Written by Arthur Floyd
I’d imagine that you think those two terms are synonymous.
They’re pretty similar, and people often use them interchangeably, but there are a lot of key differences between the two that may yield a better understanding of today’s political landscape.
The political spectrum, with the Republicans on the “right” and the Democrats on the “left,” attempts to identify which ideologies and opinions respective groups fall into. The liberals/Democrats/leftists have one traditional set of convictions, and the conservatives/Republicans/right wingers have another. I’m not going to identify or explain what those schools of thought are, since you’re already aware of the general beliefs that fall into those two categories.
I will say this, though. The aforementioned spectrum doesn’t do a very good job of existing as such; in recent years it’s seemed like the political landscape is binary, with just two options. The most famous media outlets portray it that way, which I’d say is due in part to the increased division we’ve seen in this abnormal era of Donald Trump, COVID-19, and social media addiction. And, at the very end of the day, we do of course have a two-party system.
American politics has existed this way forever, where both parties should theoretically work hard to make the country a better place. We all know, of course, that that’s not how the game is played, and it’s really about seizing as much power as possible and demeaning your opponents so as to promote your sense of morality upon the other. As such, if somebody wants to prudently pick the team that they want to cheer for, they must dig deep and closely examine the principles and motivations that each side promotes to their respective allegiances.
This is where the problem starts to rear its ugly head. Because in order to do that, you first need to know what those aforementioned values are in the first place. I will indeed admit that both sides, at times, fall victim to hypocrisy and aren’t nearly as ideologically consistent as you would think. For this discussion I will hone in on the values propagated by the Democratic Party, for two main reasons.
First off, we currently have a President who’s a Democrat, so it’s timely.
Second, I find myself at the center of this inquiry. I consider myself to be a liberal and have for most of my life associated with the Democratic Party. Most of my family does, too, and I’m from a very small, liberal town on the East Coast—the type of place where highly educated white folks fight with each other on Facebook about whether or not the town should subsidize affordable housing.
Most importantly, though, is the undeniable fact that, over the course of the last decade or so, there’s been a massive influx of leftist beliefs that have taken center stage in our policies. The policies themselves do bother me, but what’s more important is a) the absolute insistence that they are morally superior to the alternatives and b) the common tendency to promote them under the guise of “liberalism.”
That right there is where the problem lies. Because I am a classic liberal (or at least I think I am) like so many others, but yet nine times out of ten when the Biden administration or a Democratic mayor says or does something publicly, I find myself scratching my head, wishing for a better choice. It makes you feel like you’re having an identity crisis, that you’re not who you think you are, and that you’re a back-stabber to your own party.
These feelings have been stirring for years, in the hearts and minds of Democrats everywhere, but you’re not allowed to say it. You’re not allowed to mention the fact that during COVID-19 we were told that we needed to take a vaccine, even though we all know relatively healthy friends and family who did what they were told but still got very, very sick, for example. You’re not allowed to say that, of course, because then you risk being labeled a “right-wing conspiracy theorist” or someone who spreads “misinformation.” You risk being labeled as a traitor.
I’m here to tell you that you’re not the traitor in this situation; they are.
Because liberalism is about protecting free speech. Leftism is about banning people on Twitter who disagree with you though political force.
Liberalism is about living in a color-blind society, where race is pulled out of the equation and everybody is judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. (Sound familiar?) Leftism is about only seeing race, shoving it into every situation possible, and omitting the perspective that at the end of the day we still walk the same Earth and are cut from the same cloth.
Liberalism is about bodily autonomy, and giving people the right to choose what they want to do with their body. Leftism is about mandating vaccines, often without the proper vetting systems that truly ensure their safety.
Liberalism is about providing asylum to people around the world who need it, people who truly need it, by giving them access to our esteemed institutions and the opportunity to pursue freedom. Leftism is about having an open border, justifying it by claiming that critics have no sympathy for immigrants, despite the fact that such policies are overrunning our cities and, most importantly, thousands and thousands of children go missing each year in this country when they cross our border.
Liberalism is about having the guts to stand up for what you think is right, and being brave in the face of stark opposition and the terrifying threat of personal and reputational loss. Leftism is about blindly pledging allegiance to an increasingly outdated set of principles that does more good for each follower’s ego and moral sense of self than it ever will for the people that it pretends to care about.
I just rattled off many of the “distinct differences” I mentioned in the title, but it’s equally important to try to understand why these differences are so stark.
The following paragraphs will do some generalizing, which I apologize for, but they showcase three main points that are very characteristic of leftism. If I’m going to sit here and spend so much time discussing the differences it has with liberalism, I should do so both in the context of a) specific policies (as seen above) but also b) general markers that can help you identify leftism in the public and social realm. I’ll start with the two most easy to see, before identifying a few smaller points that will lead us to why many of these differences exist.
