Leftist pluralism is different

David Kaib has a friendly response to a post I wrote a few days ago on problems with crafting a successful left moral and political narrative. Boiled down, my point is that the left is awash in dozens and dozens of moral and political frameworks, and that makes it much harder to succeed. Conservatives do not face as much of a problem because they have less ideological diversity, or at minimum have less prominent ideological diversity: in public, they are generally on the same page.

Kaib has two main responses. First, conservatives do actually have a significant amount of pluralism. So I am wrong to say that the left faces any unique challenge due to pluralism that the right doesn’t also face. Kaib gives four examples of conservative diversity: 1) social conservatives, 2) markets-as-freedom conservatives, 3) markets-as-efficiency (markets-as-utility?) conservatives, and 4) neoconservatives. While it is true that there are different kinds of conservatives, for the most part, their diversity is not across the same topic.

Roughly speaking — and as Kaib reflects in his list — you have three kinds of conservatives: 1) social conservatives and traditionalists, 2) nationalists and militarists, and 3) economic conservatives. The coalition of these three does not create internal tensions. You can simultaneously keep down gays, carry out perpetual warfare, and cut taxes, budgets, and regulations. These are different topics, and as long as a particular conservative prioritizes one of them as the most important, the fact that they might not like a policy in another topic wont matter.

The story is a little different on the left. You certainly have the same kind of break down: 1) identitarian leftists, 2) peace leftists, and 3) economic leftists. And these are generally compatible with one another (although identitarians sometimes imagine themselves as having a political theory of everything, and when they try to encroach on the other two, it can create conflicts). However, the category of economic leftists is very diverse.

The majoritarian tendency on the left (assuming you include moderate left-liberals into the mix) is that economic justice is about equal opportunity and desert. They only support policies insofar as they improve equal opportunity. It is not about making poor people not poor and certainly not about eradicating the market; rather, it is about leveling the playing field to create a truer meritocracy. This is how the otherwise odious Education Reform Movement has been able to gain currency among a substantial number of left-liberals. After the opportunity types, you have the distributive justice (more equal distribution) and decommodification (less market-based institutions) types. The point is that this intra-topic diversity is more intense, I think, than the right-wing. And that’s the pluralism I think presents such a problem for creating a unified narrative.

Kaib’s second point is that this intra-topic diversity (specifically around economic frameworks) is actually not diversity on a more basic level. There are different frameworks here sure, but these are frameworks built on top of more fundamental agreement about values like freedom and equality. I disagree. The fundamental values of each of these three economic frameworks are different. The equal opportunity people believe fundamentally in a sort of meritocracy, the distributive justice people in welfarism of one kind or another, and the decommodification people in a certain notion of community as central to well-being.

But even if I am wrong, and these things can be reduced further into some ideas about freedom or equality, it doesn’t matter. It would still mean that there are very divergent ideas of what freedom and equality actually means inside the left itself. And that will make narrative-building just as difficult.