The political spectrum has been upended in recent years, leading a lot of people to question whether it even makes sense anymore.
But the distinctions between right and left still hold, as they have since they first came into use in the French Revolution over two centuries ago. And recognizing just how the two sides differ can tell us a lot about what we really believe and why it matters.
The left concerns itself with improving the human condition through the state, the right with the dangers of state power. The left concerns itself with reducing inequality, the right with maintaining the status quo. The left concerns itself with protecting the voiceless, the right with commitments nearer to home. The concerns on both sides usually overlap, but sometimes they conflict, and sometimes they both meet in the middle.
The left is ultimately hopeful about what humanity can accomplish while the right remains skeptical. Sometimes the skepticism springs from heartlessness, sometimes from a fear of change; sometimes from a desire for order, sometimes an authoritarian drive. At its best, the right is concerned with the little things that make the world work. Its humanity lies in the predictability of traditions and the comforts of home, but it can also dominate and bully and oppress the weak.
The differences are readily distinguishable in most places. Everywhere, the left supports government funded health care, social security, and unemployment insurance; protecting women, minorities, and employees from abuse; limiting environmental harms to future generations and improving the lives of the insecure. Some are more radical, some more reformist; some go further, some are more cautious. But the differences are almost always differences of degree.
Sometimes the right shares these concerns, but mostly for different reasons. The right supports leftist causes when it is required to preserve order or to hold onto power, as Nixon did in the early 70s, after coming to power amid the upheaval of the late 60s. Sometimes, a right wing leader will sign leftist legislation, as George H.W. Bush did with the Clean Air Act in the early 90s, but they almost never initiate the drive to pass it.
Sometimes, the left is overzealous in its support for the poor, forsaking legal equality to punish elites. These punishments became genocidal in Maoist China, Stalinist Russia, and Khmer Cambodia. This may have resulted from a tendency to view people in statistical terms, and an authoritarian streak that often appears on the far left. It might also have resulted from many communist governments being in over their heads, possessing virtually no governing experience at all.
Sometimes, the state becomes abusive under leftist governments, but the most abusive leftist states are almost always those that were initially built to protect the poor. And it is often the case that they have simply taken over the administrations of the brutal conservative regimes from which they initially revolted precisely because they were so brutal.
Not everything we attempt in life turns out as expected, and this is precisely the right’s main criticism of the left.
The left can also be overzealous in its opposition to imperialism, justifying human rights abuses in geopolitically weak states to prevent their overthrow, as often happens with the Assad regime in Syria today. The anti-imperial, anti-war left has acquired a reputation in recent years for jumping to the defense of a regime that is torturing tens of thousands to death and starving the cities defended by pro-democratic rebels.
The contradiction can be disheartening, for we expect the defenders of the weak to do so when they’re most vulnerable. And there is little more vulnerable than a woman being gang-raped in prison.
But everyone can be overzealous, and all of us get confused at times. Most people do not know much about states other than their own, especially when they are in distant and obscure places. What they do know can usually be summarized in vague generalities, interpreted through an ideological lens. Leaders of small autocracies are aware of this tendency and produce propaganda to play on our biases.
Putin has mastered the art of playing on the worst tendencies of the far left and far right alike, but Assad is now a practiced hand as well.
The world is particularly confusing if you cannot trust the mainstream media. For the mainstream media can afford to hire specialists who know what they are talking about, to fact-check articles and edit out inaccuracies. Their articles are read by the educated, cover most everything, refer to real data, and are usually daily.
Regular readers of the Washington Post or New York Times are thus seldom confused about what’s happening in the world—even when they are wrong. But they are less likely to be wrong, because such news sources are chock full of the perspectives of pivotal players and the most up to date research.
Everything is different with alternative news. It is seldom daily, poorly fact-checked, rarely professional, and sporadically specialized. Even when its writers are smarter, they are seldom as balanced. Even when they are more knowledgeable, they are rarely as comprehensive. The problem is, it is hard to tell what they really know and even harder to discern their considered views. Hence, alternative news readers tend to understand the world in fragments, and this makes it easier to see it in extremes.
Aristotle wrote of a temperance that gives each thing we value its due. It is sometimes impossible to get everything we want, so we have to choose between opposing the military force of a dominant nation like America and protecting a vulnerable population like that of the Bosnian Muslims through humanitarian intervention, for instance.
These differences can be viewed in terms of personality styles, with different personality styles representing different ideological persuasions. And they can be viewed as mere tribal groupings, around which people band for aesthetic reasons. But the idea that personality style determines political affiliation quickly degenerates into a moral relativism that trivializes our deepest values.
It may be the case that many people are drawn to the different placeholders along the political spectrum for such idiosyncratic reasons, but it is all the more reason to engage in a moral discourse that explores which value systems are right in the first place.
George Lakoff has put forth a powerful argument that Americans group themselves around sets of metaphorical frames. According to Lakoff, liberals see the state as a nurturing parent, which should care for citizens, and conservatives as a strict father, which should push them to stand on their own.
The differences can also be looked at developmentally. Ken Wilber has done so and sees the right as focused on more foundational, conventional levels of developmental, while the left represents a coalition split between postconventional progressives and the preconventional people they protect.
However, neither the developmental view, nor the cognitive metaphorical frames view of Lakoff contradicts the notion that the left believes the state can improve the human condition, while the right believes doing so should be left to individuals, families, and communities.
It is commonly said that the ideological spectrum arose in the French Revolution, but these tendencies can be glimpsed in most every society. John Stuart Mill universalized the differences between right and left as that between the party of order and the party of change—believing that every society needs both and that things works best when they are integrated.
The ideal can be found in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, which in the late 20th century produced arguably the most successful states in history. And it is arguable that Bernie Sanders’ highly progressive agenda presents something of this same balance in its call for a fair deal that includes everyone.
In reviewing the differences between left and right, perhaps what stands out the most is how little people these days resonate with conservative values. Trump is not a conservative, but rather a fascist—like most right wing leaders today. His nationalism is rooted in racism, his populism is an assault on traditions.
Conservatives turn to him because they have lost faith in their own values, and they have lost touch with their own traditions, choosing instead a world of make believe. The turn to empty lies and false promises is proof that the left is winning.
Of course, that would be news to the left. For the left these days more often than not loses. But if conservatives cannot win without deception, it may be telling: maybe people really do want to make the world a better place.
If you liked this article, please check out my book, The Holocausts We All Deny.