There are two very common aspects of the left’s mindset that are pretty easy to sniff out.
First and foremost, folks on the left seem to hate America. Like they truly despise the very country in which they live. The one that they’re from. The one that they choose to live in.
This to me might actually be the most identifiable distinction of the group. Saying something as simple as, whatever, “I love my country,” or something absolutely shocking like that, will immediately get thrown back in your face with accusations that you’re somehow a “Make America Great Again” believer or you’re ignorant to the knowledge of this nation’s present and past wrongdoings. This is a problem for many reasons, ranging from the terrifying thought that none of our country’s young people who align themselves with this ideology (almost all of us) would volunteer themselves for active duty in the case of war, to the more umbrella principle that raising a nation’s children to loathe their own country might not be such a great idea. In recent years you weren’t even able to stand during the National Anthem without being grouped in with the aforementioned right-wingers.
So if disliking America is the number one most visible characteristic of leftism (or at least, disproportionately highlighting all the things we do/have done that are wrong), I’d say that living in and focusing on the past is probably characteristic number two.
This point stems from the former, and, as you can probably figure out, the two often go hand in hand.
I’m not going to elaborate on this point too much, because it’s hard to quantify, I’ll call it, “the propensity for the left to play up America’s faults and misconducts”, but I will say that it does appear to me that the left loves nothing more than going back into the past to pull out some awful thing a bunch of dead people did back way back when.
Now, I’m obviously not saying that we shouldn’t teach the terrible parts of America’s history because, well, of course we should. When I was growing up, going through the public school system in a liberal area, we were taught extensively about the slavery, racism, and sexism that riddles our past. Teaching and being conscious of what we’ve done poorly in the past and cherishing the myriad things that we have done well are not mutually exclusive. And there’s a balance in there that’s appropriate. It’s really hard to say exactly where that line is, but to me, it’s far too skewed to one side as we currently stand. I’m not going to add an example, for fear of accidentally linking myself with a group that’s detestable, but you get the idea.
Now, of course, that tendency to live in the past matters not just in the circumstance of our schools and what we teach to children. I just honed in on that context because that to me is the most important part of the issue: making sure that our children receive a historical education that balances the good and the bad, the remarkable and the deplorable.
The third concept, stemming from the aforementioned two, is one that exists mostly in the performative foreground of leftism. You see a lot of it on social media, and it breathes the most air through the younger generations, the one that I’m a part of. I heard it from comedian Bill Maher and immediately noticed how common a mindset it is.
The concept is this.
The worse you say things are, the better a person you are.
Wearing one mask makes you a good person. But wearing two? That makes you a really good person.
Being aware of and supporting further efforts for racial equality? That makes you a good person, certainly. But constantly living in the past and demanding that America is inherently and systematically racist with no admission of forward progress despite glaring evidence to the contrary? That makes you a really good person, obviously.
Putting something on your Instagram that identifies and wishes to fight back against some perceived inequality or transgression against a particular minority group? Fine, we’ll say that that makes you a good person. But patronizing your followers by constantly bombarding them with a random story here and another there even though nine times out of ten the person behind the screen doesn’t even belong to the group in question and they’re clearing doing it because it makes them feel good and so they can assert themselves as the moral authority in this fake world of social media that we all care so much about?
There’s a moral pedestal that they stand on, and they stand up on it and look down at the rest of us like we’re so morally ignorant that we too can’t ever form an opinion or make a choice based on what we think is right.
There’s a perpetual, baseless insistence that whichever candidate, movement, or ideology they’re supporting is the “right” one, and any and all other options are utterly and entirely unacceptable due to a lack of goodness and virtue.
Cancel culture may have started as a means of protecting society from wrongdoers that pose a significant threat by way of their being famous or existing in a position of power, but one can argue that it turned into something else (particularly in instances where the offense in question doesn’t necessarily deem canceling). By putting someone down and admonishing them for being bad, the left in essence gets to build themselves up and indirectly assert that they themselves are good.
Rarely do they derive an opinion from logic or reason. Almost always their choices center around their binary view of morality; “it’s my way or the highway”, they say. I’m a good person, you’re a bad person, and that’s that.
Leftists believe what they do because it makes them feel good about themselves. They take the moral high ground, and they sit there. And they look down at the rest of us, and they accuse us of being “right-wingers” or “Trumpers” or “conspiracy theorists” or “spreaders of misinformation”.
