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.
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 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.”
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
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.