Resources for Understanding
The resources on this page were selected to help you explore the “moral matrix” of the modern American Left. The Left, like the Democratic Party, has gone through many changes since the 19th century, and the Democrats only became a consistently left-leaning party in the late 20th century. Before that there were “liberal” or progressive Republicans, particularly in the North East and West coast, and there were conservative Democrats, particularly in the South. But the 1960s and the civil rights struggle saw the rise of the “New Left” and the subsequent sorting of the two major parties into a progressive party (Democrats) and a conservative party (Republicans).
Whatever you call it, the American Left nowadays is strongly committed to ideals of equality and civil rights for many groups that were previously denied full participation in American society. The readings and videos below reflect some of the Left’s major political and social priorities: fighting racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination; and changing laws, social norms and institutions to become fully welcoming to African Americans, women, the LGBT community, Native Americans, people with disabilities, immigrants, and Muslims, among other groups.
The emphasis on protecting the vulnerable can also be seen in the Left’s concerns about environmental issues, from animal rights and the protection of endangered species through efforts to reduce industrial pollution and global warming.
Other longstanding focuses of progressive concern—particularly those who follow Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—are the excesses of financial capitalism and the long rise of income inequality. The left and the Democratic party were traditionally the party of the working class, standing up for the rights of workers against the interests of business and the rich, and you can still see that heritage in the left’s embrace of the Occupy movement (in contrast to the right’s embrace of the Tea Party). However, as the left-right divide has increasingly become an urban-rural divide, which maps onto a globalist-nationalist divide (not just in America but in Britain and France too), political coalitions are changing in complicated ways.
But whether the aim is inclusion or equality, people on the Left generally share the belief—in contrast to those on the right—that vigorous government action and oversight is necessary as a counterweight to forces that would otherwise lead to exclusion, inequality, and cruelty.
- Robert F. Kennedy, “Remarks at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968” (2:11). In Senator Bobby Kennedy’s impassioned speech, he argues that we rely on the wrong types of measurements to assess the success of our country. Our focus on wealth accumulation, measured by gross national product, overlooks that which makes life worthwhile and the many reasons we are proud to be American. The full transcript of the speech can be found here.
- Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Seven Habits of Truly Liberal People” (2009). Appiah reviews Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism in which he outlines the seven dispositions, or habits of mind, that Wolf argues define liberalism. Wolf’s list includes “a sympathy for equality,” “an inclination to deliberate,” “a commitment to tolerance,” “an appreciation of openness,” “a disposition to grow,” “a preference for realism,” and “a taste for governance.”
Economics and Inequality
- Joseph Stiglitz on The Daily Show (6:35). Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains that the United States now has greater wealth inequality and less equality of opportunity than any other advanced industrial economy. Stiglitz discusses how we got here and what we can do to change courses.
- Michael Sandel, Why We Shouldn’t Trust Markets with Our Civic Life, TED Talk (14:33). Political philosopher Michael Sandel asserts that we have shifted from having a market economy to “becoming market societies. … [A] place where almost everything is up for sale.” Sandel invites us to consider whether there are “certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?”
- Robert Putnam on Our Kids (13:08). Political scientist Robert Putnam explores the growing gap of resources and opportunities available to rich kids and poor kids. According to Putnam, children’s long-term success is most heavily dependent on the circumstances they are born into. Putnam argues that this reality is fundamentally at odds with the American Dream.
- Victor Rios, Help for Kids the Education System Ignores, TED Talk (11:53). Professor Victor Ross reflects on how a strong work ethic helped him overcome poverty. He encourages educators to see “at-risk” students as “at-promise” and empower them to succeed.
Identity and Culture
- Bryan Stevenson, We need to talk about an injustice, TED Talk (23:41). Human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson gives an impassioned talk about our criminal justice system. Through personal stories, anecdotes, and statistics, Stevenson challenges us as a nation to reconsider these policies, to begin talking about race, poverty, and inequality, and to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.
