Left of Liberal: Revitalizing Politics At Swarthmore

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The past year has seen world-historical events around the globe, as well as within the United States. The Arab Spring –which thus far has culminated in regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, and ongoing resistance movements in Bahrain and Syria– has reinvigorated the spirit of participatory democracy. Protest movements in Russia, China and India now promise to leave their mark on the political arrangements of those societies. In the United States, thirty years of rising income inequality and the unabated suffering induced by the Great Recession have manifested in Occupy Wall Street. The movement, which comes on the heels of labor activism that swept the Midwest in March, represents the first sign of real left populism since the mass strikes of 1934 that helped birth the New Deal.

Many Swarthmore students are engaged, and often participate, in the events of these exciting times. Yet the campus lacks a coherent forum for robust debate on pressing issues. Campus politics seems to break down into two groups: a large chunk of apathetic liberals, and a small strand of radical left politics unrepresentative of the broader community. In its unyielding idealism, epitomized by an indelible insistence on “revolution or nothing,” the latter contributes as little to nuanced debate as those merely interested in toeing the stale liberal line.

We believe there is much to be discussed and debated among Swarthmore’s liberal-left factions, and that the College’s impressive activist tradition is best served by the type of substantive dialogue we wish to start on these pages.

In this context, Left of Liberal seeks to offer a forum for lively debate on issues ranging from campus international politics. Crucially, we seek to offer a sorely missed left-liberal perspective. In this regard, we identify with the reformist wing of the Occupy movement, with its focus on revitalization of the egalitarian, socially mobile democracy of the prosperous early post-war period (this time without the segregation). We differ from radical critics insofar as we appreciate the long-term success of the capitalist project, and see reform in the social democratic spirit, not revolution, as the enterprise of our time. Similarly, we are less than satisfied with the parochial centrism of today’s Democratic Party, with its tepid and insufficient embrace of the post-war egalitarian order.

While our publication undoubtedly brings its own political orientation to the table, our ultimate purpose is to advance campus dialogue on pressing local, national and international questions. In this spirit, we welcome well-crafted criticisms of our views and will enthusiastically print critiques from other campus voices.

With this said, we welcome you to what we hope is the first of many issues. Please take off your boxing gloves and step into the debate parlor.


The Editors

Find Left of Liberal around campus or view it online at leftofliberal.tumblr.com.



  1. Maybe this is a quibble, but I’m troubled by your embrace of the post-war order–untroubled by anything more than a single parenthetical reference to segregation. There are lots of things championed by today’s Left–and even today’s Democratic Party–that were marginal in the post-war era: for instance, LGBT rights, modern feminism, racial justice (which is more comprehensive, of course, than ending de jure segregation), and anti-militarism. I support strong unions and higher marginal tax rates on high incomes as much as the next left-wing Democrat. 1950s nostalgia, however, both obscures the ways we are a more inclusive country and a more inclusive Left than we were then, and the ways even the economic policies of the post-war era were limited–for instance, in the absence of a universal health care program.

    I also think your portrayal of the radical left on this campus is a bit of a caricature, but I don’t think I’m the right person to advance that argument.

    • I agree with your assessment. Our intention in pointing to the post-war era was not to profess our allegiance to the past–the idea of returning to an era without affirmative action, gender equality, LGBT, etc. is absurd. Rather, we merely sought to contrast ourselves from some on the left, who see capitalism as irreparable. The post-war era stands as an example, in our minds, as capitalism optimized for mobility and individual self-actualization–that is why we embrace it. Whether the post-war era is in fact replicable and something to which we should aspire is a legitimate question, which we are happy to debate.

      • Thanks for your comment. I agree that liberals often forget the progress we’ve made in terms of social inclusion, and that this should be celebrated, albeit with an eye toward future progress.

        This said, I think it’s quite contextually clear from our reference to the post-war era concerns social mobility. This is a specific admirable quality of the post-war order that does not imply an embrace of that era’s social arrangements in its entirety. The parenthesis were a coy reference to the fact that we are very conscious of the post-war order’s shortcomings.

        I understand if this was not clear enough, but keep in mind that this is just a brief statement of purpose. If you pick up the actual journal (available in McCabe, Sharples, Kholberg, Science Center, etc), I think it will be quite apparent that we are concerned with racial justice, LGBT rights and feminism. I have personally spent significant time in the LGBT rights movement, and these are issues close to my heart. Thanks for reading, Sam.

