A Response to Bret Weinstein
Bret Weinstein is a well educated individual. In fact, he has a PhD in Biology from the University of Michigan. While teaching at Evergreen State College he encountered some controversy from which he was thrust into the spotlight. Following the example of other burgeoning intellectuals with new found fame, Bret Weinstein has taken to posting videos on Youtube outside his field of expertise. This article is a response to one such video.
“I hear many people talking as if the terms liberal, progressive and leftist refer to different factions…. I have never seen clean distinctions drawn between these things… I think they are synonyms and should be treated as such.” (Bret Weinstein)
What do liberal, progressive, and leftist refer to? Are there clear distinctions?
Liberalism is a political ideology that is based on the concepts of liberty and equality. There are “liberals” on the left and right of the political spectrum. That is to say there is a divide in the ideology as to what is intended by liberty and equality. For example, it is often argued whether personal liberty or collective liberty is the goal. Likewise with equality the argument lies in which way should people be equal. Equal according to the law? Equal according to financial prosperity? Equal opportunity? Equal outcomes? etc.
Today people in the United States commonly refer to liberal when they mean left of themselves. And it seems to me what is meant by left is in relation to American conservatism, not leftist ideology. Many who identify as leftist are typically doing so to make a distinction between their position and liberals. For example, Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas, put it this way: “Liberals typically support existing systems and hope to make them more humane. Leftists focus on the unjust nature of the systems themselves… Liberals don’t oppose capitalism or U.S. imperialism, arguing instead for kinder-and-gentler versions. Leftists see the systems as incompatible with basic moral principles of social justice and ecological sustainability.”
At this point it should be clear that leftist and liberal are not synonymous. What about progressivism? In his video, Bret Weinstein admits that he made an effort to identify as a progressive after the term liberal became demonized. This is not unique to him. John McWhorter in the NYT wrote that “It’s no surprise that in recent years some on the left have embraced the term “progressive” as a substitute for “liberal.” The right has so demonized “the L-word…” That said, it remains that progressivism is simply the idea of making progress though social reform. Liberalism, and leftism refer to ideological positions, progressivism is not an ideological position and is thus not typically synonymous with either liberal or left.
“The core of Liberalism is a desire for change.” (Bret Weinstein)
As discussed earlier the core of liberalism are the principles of equality and liberty, not a desire for change. I would agree with Weinstein that change could be considered the core of progressivism.
It remains true that people like Weinstein use these words interchangeably. It is akin to the scientific illiterate referring to evolution as “just a theory” without understanding what the word theory indicates in a scientific context.
This kind of oversimplification of politics promotes a lack of nuance and understanding. For further clarity, below is an example of how a leftist/socialist positions differs dramatically from a liberals.
I often heard critics of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) call it a socialist program. The ACA includes provisions that “are intended to expand access to insurance, increase consumer protections, emphasize prevention and wellness, improve quality and system performance, expand the health workforce, and curb rising healthcare costs” The ACA does not however promote government ownership of the healthcare industry. In fact, the ACA largely supports and relies on private ownership of the healthcare industry.
The ACA is an example of a liberal policy. A leftist would more likely be in favor of a single-payer program run by the government. These are significantly different approaches. It is worth noting, depending on how someone viewed the healthcare system pre ACA both of these positions could be considered progressive.
The “left” contains several different and competing ideologies. Communism, socialism, anarchism are all leftist. Liberals in the US may be left of Republicans, but they are not synonymous with leftism.
Not only is it an oversimplification to lump liberalism, progressivism, and leftism into one position on the left of the spectrum, society often oversimplifies the right. Consider classical liberals and American conservatives. Both by today’s standards are lumped together in U.S. politics as being Republicans or right wing. However, the foundations of these ideologies are quite distinct.
The classical liberal position on drugs is likely to value individual liberty as the highest good and therefore would generally be in favor of decriminalization in the absence of an external victim. Conversely, American conservatism may value stability and social norms/tradition higher. This could result in long held views of drug use being immoral to inform their policy position.
This split was also seen in the marriage debate. American conservatism wanted to “preserve” the tradition of marriage while classical liberals were more likely to favor (or at least be less opposed) to gay marriage. Many even argued that the government has no business defining marriage at all.
As was the case with the left side of the spectrum, the right also has a plethora of ideologies. For example, conservatism, fascism, and classical liberalism are all on the right side of the political spectrum. Suggesting that liberal and leftist are synonymous is like saying fascism and conservatism are synonymous.
Is politics as simple as black or white? Certainly not. It would be near impossible to find an issue where there are only two options, though we often present issues that way. Weinstein’s video does just that. He suggests that there is progressivism or conservatism, left or right. This is a gross oversimplification.
Have you ever gone to lunch and had a hard time deciding between burgers, sandwiches, or tacos? If so, I hope your political opinions are at least as complex as deciding where to go to lunch. Politics is not a heads or tails coin toss; it is not progressive or conservative. It is much more than that. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.