On tiktok and twitter, I’m seeing the hashtag #leftist trending for the first time in my life. People are coming out of the woodwork showing off their leftist pride. So what does it mean to be a leftist? Do you want to know if you might be a leftist?
Sometimes people try to overcomplicate this question, but I’m a simple guy when it comes these ideas. So in this post I want to describe what it means to be a leftist in simple general terms. There are lots of nuanced ways to be a leftist, but they are all united by a single big idea: equality.
To start, lets break down the first sentence of the wikipedia article on leftism (aka left-wing politics).
Left-wing politics supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in critique of social hierarchy.
The first part of this sentence says that leftists support social equality and egalitarianism. These are two words that both mean that all people are fundamentally equal in our social worth. This can take a lot of forms, but normally it means that all people in a society should have equal rights and equal access to the most important things in society, like a right to vote, a right to clean water, a right to fair employment, and the right to be served by businesses regardless of your race, religion, gender identity or anything else.
The ideas of leftism stand in contrast to more traditional notions of a natural social hierarchy. To be a leftist means you oppose rigid social structures that preclude certain people from having access to certain basic rights.
When stated this way, most people tend to agree that leftist principles are really good for society. So why isn’t everybody a leftist? There are generally two reasons that some people offer to oppose leftist ideas:
They believe that a certain amount of hierarchy is good for society.
They believe that we have already achieved the proper level of equality.
Now, I can’t tell you whether you should believe either of those ideas, but I can tell you that for me, believing some people deserve more than others feels fundamentally wrong. This is a personal intution I have that tells me that no one should have to suffer more than anyone else, and no one should have access to a lot more than anybody else. Looking at our society, I feel that we are still far away from a fair amount of equality, particularly when we look at the distribution of power in our society.
What is equality without equal power?
One of the most complicated challenges of leftism is to try to explain what it means for people to be treated equally. Many people wonder just how “equal” the world would be under leftism. As an individual, you will need to define for yourself just how much equality you want to see in the world. But for me, I think that equality is only meaningful once everyone has equal decision-making power.
What do I mean by equal decision making power? One might think that living in a democracy automatically satisfies equal decision-making power, but there are a few reasons why that isn’t quite enough. For starters, in a representative democracy like the United States, the way local, state and federal regulations tie together, along with the discrepancy in representation due to the electoral college means that the value of a vote is not equal depending on who you are. Also, many people who live in our country are not allowed to participate in our democracy for many arbitrary reasons.
But even if those legal details of representative governance were fixed, we know that in practice, the systems in our country are fundamentally opposed to equal power for all those in our society. For starters, we’ve all learned this past year that certain groups in our society, like African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans, still don’t have truly equal worth in the eyes of our criminal justice system. And our healthcare and employement systems still exhibit these unfair distributions of power that disadvantage women and gender non-conforming people too. Part of being a leftist is acknowledging that social hierarchies that allow these injustices are still imposed by our systems in this country, and that it is imperative to combat racism, sexism, and all kinds of discrimination everywhere we see them.
Finally, our economic system is another a major part of our lives where power is very unequally distributed. This is one of the big problem that leftism seeks to address today: that people with outsized economic assets (aka lots of money) have uneven power in our society. You can see this in a number of ways if you pay attention. As a small scale example, if you live in an apartment, who decides how many windows are in your building or whether your building is properly insulated or the color of the outside? Not you, the person living there, but the person or organization with enough money to buy the apartment building. For another example, even though electric cars have existed since the 19th century, you and I probably couldn’t buy one until recently simply because for a long time very, wealthy investors decided to invest in conventional cars instead of electric. Or for one more example, many people would love to start careers that restore the environment and protect people, but because they don’t have the means to finance their own work, they must work for a wealthy individual or corporation who is looking for employees, often at large companies like Amazon, Uber, or Walmart.
In other words, some people have very wide choices about what they can do, while others are only allowed to choose from a very narrow list of options. This is a highly corrosive form of inequality, that leftists today are trying to figure out how to dismantle.
So where to go from here?
If you think that imbalances in power should be alleviated, you might want to consider yourself a leftist. If so, that’s great! And if you’re not there, that is cool too. Part of leftism is acknowledging your autonomy to make these kinds of decisions for yourself as an informed member of society. Importantly, even if you think full out leftism is too much, just remember that here at The Leftwardist, just by thinking that the world should become even any one little bit more equal, you can always consider yourself a leftwardist.