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Update (8/21/17): As street action heats up again amidst America’s political struggles, we’re resurfacing this guide to American political factions in the 21st Century. (Note: we’ve updated the entries for “Alt-right” and “Neo-Nazis.”)
What’s the difference between a liberal and a progressive? Is Black Bloc a group? What the heck does alt-right mean anyway?
We’ve put together this little guide to help you figure out Who’s Who in the streets and on the web. Now mind you: these are up for debate and are by no means exhaustive. We’ve tried to line up the historical philosophies with those who are making a splash in the news, providing a bit of context as you try to keep your head above water in the daily flood of news.
Think of this glossary of activists types as thumbnails to get you started in your own quest to understand an often confusing culture.
On The Far Left
- Anarchists – Most people associate the word “anarchy” with chaos. The actual philosophy is simple: anarchists reject hierarchy on principle, which means they don’t dig governments. There are a variety of “flavors” of anarchists, but a core mistrust of authority is the common thread.
- Black Bloc – Not a faction but a tactic. Usually a tool of Anarchist and Anti-Fascist groups, and is also popular with any group looking to evade identification by the police. The appearance of a Black Bloc group at a protest doesn’t necessarily mean there will be property destruction or violence, but it can be a sign that is to come.
- Anti-Fascists (Antifa): like it says on the box: these people don’t like fascism. Antifa usually indicates those who are willing to take direct, sometimes violent, action against members of the far right. Organized Antifa groups can represent a spectrum of beliefs, bound together against their common foe that sometimes includes the police.
- Communists – In the U.S., communism has a deep association with the Soviet Union, but Soviet-style communism is just one branch. The USSR was more of a state-focused version of socialism with a totalitarian bent. In the U.S., the current Communist Party promotes labor issues, socialism, and like others on the left, is actively organizing against the Trump administration. While often thought of as anti-capitalist, in China the Communist Party effectively runs a hybrid of socialism and capitalism, and has the second largest economy in the world.
- Socialists – The big idea of socialism is that the economy should be subject to social control. That usually means state ownership of the means of production as opposed to the private ownership under capitalism. However, fuzzier forms of socialism have long been part of the fabric of the United States (Medicare, Social Security). Self-identified socialists tend to gravitate to the more strict forms.
- Greens – The Greens have four big concerns: ecology, social justice, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence. While the Green Party is often portrayed by Democrats as a “spoiler” in electoral races, they are the home for progressives who don’t like the Democrats’ relationship to Wall Street or military policies.
On The Left
- Democratic Socialists – Taking inspiration from European countries where democracy and socialism usually get along (universal healthcare, free college education), Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign brought the ideals into vogue in the United States. Democratic Socialists may align with the Democratic Party or see themselves, like Sanders, as a political independent. A few years ago, this group would have been seen as being on the far left, but Millennials and activists have changed that.
- Progressives – The label “progressive” came back into vogue in the late-90’s after conservative talk radio turned “liberal” into a kind of political slur. As a hard and fast rule progressives are a bit more eager to pursue stronger stances on a wider range of issues than self-described liberals, but in practice the two terms are used interchangeably. Within the ranks of progressives you will find activists from Planned Parenthood, Black Lives Matter, and those who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.
- Liberals – Liberalism is a philosophy of liberty and equality. The term is broadly used to describe the mainstream political left, and is identified–for good or ill–with the Democratic party. For most of the 20th Century that meant a coalition of labor and civil rights activists, although after the 1980s the party shifted to the right due to the popularity of Republican President Ronald Reagan.
- Neoliberals – Liberty + Equality + Wall Street, with a dash of the military industrial complex thrown in. Politicians that run with neoliberal ideas also tend to be more willing to resort to the use of military force than others on the left. Although technically speaking this would make them neoconservatives.
On The Right
- Neo-Conservatives – Originally a term adopted by some “hawkish” Democrats way back in the 1960s who weren’t happy with the way their party was conducting foreign policy. They ultimately abandoned the party and became an ideological force within the GOP. From the outside, it can be hard to tell the difference between “neocons” and neoliberals, until you get down to their social policies.
- Conservatives – At its core conservatism is about holding onto the way things “just are.” Most often conservatives believe in free markets and limited government. Socially they tend to emphasize Judeo-Christian values, and a sense of personal responsibility. The term is generally identified with the Republican Party.
- Alt-Right – Compared to traditional far-right groups the alt-right is younger, more internet savvy, and has fewer issues about gay people. It’s hard to say how much of the later is due to the celebrity status of alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos. Alt-right figures played prominent roles in the GamerGate controversy of 2014. A few years ago, this group would have been seen as being on the far right, but Donald Trump’s embrace of Steve Bannon has changed that. Before becoming a White House Senior Advisor Bannon positioned the news site Breitbart as a home for the “alt-right” while it was under his control. (Update 8/21/17: This term has been co-opted by some groups we term “far right” versus those considered to be more traditional conservatives. In the wake of Charlottesville, there’s been debate of the use of the term “alt-right,” with some news outlets dropping it altogether in lieu of more specific terms, such as “white nationalists,” see below.)
On The Far Right
- Fascists – A form of state power that doesn’t shy away from the use of force to achieve its goals either at home or abroad. That tends to mean the use of police powers, military action, and the curtailing of democratic rights. Might makes right, essentially.
- White Nationalists/Supremacists – These groups hold that white people deserve power because they are the victors of history. Cultural diversity is seen as an active threat. You’ll find groups like the Ku Klux Klan here.
- Traditionalists – The most active groups claiming the label “traditionalist” resemble white nationalists in form and function. Where things get interesting is on the intellectual side. There you will find Julius Evola, an Italian thinker from the early 20th century who contributed to the philosophy of fascism. He sought to establish a society that was organized around myth and ritual, and was firmly against democracy. Evola is, according to reports, a favorite thinker of Steve Bannon.
- Neo-Nazis- While “neo,” the Latin for “new,” is in the name, there’s nothing fresh about these guys: they’re Nazis. Hopefully, you remember them from history class/the movies. (Update 8/21/17: In case you need reminding of just who these guys are, just look at the language and symbols used in Charlottesville.)
- Libertarians – While there is a Libertarian Party in the U.S. the basic philosophy is that government should just let people do what they want. You’ll find both strident free-market voices and drug legalization advocates adopting the term. These days there seem to be more publically right-leaning libertarians, including Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky.