Note: my opinions on "left" and "right" are based primarily on my interpretation of their origins. However, I realize this is an issue which many people have strong disagreements over and that's OK. Hell, you could define government controlled economies as right wing, as far as I'm concerned. What follows is my interpretation of the definition of "wingedness", if you will. If you object to my characterization of Democrats as right wing, do so in the context of my definition. If you just attack the definition, it quickly becomes a pointless argument which no one can ever win since so many disagree.
Someone asked me online in to justify my assertion that the US Democrats are pretty far to the right and I thought that was a pretty fair question. To understand it, though, requires understanding that the world is round. Their are other countries besides the US and in terms of simply US politics, the Democrats are definitely "left wing". Of course, Angelina Jolie (thank god Google Images "safe search" was off for that one!) is fat if all I have to compare her to is Twiggy. Sure, some people can point to the US Communist, Socialist, and Green parties as examples of more left-wing movements in America, but few vote for them and probably fewer even know what they really stand for. So for most Americans, all they really have to compare are Democrats and Republicans (with the odd Libertarian in there to stir the pot).
So let's take a look at what being left-wing is all about. First, we have to make it clear that it's generally used in too broad a context. You can loosely break left-wing down into two categories: authoritarian and economic tendencies. The term "left wing" derives from the fact that traditionally liberal French politicians sat to the left of the French president's chair in the late 1700s. Nobles and tended to sit on the right. Nobles and clergy also wanted more central control over the populace but they wanted their mercantile activities unfettered. They were also exempt from personal income taxes. No trade unions or minimum wages for them! Up with business, down with people, if you will. While people argue over the precise meaning today, I'll stick wth the traditional origins. Interestingly, this view of "left wing" and "right wing" (which I admit that not all share) means that the Libertarians are not an extreme right wing party like many feel. Instead, they are "right wing" on economic issues and "left wing" on social issues. (I generally agree on the latter but I'm moderate on the former.)
For authoritarian tendencies, perhaps the most famous central government was the former Soviet Union. The government controlled what you could say, what you could read, where you could go, where you could work, etc. In terms of authoritarian tendencies, the USSR was very right wing. However, in terms of economic tendencies, they had very strong central planning. This was a natural extension of their desire to exert authoritarian control and, paradoxically, central economic planning is considered very left wing because historically, the right wing French nobles wanted the government to stay out of their business. As a result, the terms "left wing" and "right wing" seem rather muddled in the minds of many. So being "left wing", historically, is to favor greater central control over business and lesser central control over people.
So how does that apply to the US? Regarding authoritarian tendencies, at first the Republicans seem fairly reasonable when they talk about "state's rights". Because we're generally free to pick up and move where we will in the US (obviously, there are often significant economic and social constraints there), the idea of state's rights seems good because each state can pick and choose how they want to run things and people can vote with their feet if the Diebold voting machine doesn't seem to help out. However, there's an interesting problem here. Want to lower your drinking age below 21? The Feds will take away your federal highway funds. Want to legalize marijuana? The Feds will come in and step on your forehead. Want to allow assisted suicide? The Feds will threaten to yank medical licenses and bring out the lawyers. Want to allow gay marriage? They're trying to outlaw that, too.
To many people, these are moral issues. When you want to allow people to decide for themselves what is and is not moral, suddenly, the Federal government is keen to exercise central control. And by "Feds", in this specific case, I mean Republicans. They're not so keen on state's rights if it offends their sense of morality. This desire for central control over the populace is historically very right wing. Ironically, many conservatives feel that the government has no right (ha!) to legislate these issues, so they tend to be further to the left than mainstream Republicans. However, the Christian Right has a strong influence over much of Republican politics, so many conservative Republicans who feel people should be allowed to make up their own minds have been marginalized. If they hadn't, my voting record would be far more balanced.
Unfortunately, as I'm sure many of you have noticed, the Democrats aren't terribly keen on showing a spine when it comes to moral issues, so when it comes to this form of right-wing central control, many say nothing or they outright support it. Thus, on authoritarian issues, many Democrats lean to the right (and notice I've not even brought up the issue of their support for the Patriot Acts). Mind you, on such "moral" issues, many countries in the world are right wing though there are notable exceptions such as Spain and the Netherlands.
As for economic issues, Republicans are traditionally viewed as favoring small government and less government interference in business. Businesses should be allowed to operate relatively unfettered by rules and regulations. Without discussing the relative merits of this position, I'll just point out that many who have left-wing economic tendencies favor ideas such as longer vacation hours, stronger unions, higher minimum wages, public regulation of public goods and even federal work programs and sometimes federal subsidies of business. It's a mixed bag and gets awfully confusing at times, but let's face it, the Republican party today is generally staunchly opposed to these (though most politicians of all stripes cheerfully support Federal business subsidies so they can brag to constituents about how good they are at bringing home the pork).