  2. Your article mentions the two political groups at Swarthmore College as the “Apathetic Left” and the “Revolutionary Left”. Is there no right of center voice there or has it truly become The Kremlin on The Crum?

    • Left is an innovative left-Swarthmore College… I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. I will. Bread article scrap the two sound profit actually is, is the Kremlin’s political center.

  3. I know I’m always hashing this theme, but is anyone else concerned that the debate is reduced between various flavors of Left? How about the fact that Americans as a whole are 2x more likely to identify as “conservative” than “liberal”? Is the problem with America as a whole, or the fact that Swarthmore has no conservative professors or vocal libertarians? More truly diverse political voices please?

    • “Is the problem with America as a whole, or the fact that Swarthmore has no conservative professors or vocal libertarians?”

      1) America
      2) Keith Reeves

    • If you want more conservative political views, then why don’t you create your own publication / forum to discuss them?

      • Q, you miss the point completely. The reason why Fox News & MSNBC aren’t taken seriousy by the general public is because they only promote one side of the discussion and act as if there is no other side or it’s not worth talking about. When I heard the political groups at Swarthmore College described as the “Apathetic Left” and the “Revolutionary Left” I was just wondering if the same was happening at SC.

        • This comment, it seems to me, embodies a common confusion. It conflates political diversity with mirroring the political distribution of the country at large. But you can have many people with many different political views, allowing for enriching and productive political discussion, even if the political center of campus is decidedly to the left, such that there are very few conservatives. In fact, the two have nothing to do with one another.

    • “In this spirit, we welcome well-crafted criticisms of our views and will enthusiastically print critiques from other campus voices.”

      You should submit something, Danielle!

      I think we can both agree that people who don’t believe in democracy -Ronald Reagan comes to mind- have worked very hard to tarnish the word “liberal” by conflating it with socialism/communism, e.i., “card-carrying liberal.” When you move beyond labels and actually poll people on what type of public policy they like, it becomes very clear that this is a New Deal society. Examples: 67% want to end the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy (67%), 76% want to reduce defense spending, 61% want to end the Afghanistan War (59%), 67% want to increase education spending (67%), 76% don’t want Medicare cuts, 81% don’t want Social Security cuts, and by a 2:1 margin Americans think job creation is more important than deficit reduction.

      • Both sides can bring forth supporting evidence that people support their side of the issue because pollsters rarely ask about the trade-offs. Yes most people support taxing the rich to help close the deficit, but taxing the rich will not do nearly enough to close the deficit, there will still need to be increased taxes and/or spending reductions to close the gap.
        A lot has been made about the fact that most people support all the provisions in Obamacare except for the individual mandate, but that support goes down when asked about the potential consequences. http://reason.com/archives/2012/04/03/amercians-want-more-control-over-their-o
        As recently as 2009 Americans opposed abortion 51%-42%.
        Americans opposed raising the debt ceiling by a 2.5:1 ratio.
        71% of Americans believe most recipients on welfare are unqualified.
        In 2010, in the wake of the recession, 57% of Americans believed there was too much government regulation of business
        50% of Americans think their taxes are too high compared to 43% who think they are just right. How many Americans do you suppose are willing to accept the level of tax increases necessary to fund our current Medicare and Social Security obligations. I am not talking about asking a vague “would you accept tax increases to prevent cuts?” i mean giving people the specific dollar amount they would pay.
        We live in the most conservative (backward) advanced country in the world, and when push comes to shove and Americans are actually confronted honestly with the real trade-offs that we are facing today, I am not sure that they would be on the Democratic side because of our country’s anti-tax, limited government ideology (as compared to Europe).
        Moreover, public opinion is not always the best guide to public policy. All things being equal who wouldnt favor job creation over deficit reduction, or no TARP over TARP, or keeping the debt ceiling over raising, or raising taxes on the rich, or opposing Medicare and Social Security cuts. But each these decisions does have negative consequences, and I doubt the average American answering these polls is doing sophisticated cost benefit analyses before they answer these questions. Do you think we should not have raised the debt ceiling or let the financial system collapse because most Americans did not recognize the ramifications?
        Almost 20% of Americans believe the Sun revolves around the earth, a question that was resolved almost half a millennium ago. What should happen if that number got to 51%, should we change the textbooks and what we teach our children because that would be the democratic thing to do?
        Rather than believing that liberals represent public opinion, or trying to frame our arguments in a way that fits America’s existing conservative fantasies and ideologies, I think liberals would be better served admitting the situation and trying to promote reason, science and facts, and the social liberal brand and philosophy.