Or, they might come after you. I hate to bring him up, but Donald Trump winning the 2016 election speaks volumes for this issue. No one admitted beforehand that they wanted to vote for the guy; there’s a reason all the polls leading up to the election had Hillary winning in a landslide. Those folks simply couldn’t say that they were planning to vote for him. I heard once from someone on the left that that was because they were too embarrassed to admit it. That might be true, in part, but I think it’s mostly because they couldn’t admit it… particularly in a world where we’re all a) uncomfortably connected with each other through social media and b) subject to falling victim to Cancel Culture at any time. Because if you did admit that you wanted to vote for Donald Trump, you risked your entire personal reputation. And if you risk your entire personal reputation, you risk losing your job. And if you risk losing your job, you risk not being able to put food on the table. You risk not being able to send your children to college.
That right there is terrifying.
And don’t even get me started on all the doctors that got canceled or lost their licenses during the COVID-19 epidemic because they had opinions that differed from the norm (I urge you to look up the Great Barrington Declaration.)
As is obvious, I find the aforementioned propensities to be incredibly frustrating. And, of course, though I focused intensely on what the left does, I am also obviously implying that liberals do not do those things.
But if I may digress from the philosophical and appeal more to real life application, the left’s constant assertions of moral purity make it such that it’s increasingly difficult to consider myself to be a Democrat at all.
When I think of the Democratic Party, and by association, liberalism, what first comes to mind is free speech, being skeptical of big business, protecting the middle class, a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body, fighting for minority representation, etc. Some of those values have been under attack, however, by the very people that pretend to assert them.
Therein lies a relationship between leftism and liberalism. Like I said at the very beginning, so many people think that they are the same thing. They’re used synonymously all the time, and I certainly don’t blame people for that forgone conclusion. But I think I’ve sniffed out what that relationship exactly is.
It appears to me that the central relationship between leftism and liberalism is that the former uses the latter as a metaphorical shield.
They take that phrase, “liberal,” and apply it to themselves in order to associate with a movement and ideology that a) forms as the foundation of their chosen political party, b) has a long, storied history of doing good in the world, and c) allows them to hide from people like me who attack them for promoting contradicting values.
Like I said, banning people from social media sites doesn’t seem to align with the concept of free speech, does it?
Honing in on the free speech part here isn’t arbitrary; what might be the most important and consequential distinction between liberalism and leftism sits squarely in the pages upon which the First Amendment was written.
Because I mentioned just a few paragraphs ago that liberalism is about protecting the minority voice and making sure that it receives the representation that it deserves. That applies to racial and ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, the disabled- any and all minority groups fall under that umbrella. Because if you zoom out on the word “minority” and look at it from the most pure perspective, it really means, well, just that.
If seventy percent of people believe in X and thirty percent of people believe in Y, then the former group is the majority and the latter is the minority.
Obviously, yes, often when we talk about “minorities” we’re referring to the groups above. But I want to focus on the version of the term that I just brought up. The seventy percent and the thirty percent. Or maybe, more critically, the eighty percent and the twenty, or the ninety and the ten, etc.
Because if liberalism is about protecting free speech, and leftism is about banning people on Twitter who disagree with you, then very clearly the left doesn’t do a good job of protecting the minority voice at all.
Well, actually, they do a good job of protecting it when it fits their agenda, of course. But only then.
Because when a handful of doctors say that they’re not sure everyone needs to take the COVID-19 vaccine, they don’t do a good job of protecting minorities then. Or when folks aren’t sure that dumping billions of dollars into Ukraine while we have starving Americans here in our own country is such a great idea, they don’t do a good job of protecting minorities then. Or when a small percentage of registered Democrats aren’t sure that they want to vote for President Biden for re-election next year, they don’t do a good job protecting minorities then. And we know why, because I just said so.
When leftists are confronted with ideas and voices they don’t agree with, they squash them, cancel them, and accuse them of being something they’re not. They run from them.
When liberals are confronted with ideas and voices that we don’t agree with, we run towards them. We cherish them and work to protect them.
That right there is the most distinct difference between liberalism and leftism.
Because the minority voice is the one that matters most. Peruse the pages of history and you’d be hard pressed to find a civil rights organization, feminist group, or human rights movement that didn’t start as a minority.
But it doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t matter whether the voice is foolish, ignorant, not helpful, or flat out wrong. Because it’s the majority that thinks that. The folks on the other side? They don’t view their ideas as such.
So to the folks on the left that are still reading this, I urge you to take a good, long look in the mirror and ask yourself this very simple question: am I a leftist, or am I a liberal?
And if your answer is the former, then I’ll leave you with this: keep doing you, because you are the minority.
And like I said, no one loves protecting the minority voice more than a liberal.