Jessica Wilson at For the Record has a recent series of posts concerning left- and right-wing political agendas, and I think she’s come up with something very useful. She began with the observation that “right-wingers” (aka “conservatives”, “Republicans”) are not very good at argument, which she then developed a little further in response to a letter from a self-identified conservative.
It has been interesting to consider the prospects for the stated purpose of Left2Right; that is, for progressives and independents… to engage in reasoned discourse with right-wingers and conservatives (so-called) about such issues as are presently facing the nation. The comment threads are fairly illuminating on this score. Dividing through by right/left content, it’s all too easy (with sadly few exceptions) to identify the right-wingers by their poor skills at writing and argumentation… The failures of argumentation that are frequently manifest are the sort that characterize the writing of my worst students…
This is, I’m sure, a phenomenon familiar to most regular blog readers. The obvious question, though, is what’s driving it? I recommend reading all of the FTR posts I’m linking, but what I want to talk about here is the idea that what underlies the difference in argumentation (style and quality) is a stark difference in goals. Progressives have no need for enthymematic or otherwise sophistic argument: they are following an agenda which is politically defensible and logically consistent. The right, in contrast, is following a regressive agenda which is fully opposed to the good of most people and must therefore rely on misdirection and appeal to the baser impulses in order to gather electoral support. Thus a lot of right-wing argument is either deliberately deceptive or muddled and confused, depending on whether the individual in question is a dupe or a would-be oligarch. There are, of course, exceptions, but I think that’s broadly correct, and I think it’s fundamental to any consideration of US politics, particularly for progressives wondering
what the sweet holy fuck to do about Smirky the killer clown and his handlers, minions and stooges how to recover from recent setbacks.
This view is not especially new, but Wilson goes one very useful step further and boils the progressive agenda down to two key principles:
(P-1) That the interests of the many should not be sacrificed to sustaining and increasing the wealth and the power of the wealthy and powerful few.
(P-2) That unsound ideology, provincial prejudices, and antiquated religious doctrines should not be enshrined, encouraged, or used to guide public policy.
and argues that the majority of progressive policies derive from these central principles. Again, I think she’s right; see the linked post for examples. The right-wing agenda, then, can be summarized as opposition to the progressive one:
(R-1): That the wealth and the power of the wealthy and powerful few should be sustained and increased, even if this means (as it frequently does) sacrificing the interests of the many.
(R-2): That it is acceptable, and even encouraged, that (since the many are generally not on board with policies that explicitly involve sacrificing their interests in service of the goal expressed in R-1) various ideologies of unsound factual and theoretical basis be forwarded, and various provincial prejudices and antiquated religious doctrines be encouraged (by way of distraction) and enshrined (by way of “payback” for votes), as a basis for public policy.
Positing (R1), a moment’s reflection provides a host of examples for (R-2). Just off the top of my head: trickle-down economics, free market worship, antipathy to science, the current invented-out-of-whole-cloth social security “crisis”, appeals to homophobia (this year’s anti-gay marriage ballots, Bush’s proposal to enshrine homophobia directly in the Constitution), racism and xenophobia (“Kerry looks French!”) and anti-intellectualism (Dubya’s whole persona), and pandering to the religious right (on stem cells, abortion, sex education).
I have just one quibble: I’d delete the word “antiquated” because I don’t think it’s doing any useful work there (separation of church and state applies to any doctrine, regardless of pedigree) and because in that context it smacks of knee-jerk anti-religionism (something I’m sensitive to because I’m prone to it myself). Otherwise, I think this is a valid and powerful framework within which to analyse right-wing politics. Wilson even provides a worked example to illustrate the method.
Finally, following also from George Lakoff’s arguments about framing, all of the above got me to thinking: let’s have an accurate term for our opponents. I’m not necessarily opposed to conservative or Republican aims per se, and “right-wing” invites the use of “left-wing” which, thanks to the mighty Wurlitzer, has become a slur. My aims are progressive, so my opponents are Regressives. Anyone whose politics reduce to (R-1)+(R-2) above is following a regressive agenda. Even if “regressive” doesn’t stick (and it probably won’t, being clumsier to my ear than “right-wing”), I think it useful to get away from the sullied “leftist” and promote the much more slur-resistant “progressive”.