        • By “confronted honestly with the real tradeoffs we are facing” I meant the tradeoff specifically between taxes and spending, not between the tradeoff in the ramifications of those policies, because, as I liberal, I imagine most people would be happier with outcomes that sometimes require higher taxes.

    • Danielle:

      “In this spirit, we welcome well-crafted criticisms of our views and will enthusiastically print critiques from other campus voices.” – Sam/Lorand

      I’m if you provide the opinions or email either of the authors they’d be wiling to post/respond to them.

      I have one question that I’ve never really gleaned an answer from having read most all of your columns, posts, etc.. What *specifically* is the college’s responsibility regarding “conservatism” when it comes to providing a “rigorous education” (a term you use below)?

      Though I understand your concern that you find conservative viewpoints to be absent in discourse on campus, I think you might find there are more “conservative” mindsets at the school than you know of (or at least act as though you know of). From my interactions with some of them (whether as friends, hall-mates, classmates, etc.) these students may not market their conservative leanings loudly and proudly, but they are present nonetheless and I don’t think their decision not to write columns or always engage in debate is indication of a suppression of viewpoints.

      Now if you’re talking about the classroom, and feel that conservative points of view are absent when social issues are discussed we can start that discussion below, regardless I really would like clarification to that question above

  4. 1) Keith Reeves is a moderate/conservative Dem/smart enough professor to keep students on their toes.
    2) How can you be sure that you’re tuning out conservatives because they’re dumb or because you’re insular? William F. Buckley was a sharp guy….
    3) The Supreme Court meltdown last week is a good example of what happens when liberals dismiss conservatives as idiotic and then get beat by the other side’s logic.

    • The Supreme Court meltdown last week is a good example of what happens when liberals dismiss conservatives as idiotic and then get beat by the other side’s logic.

      No. That’s what happens when a succession of Republican presidents pack the court with conservative justices, many of whom have higher allegiances to politics than justice. Most qualified legal experts—yes, even the conservative ones— see this novel tea party reading of the constitution as invalid and superficial. The fact that the Supreme Court has treated it as a legitimate view is testament more to the court’s politicalization than the superiority of the right’s “logic.”

      • Sounds as if you, like B.O., are telling the Supreme Court how and when to do it’s job? I know your resume as a college student is impressive, but so are those of the Justices.

        • “I know your resume as a college student is impressive, but so are those of the Justices.”

          My resume would be far more impressive if I went to John Hopkins, I suppose.

    • I just wonder why the people most advantaged by today’s manifestly unjust society–rich folks, white folks, and men–also identify as conservative in the largest numbers, while more oppressed populations *tend* to identify as liberal.

      I’m interested in your answer to this question, Danielle. Because to me, it seems like strong evidence that ‘conservatism’ is an ideological vehicle for the entrenchment of power and perpetuation of exploitation. And people know it.

      • Oppressed people, or the “have-nots” tend to be liberal because it’s to their advantage to be liberal. Why do for yourself when a welfare state you don’t have to fund could do for you..it goes against common sense. Conservatives have no problem with the have-nots advancing themselves, they just don’t want it done at their expense. If I was a have-not I would absolutely be a liberal because I would want my government to tax the hell out of the haves and GIVE it to me. But, I am a “have” (relatively speaking), so I want government to leave me alone and I want the have-nots to understand that life is what you make it. Your successes are yours alone, so are your failures.

        • So, the fact that I can never take a unpaid internship because my parents can’t afford to support that…means that I’m not doing what I have to do to be successful?

          That’s my failure, it’s what I’ve made of it, and tough shit to me?

    • 1) Maybe in the context of the unspeakably corrupt DelCo Republican party he’s a Democrat, fine.

      2) I listen and absorb the arguments. I just happen to think they are stone cold fucking wrong, as well as being morally and intellectually bankrupt.

      3) You cannot possibly be pinning the Solicitor General’s horrific day on the failure of liberals to listen and respond to conservative critiques. The entire ACA was crafted in response to conservative critiques from the 90s and aughts. Somebody needs to read up on the history of the mandate. Four words: Heritage Foundation, Mitt Romney.

