The Limits of Our Left/Right Political Continuum

This weekend as progressives were reacting to Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate, here is what I tweeted:

I have always been fascinated by how people are placed on that linear continuum. For example, it is pretty much established conventional wisdom that Bernie Sanders would be placed to left of Tim Kaine. In some ways, that would would be an accurate assessment. But it is based on what you prioritize in terms of issues. If your primary concern is punishing Wall Street or enacting single payer health care, then Sanders is to the left of Kaine. However…if your priority issues are related to gun control, immigration or civil rights, then Kaine is actually to the left of Sanders. In explaining Kaine’s progressive credentials, Paul Waldman writes this:

He was one of the first Virginia Democrats to turn his back on the way members of his party had traditionally campaigned in the state (bending over backwards to show conservative white voters that they were good ol’ boys); instead, Kaine won races for lieutenant governor, governor, and senator by putting together earlier versions of the Obama coalition, based on African Americans, immigrant groups, and white liberals. He has an unquestioned lifelong commitment to civil rights, and he ran as an opponent of the death penalty and an advocate of gun control, which took no small measure of courage in the capital of the Confederacy.

When it comes to the gun control issue specifically, Krystal Ball described Kaine’s record in Virginia this way:

Here’s how his elections in Virginia typically go: the NRA gives him an F rating, fear mongers about how he’s going to take everyone’s guns, spends massively against him, and then Tim goes on to win anyway. Keep in mind, the NRA is literally headquartered in Virginia. If they are powerful anywhere they are powerful in the Old Dominion but that didn’t stop Kaine from signing an executive order following the Virginia Tech massacre to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. It also didn’t stop him from pushing additional gun control measures as governor like eliminating the gun show loophole and it hasn’t stopped him as Senator from continuing to lead the charge for sensible rules like increased background checks. As someone who ran for Congress, in Virginia, I can tell you that perhaps the definition of political courage for a Southern Dem is willingness to buck the gun lobby. Tim Kaine has been unflinching.

That is in contrast to Bernie Sanders’ willingness to accommodate the rural gun-owning electorate of Vermont. By those standards, Kaine is pretty far to the left of Sanders.

On the other hand, I don’t know that Kaine has ever voiced support for single payer as the vehicle for universal healthcare, so Sanders would be to the left of Kaine on that one.

In the end, for me, these designations of placing individuals on a linear continuum as a way to generalize their positions is extremely unhelpful, and in some cases, a tool to be misused. I’d much rather talk about a candidate’s actual history and where they stand on individual issues right now.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.