessary is welcome. But we should be clear: the challenge Gibbs' "professional leftists" are mounting comes from the left of the mainstream spectrum, not from the left. It is more nearly a conservative challenge to the rightward drift of our politics than anything the people we call conservatives can muster.

After thirty years of Reaganite politics (superintended by Republican and Democratic presidents alike), there are no professional leftists to rail against. We have had a principled and honorable left in this country throughout our history, but today, a genuine left exists only at the margins of our political culture -- and a professional left exists only in the confused mind of Robert Gibbs and his co-thinkers.

However, in politics, circumstances change and self-fulfilling prophecies happen. Gibbs' words could become true. Let us hope that they do; the world will be far better off. But even if, true to their nature, liberals freeze in their tracks, the fact that there is already a challenge to the course of Obama's presidency coming from our left, if not the left, is welcome. And the fact that Gibbs is hopping mad about it is a hopeful sign; a sign that our politics may soon get onto a better track.