- Dalia Mogahed, What it’s like to be Muslim in America, TED Talk (16:16). Researcher and pollster Dalia Mogahed dispels common Muslim stereotypes and argues, “ISIS has as much to do with Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with Christianity.”
- The life of an unaccompanied minor in L.A. (8:11). The L.A. Times created a video showing a day in the life of Gaspar Marcos, an 18-year-old orphan who came to America from Guatemala by himself at the age of 13.
- Jenni Chang and Lisa Dazols, This is what LGBT life is like around the world, TED Talk (11:50). Jenni Chang and Lisa Dazols, a gay couple living in San Francisco, describe their journey while creating a documentary exploring the lives of LGBT individuals around the world.
Environmentalism and Climate Change
- Anote Tong, My country will be underwater soon — unless we work together, TED Talk (21:15). Anote Tong, President of the island nation of Kiribati, describes the imminent threat facing his people as a result of climate change. For the people of Kiribati, climate change is not a hypothetical issue to be debated, rather it is a present reality.
- Before the Flood Trailer (2:18). In this National Geographic documentary, Leonardo DiCaprio travels around the world meeting with scientists, activists, and world leaders to explore the effects of climate change and what can be done to address this global problem.
Economics and Inequality
- Cara Feinberg, “The Science of Scarcity” (2015).
- Robert H. Frank, “Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think” (2016).
- Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, “The Machine and the Garden” (2012).
Identity and Culture
- Michelle Alexander, “The Zimmerman Mind-Set” (2013).
- David Archambault II, “Taking a Stand at Standing Rock” (2016).
- Sarah Aziza, “Becoming American in the Age of Trump” (2016).
- Michael Eric Dyson, “Death in Black and White” (2016).
- Betty Friedan, “Women Are People, Too!” (1960).
- Eliza Gray, “Transitions” (2011).
- Mohsin Hamid, “Refugees: Overcoming Our Fear” (2016).
- Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (1963).
- Will Portman, “Portman: Coming Out” (2013).
- Rebecca Solnit, “Men Explain Things to Me” (2008).
- Jose Antonio Vargas, “My Life as an Undocumented Worker” (2011).
History and Ideology
- Bruce Ackerman, “We Answer to the Name of Liberals” (2006).
- Nick Bromell, “The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass” (2008).
- Edmund Fawcett, “Reclaiming Liberalism” (2014).
- Samuel Hammond, “The Future of Liberalism and the Politicization of Everything” (2017).
- Michael Lind, “The Liberal Roots of Populism” (2014).
- John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical” (1985).
If you have time for further reading, we recommend you begin by delving deeper into the philosophical and psychological roots of political differences. For the progressive perspective, we recommend Moral Politics by George Lakoff, which offers an integrative framework for thinking about all sides.
- George Lakoff, Moral Politics (1996): Cognitive scientist George Lakoff explains why people come to hold political beliefs as they apply their ideas about the family to the nation. Progressives see the ideal family as one led by a “nurturant parent,” while conservatives have a mental model of the family led by a “strict father.” Along the way, Lakoff explains how people come to hold “mental models” or “frames” that make it easier for them to understand and accept arguments from one side or the other.
Additional Progressive Readings:
- James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963).
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).
- W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (1903) (full text).
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (1964).
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (1984).
- Harvey Milk, An Archive of Hope (2013).
- Amy Ellis Nut, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (2015).
- Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).
- Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899) (full text).
- Mohsin Hamid, Exit West (2017).
- Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (2010).
- Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (1999).
- Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987).
- Zadie Smith, On Beauty (2006).
- Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad (2016).
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2012).
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2006).
- Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (2016).
- John Dewey, Liberalism and Social Action (1935).
- Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014).
- Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (1977).
- Edmund Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea (2014).
- Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy (2016).
- Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963).
- Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011).
- Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014).
- Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (2011).
- John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (1689).
- Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (2015).
- Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives (2013).
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists (2014).
- John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971).
- John Rawls, Political Liberalism (1993).
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse Upon The Origin And The Foundation Of The Inequality Among Mankind (1755).
- Alan Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism (2012).
- Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (2012).
- E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973).
- Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2013).