      • 1) Ruth Marcus, a liberal editorial writer who covers the Supreme Court for the Washington Post: Obama’s assault “stopped me cold . . . for the president to imply that the only explanation for a constitutional conclusion contrary to his own would be out-of-control conservative justices does the court a disservice.”

        2) There’s more to conservative ideas than Rick Santorum. Let’s occasionally engage them.

        3) I’m not a white male hoarding wealth. I’m just a college student trying to read up on both sides. I find it offensive that we’re deciding how people vote based on what they look like. Sure, some GOPers are Waspy old men, but then again, some Dems are paternalistic opportunists who take the minority vote for granted and assume a cycle of poverty.

        4) It be nice for some ideological diversity now and then. What we’ve got now, quibbling over the political identity of ONE moderate prof, is an insular campus body not living up to its promise of a rigorous education.

  5. I grew up in Swarthmore and lived most of my life here before graduating from Johns Hopkins in ’97. My childhood was blessed: I never had to work, went to private school and had my own car when I turned 16, you get the idea. I earned none of this, it was all given to me…so the liberal Swarthmore attitude kind of made sense to me. In fact, I embraced it, why wouldn’t I, it had GIVEN me everything I came to love. During college (which I didn’t have to pay for), I was the smartest guy in the world. I was coming into my own and would champion many causes and wave many banners. If there were whales that needed saving or trees that needed hugging I was there. I had all the answers, I thought this was the real world. Then I entered the REAL world. Up at 6am, home at 6pm. No summers off, it’s 49-50 weeks a year, 50 hours a week (and I have what most would consider a GOOD job). I don’t have a college sweetheart, I have a wife. I don’t have a pet goldfish, I have two daughters (and two dogs). I don’t share a dormroom with another “free thinker”, I have a mortgage and a fence that needs mending. I don’t have a bookstore flex account, I have 401K’s, ROTH IRA’s, 529 plans for the girls and a checking account that acts like a revolving door. My parents no longer send me money. I guess my point is that I used to be a Liberal, but then I grew up.

    • It seems dishonest to claim that hard work gets you everywhere you’ve been (the “bootstrap argument”, if you will) with a background as admittedly privileged as your own.

      Danielle, while engagement between conservative and liberal viewpoints would be great to see on campus, the fact of the matter is that the majority of students at Swarthmore identify as some flavor of liberal and I don’t think we can fault Sam and Lorand for trying to create a forum for more lively discussion.

    • “My childhood was blessed…I earned none of this, it was all given to me”

      You are absolutely right, kids do not deserve handouts. What do young children do to earn food and clothing? In the U.S., 5.5 million children under the age of five live in poverty and someone should teach them to stop being so lazy.

      The environment you grew up in (society) clearly afforded you a tremendous opportunity to succeed in life and it sounds like you have been able to take advantage of that opportunity.

      But, what about all the people who did not live such a privileged life? Do you truly believe that you’re that different from most adults who are struggling and on welfare, and that if they had grown up in your shoes, and you in theirs, that they still would have ended up struggling and you succeeding? I know some people genuinely do believe that, because of our obsession with the illusion of free will, but it almost certainly is not true. There are only two things that determine success in life, nature and the environment (which includes luck). The environment dictates the opportunities that will be available to you and the environment and nature combine to determine your work ethic and how successful you will be in capitalizing on those opportunities. The idea that “Your successes are yours alone, so are your failures” is completely contrary to reality; we all grow up dependent on others and as we grow up it only transitions to interdependence, never independence. No person in society is completely self-reliant. I realize it is very uncomfortable for successful people to entertain the possibility that they are not these intrinsically awesome people who deserve what they get, but that may not be truth.

      Speaking for myself, I do not want direct cash transfers from the rich to the poor. I think conservatives and liberals agree it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish. But conservatives only use that rhetoric to criticize welfare. If liberals ever walked up with a plan to eliminate welfare for able workers and replace it with living-wage job guarantees, job training, higher education funding, and other investments in human capital, etc. many conservatives would reject it immediately because they dont actually care about teaching a man to fish-they dont care about him period because many people on welfare are not considered a member of their in-group. So liberals are faced with either letting him starve or feeding him, so even though we’d prefer to teach him, conservatives won’t agree to that short-term expense for long term gain, and so the only humane option left is to feed him.

