How The (Mythical) Left-Right Political Spectrum Harms America (Book Review)
Although most people would agree that American politics has become more toxic in recent years, there is much less agreement on why that is. One common answer is that our parties are moving to the extremes, with the Democrats moving leftward on the political spectrum and the Republicans moving more right. In The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America we argue that this is incorrect and that, in fact, it’s the very conceptualization of politics in terms of a political spectrum that is itself causing much of our political dysfunction.
As the political spectrum has risen in popularity and prominence, the vitriol of public discourse has risen right along with it. Ideas have consequences, and a misleading political paradigm has led to inaccurate political thinking. It’s not that America or our parties have moved leftward or rightward on an imaginary line; it’s that left-right thinking itself leads us into all kinds of errors that inflame and exacerbate the misunderstandings and tribal hatreds that are characteristic of democratic politics.
For most of our history, Americans didn’t think in terms of a spectrum. They just saw (accurately) that America had a two-party system and that each of these parties stood for a bundle of unrelated positions. This all started to change after World War I when Americans imported the left-right model that had arisen in Europe during the French Revolution. Since then, the use of the spectrum has grown exponentially and actual policy has been obscured as Americans have become accustomed to placing every person, institution, or group somewhere on a left-right scale (with radicals on the far left, progressives and liberals on the center left, reactionaries on the far right, and conservatives on the center right). The political spectrum is, without question, the most common political paradigm in 21st-century America.
The central problem with this model is that it’s inaccurate for the simple reason that there’s more than one issue in politics and a spectrum can, by definition, measure only one issue. There are a multitude of distinct, unrelated political policies under consideration today (e.g., abortion, income taxes, affirmative action, drug control, gun control, health care spending, the minimum wage, military intervention, etc.), and yet our predominant political model presumes that there is just one.
So if there is more than one issue in politics, why do Americans use a unidimensional political spectrum to describe politics? Generally, it’s because they are convinced that there is one essential issue that underlies and binds all others, such as “change,” and therefore the political spectrum accurately models where someone stands in relation to this essence. Their position on the change (left) vs. preservation (right) issue determines what views they will have on all other issues. If someone is mildly opposed to change (conservative or center right), then they will mildly oppose all the individual policies that promote change (abortion rights, tax increases, etc.), and this will, in turn, lead them to associate with the conservative tribe that shares their views.
We contend that this is exactly backward. There is no essential issue underlying all others—abortion and tax rates really are distinct and unrelated policies—and socialization, not essence, explains the correlation between them. People first anchor into a tribe (because of peers, family, or a single issue they feel strongly about), adopt the positions of the tribe as a matter of socialization, and only then reverse engineer a story about how all the positions of their tribe are united by some essential principle (e.g., progressivism or conservatism). For instance, someone who feels strongly about the right to life (perhaps because of upbringing, religion, or a psychological disposition) will then anchor into the tribe that opposes abortion, adopt its other issues (such as tax cuts) as a matter of socialization, and then explain, after the fact, that both opposing abortion and favoring tax cuts somehow “conserves.” Left-right ideology is the fiction we use to justify and mask our tribal attachments.
But many of those who concede that left-right ideologies are social rather than essential nonetheless maintain that we should keep using the political spectrum because it is “useful.” An imperfect model, they say, is better than no model at all, and the political spectrum is a simple heuristic that allows us to better navigate the political landscape.
The problem with this view is that it lacks evidence. Would it be useful for medical doctors to model all illnesses, treatments, and patients on a spectrum? Obviously not because medicine is multidimensional and trying to model all medical issues using a single dimension would do great harm. The same is true of politics. Doctors get along just fine by talking about specific illnesses and treatments (lung cancer, fractured tibia, bronchial infection, chemotherapy, bone setting, antibiotics), and political discourse would be much more productive if we simply talked about specific political problems and policies (crime, poverty, inflation, gun control, welfare spending, interest-rate tightening).
Yes, all models are simplifications of reality, but those models must also be accurate such that they improve rather than hinder our understanding of the matter in question. A bad model is actually worse than no model at all (as the four humors theory of disease makes clear), and the political spectrum is a bad model. It is a tool of misinformation, false association, and hostility.
For instance, it’s conventional wisdom today that the Republican Party has moved to the right in recent decades. It’s also conventional wisdom that small government is right wing, and yet, by every objective measure, Republicans have radically expanded the size of government every time they have been in power over the past two decades. The political spectrum is deceiving us about the behavior of our public officials. Republicans today are far more in favor of racial equality, gay marriage, and government intervention in the economy than they were 50 years ago, and yet the political spectrum tells us they have moved “to the right.” How is the political spectrum useful for understanding the evolution of the Republican Party? It is not.
Instead of making simplistic claims about the parties moving leftward or rightward on an imaginary line, we in higher education should think as we do in every other realm of life and be specific. We talk about recreation in granular terms (there is mountain biking, playing chess, watching movies, playing video games, road biking, oil painting, etc.), so why is it too much to ask for us to be similarly granular when talking politics? Instead of saying, “She’s on the far left,” we should say, “She’s an environmentalist.” Instead of saying, “He’s on the center right,” we should say, “He’s an anti-Trump Republican.” Going granular provides accurate information whereas talking about where people, ideas, and institutions fit on a spectrum simply confuses and inflames. And if we want to refer to what group someone belongs to, “Democrat” and “Republican” work just fine (as do “blue” and “red”) and don’t carry any of the false essentialist connotations of “conservative” and “liberal.” Talking in terms of a spectrum serves no informational function, but it does serve to elevate the temperature of debate and make the public really angry about the “commies” or “fascists” on the other side.
Since part of the mission of Heterodox Academy is to open up productive debate between people who disagree, then the organization should lead the way in jettisoning this political model that makes constructive disagreement difficult. When we presume that left and right are worldviews, we are much less willing to engage and listen to those in the other tribe (after all, their positions all grow out of an evil overarching worldview and therefore they must all be incorrect). If someone is under the delusion, for instance, that all the policies considered left wing are bound by the essence of social justice or progress, then they can’t compromise or revise their views without also promoting social injustice and regress. If, on the other hand, they saw left wing and right wing for what they are—tribes who stand for baskets of unrelated positions—then they would be open to find, through rational investigation and open dialogue, which political issues are correct, incorrect, or (even more likely) misconceived entirely. Perhaps the single best way to improve the quality of public discourse is to shed the destructive fiction that all the positions of one’s own side are bound by a correct philosophy and therefore all correct a priori.
Of course America has a two-party system, but we should give up the fiction that all the policies of each party are bound by some underlying essence (left-progressivism or right-conservatism). Parties are incoherent baskets of issues—some good, some bad—and we do ourselves no favors by concocting ex post stories that give the illusion of coherence to these random policies thrown together by historical accident. It’s time we confronted the simple reality that, yes, there are many distinct, unrelated issues in politics and so, no, we can’t profitably model these many distinct issues on a unidimensional spectrum.
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