You say “right-leaning,” I say “Alfredo Stroessner”

The phrases “right-leaning” and “left-leaning” have always infuriated me, for perhaps obvious reasons–it’s a symptom of the “one-the-one-side-on-the-other” pantomime of even-handedness by which American media depoliticize politics. That is, there are no real sides, and no fundamental disagreements; there is only a political blob called “the center,” on either bulging side of which different opinions may be found.

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New York Times, Sept. 13, 1992

My sense of this is that it’s a political fiction that dates to the 1990s, in large part because of Bill Clinton’s calcuated “post-political” stances. This is mostly  true, although the first decade of the 2000s is when the -leaning preface really takes off. It is also a feature of the Times‘ international reporting, where it seems to be a way to deal succinctly with the coalition politics of parliamentary systems. Israeli prime ministers, for example, routinely get the “-leaning” treatment, as do politicians in European democracies.

Left-leaning. The decade with greatest usage is 2000-2009.


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Right-leaning. 2010-14 is the highest column here.

“Left of center,” though, has an older lineage, dating back to the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt described himself that way (and his right-wing opponents countered with “right of center.”) Here, though, the phrase means “as opposed to far to the left”–that is, there’s a presumed socialist or fascist point of comparison here. “Left-leaning,” on the other hand, assumes that the profoundest way one can ever move in any political direction is to “lean.”

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New York Times, Jan. 17, 1937
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New York Times, Feb. 27, 1938

A pioneer in the -leaning school of political analysis by miniscule differences is Cyrus Sulzberger, member of the family that has long owned the New York Times and a foreign correspondent for the paper. In 1971–when, as you can see in the graphs above, the

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“The Hope of Liberty,” New York Times, Apr. 14, 1971

construction was relatively used–he characterized the military regimes of South America along a “leaning” axis. “Left-leaning” military governments ruled Peru and Bolivia then; “right-leaning” governments held power in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, which was ruled at the time by Alfredo Stroessner, he of Yo el supremo fame, who ruled the country with a personality cult for 35 years, outlawed all political opposition, and ordered the leader of the country’s Communist Party dismembered with a chainsaw as he listened on the telephone. Right-leaning! Juuuuust a bit.


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