      Do you honestly think that the 20% of children in poverty today are being given a fair shot? Do you think the millions of adults in poverty, including the 10 million working poor, where given even close to the same opportunities as the upper middle and upper class when they were children? Do you think these environmental influences in childhood have no bearing on later life? If we could give these children a real opportunity in life, there would eventually be much less need for wealth transfers because welfare would mostly only be needed for people unable to work, and not for people who are unable to find work or people whose environment has turned them away from seeking work.

      No one wants to simply give someone a fish, so instead of the empty rhetoric about teaching people to fish that conservatives so readily employ, why not actually support programs that will teach them to fish. Shouldn’t everybody in society be entitled to the opportunity to succeed?

      I guess my point is in the REAL world, as opposed to libertarian fantasy land, no one is self-reliant, everyone relies on other people, so it makes sense to say that we all deserve help and have the responsibility to help when environments are undermining people’s opportunity to succeed. I used to attribute all my successes completely to myself, and to blame others for their failures, but then I grew up.

      “We call it a Society; and go about professing openly the totalest separation, isolation. Our life is not a mutual helpfulness; but rather, cloaked under due laws-of-war, named ‘fair competition’ and so forth, it is a mutual hostility. We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that _Cash-payment_ is not the sole relation of human beings.” Thomas Carlyle (a conservative)

    • So, you’re saying that you ended up in a position of relative (but not perfect) wealth and prosperity because you were raised well, educated well, and monied well enough to exert your potential?

      And, what’s the counterfactual for where you’d be right now if you had none of these opportunities at all for you to shine, that were given to you by sheer chance of your birth?

    • As Elizabeth Warren said (as quoted by CBS):

      “…there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.”

      Warren rejects the concept that it is possible for Americans to become wealthy in isolation.

      “You built a factory out there? Good for you,” she says. “But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.”

      She continues: “Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

    • Your story sounds like a good example of how people lose their imagination and courage with age.

      My guess is that you never had a very good understanding of the political or economic logic of liberalism, and thus your beliefs have been unable to stand the test of your less than satisfying post-college life.

      Likewise, you don’t have very good reasons for your political beliefs now– liberals have mortgages too, in case you didn’t notice.

      Seriously, bro….

      • Also, why does having a wife instead of a college sweetheart make you a conservative?

        This is perhaps my favorite of your arguments. I’m guessing –and I’m being serious here– that the magic and excitement of college romance (as opposed to the dull monotony of married life) opened your heart in an empathetic and compassionate way to the legitimate struggles people endure.

        Maybe you should get in touch with the old college girl, eh?

    • I don’t think your experience/transition from liberal to conservative as you left swarthmore and entered “the real world” is necessarily representative of all individuals afforded privilege backgrounds – esp. all those who have graduated from Swat. I know a *great* many adults who were provided similar (or even better given that my high school manipulated the hell out of the college application system, *sigh*) opportunities as you, but many of them, in entering the “real world” have retained the liberal sentiments you seem to dismiss. I have no problem accepting the idea that you underwent such a transition. But I find your implication that the liberal viewpoints I grew up with, hold currently, constantly challenge/critically examine, and expect to hold for the rest of my life (though I expect them to mature as I mature) lack legitimacy because I have not experienced the “real world”, somewhat disrespectful.

    • “I have a mortgage and a fence that needs mending. I don’t have a bookstore flex account, I have 401K’s, ROTH IRA’s, 529 plans for the girls and a checking account that acts like a revolving door. My parents no longer send me money. I guess my point is that I used to be a Liberal, but then I grew up.”

      Was the point of this story that you became stingier when you couldn’t use Mom’s credit card?
      Obama’s fiscal fascism is really pummeling this guy, everyone: After his parents paid for every penny of his private secondary/college education, Brett found *himself* liable for his child’s trust fund and, God forbid, the mortgage on his house. In short, this guy’s gotten virtually everything in his life paid for but his house, retirement savings, and… his children’s trust funds. What’s next, Obama? Taxing his country club membership?

  6. On the left of liberal blog, Sam’s article is misspelled as “The Rand Reconciliation: Liberals and the Market Godess

  7. I’d also like to point out that there are a great many students at Swarthmore who have experienced “real world” conditions before even coming here and have “grown up” to develop liberal sentiments because of it. I find this somewhat peculiar, given your post……

  8. So let’s not forget that this guy started the argument by literally sayin.g “fuck you, got mine”. Not really a point in arguing with a sociopath.

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