As for Democrats, they do struggle with some of these, but they don't try very hard. Union membership in the US is very low compared to many other countries. In much of Europe, yearly four-week government mandated vacations are the norm. I don't expect to see many Democrats standing up for that. There's been rampant deregulation in the US since the late 70s and the Democrats haven't tried very hard to stop that, either (anyone remember how successful deregulation was for the Savings and Loan industry -- or which of the Bush family was heavily involved in that mess?). Real wages in terms of purchasing power have dropped dramatically. In fact, the New York Times reports:
As a result [of median hourly wage for American workers dropping], wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as "the golden era of profitability".
"Lowest share of the nation's gross domestic product" loosely means "you have to work longer hours for the same benefit". The Democrats aren't doing too much about this, either, while the Republicans are crowing about how well businesses are doing. (Hmm, aren't most business comprised of people? Won't people still be here if big corporations go away? Which should be a priority? I report -- you decide.)
Now all you have to do is conduct a brief survey of how other countries in the world are handling issues like this and you'll see that while central control over the populace seems to be widely varying -- we do better than some, worse than others -- central control over the economy is an area where both Republicans and Democrats are extremely right wing. Where are your four-week vacations? Where is your guaranteed medical care? Where are your trade unions? What's your government doing to curb corporate pollution?
To be fair, you can pull out a bunch of countries to dispute anything I mention here. However, it's not fair to compare us to Rwanda or Somalia. Trying to compare a mature, stable country with an immature stable country is simply a straw man. But when you compare us to, say, many European nations -- nations which have both stable economies and governments -- we lag far behind in many ways. (This is the point where people will happily drag out isolated bits of information to "prove" me wrong rather than looking at the overall situation).
So in absolute terms, going by the origins of the term "left wing", Democrats aren't very left wing. In relative terms, so long as that relation is to many countries with both stable governments and economies, the Democrats still aren't very left wing. However, the situation still isn't that cut and dried.
In the US, the media still has great freedom to print whatever they will. However, in this area of greater and greater media concentration, many news outlets appear to be driven more by profits than the public interest. Anyone else remember when radio and TV stations were legally required to offer news and present balanced viewpoints? That disappeared with the 1987 elimination of the Fairness Doctrine. (Rush Limbaugh, of course, felt that those who supported the Fairness Doctrine were part of a conspiracy to "Hush Rush".) This, combined with media concentration, has allowed "news" channels like Fox News to dominate the airwaves. The Federal government, by exercising less control over the public good of the airwaves, has, without mandating it, allowed mega-corporations to decide much of what we see and here. This is not official censorship, but it does change the quality of the news in a way that many don't feel comfortable with.
In terms of personal freedom from government coercion, it's a mixed bag. We're no longer thrown in jail for sympathizing with Communists and, to be completely fair to the current administration, they don't throw you in jail for sympathizing with terrorists -- they just listen in on your phone calls and tell you that you can't board airplanes. However, while we're usually not thrown in jail for engaging in homosexual acts (is that still a possibility somewhere?), the government is still denying many gay people the basic rights that straight people have. I could cite many similar examples, but it does seem that for every inch we gain, authoritarian control tries to gain an inch somewhere else. However, on the issue of personal freedom, we've definitely been winning the last few decades, but the last few years have seen that drag to a halt and even a reversal in some ways. In left wing economic terms, though, we've skewed far to the right of where we were.
There's a hell of a lot more I could write and I know many things presented above are incomplete, it gives you a good start on why I feel the US Democrats are pretty far to the right (especially in terms of what I've experienced over here in Europe). Business reigns supreme in US politics, we still have no right to basic medical care, individual wages are falling and there are far fewer protections in place for US worker than for other mature economies (though we do a hell of a lot better than immature ones, but that's comparing apples to oranges). Until the Democrats find their voice and admit that silence is approval, they will remain firmly in the right wing of world politics despite appearing to be the left wing of US politics.
And just to hammer the point, home, take a look at Bill Clinton.
- He supported NAFTA
- He supported "don't ask/don't tell"
- He supported the "Defense of Marriage" act.
- He supported dismantling much of the Federal Welfare system
- Allowed drilling for oil on Federal lands.
- Allowed the timber industry to clear-cut some old-growth forests.
- In 1997, he signed a budget which slashed billions from Medicare and Medicaid.
- He slashed government spending.
- His "reinventing OSHA" plan meant that OSHA did far fewer business inspections.
- In 1999, he supported deregulation of much of the US banking system.
- He worked with Gingrich to support deregulation of the energy industry
Those are a small sampling of his activities and many of those those actions (and I support more than one of them -- though the context of them is often convoluted, so be wary of what I say) are ones which many right wing Republicans would be proud to have on their resume. And let's face it, if Clinton could run for a third term, he'd probably win, though why the Republicans hated him, I'm at a loss.
So that's enough for one evening. You can decide for yourselves how "left wing" the Democrats are.