Ed Note, this is hardly comprehensive of every political group out there. But it will help illustrate why it can get confusing.
April 26, 2017 (San Diego) In the modern United States we are used to hearing about the left-right divide. It has become so pervasive that people must be either on the left, the right, but never the center. What is interesting is that the actual meaning of those terms has lost value. Why people on the right can call Nancy Pelosi a far left politician, and many on the other side call moderate Republicans, yes they do exist, fascists.
These terms have actual meaning and it is important to understand these meanings. Moreover, most people, and that includes many political reporters, inside and outside the beltway, do not know where the term left and right originated. I confess, until I started doing research for this piece, I did not.
So first, where did the terms come from? They come from the French General Assembly in 1791, after the Revolution. The representatives took their places in the Assembly as follows. Those who wanted to preserve more of the status quo sat to the right of the chair. Those who wanted it reform the system sat to the left of the chair. Those who were more moderate literally sat between these two groups to keep the peace. Ironically, the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate follow that pattern in their sitting arrangement. Whether it is accidental, or the way both parties have developed is a good question,. Remember, Republicans in the 1860s were a rather liberal party, which adopted an anti-slavery plank. While Democrats were the conservatives of the age. However, that sitting arrangement has existed in the House and Senate for over two centuries, since Democrats have maintained their side to the left of the chair.
Now let’s go to basic definitions. In political science, the division between right and left is at times conceived as a continuous line. However, that is changing among some modern day political scientists. This line goes from the far right, authoritarianism, too far left communist, and from there to some fringe ideologies. The center is a real point in that line. It bisects that line exactly. It is not a movable object either. This is not the just self-description, but ideologies have real meaning.
Conservatives and Liberals, 18th-century edition.
Our modern concepts of politics emerged out of the Enlightenment The big conflict of the age went around the divine right of kings to rule, and the concept of personal liberty. Liberal comes from the Latin root liber for free. For the philosophers on the liberal side of the house, it was about expanding personal freedom, and diminishing the role of the church and the monarchy in their lives.
John Locke was one of the greatest figures of the British Enlightenment and he advocated for men to pursue, “life, liberty and the pursuit of wealth.” If that sounds familiar, it should, since Thomas Jefferson modified that, to Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The last one stood in the 18th-century parlance, for wealth. So, when you think about it, it was not really a big edit.
Liberals were in opposition to the divine right of kings, as well as some control of the economy by the use of royal marks. They saw them as the origin of what we will call these days a monopoly. Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations spoke against the East India Company, as an entity that weakened England due to lack of competition. He was a classic liberal and the founder of Classical Economics.
Where do American conservatives come front? Quite simply, Edmund Burke. What happens to make this man espouse a view that at the time was very novel? The Terror of the French Revolution. What Burke saw was chaos in the streets, and blood did flow. The rabble could not be trusted and his ideology was an argument for conserving what was good of the old regime. Why he was called a conservative. However, much of his views were grounded in liberal ideology common at the time. He did believe that some liberties were still necessary. His views are a branch of the classical liberal of the Enlightenment and a reaction to the disorder and violence that came with the French Revolution.
This is the literal origin of the left-right divide. It is a sitting arrangement. However, it was conceived as a discussion of ideas and ideologies, because the people who sat at cafes (a new invention in 17tht and 18th century France, for example), were into a battle of ideas, not a battle in the streets. These are the same people who created a scientific revolution and wrote the early scientific journals that established the scientific method we use to this day. Some others of their systems of thought and debate survive to this day.
The moderates at the time were the center, what defines the center to this day. They are the ones who will compromise and take ideas from both sides.
The Political Line: Two extremes.
The first half of the century saw the end of the enlightenment and the rise of the romantic age. It also saw the first phase of industrialization take hold and advance. It was also affected by the rise and later fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Corsican, as some called him, was in some ways the end result of the excesses of the French Revolution. His end and the 1820s saw a time when a lot of the youth that wrote poetry and art, did such from the point of Melancholy, and the end of the known world. They were collectively known as the Romantics.
It is in that school of thought, and the first phase of the industrial revolution, that we saw two different philosophies rise. One of them was the early phase of nihilistic thought, which would question the value of property, but would also question the state. As always, definitions of these terms are useful, and this is how Merriam Websters defines the term:
Definition of nihilism
a : a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless Nihilism is a condition in which all ultimate values lose their value. — Ronald H. Nash
b : a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths
a : a doctrine or belief that conditions in the social organization are so bad as to make destruction desirable for its own sake independent of any constructive program or possibility
b capitalized : the program of a 19th century Russian party advocating revolutionary reform and using terrorism and assassination
In time, nihilist philosophers gave rise to Anarchism. Assassinations and bombings became part of the life of both Europe and the United States. Anarchists were also heavily involved in the 1848 student revolt that shook Europe, what was known as the year of freedom. It was not unlike the Arab Spring of today, or the Indignados in Spain or Occupy Wall Street. While the street actions ultimately failed in 1848, those student revolts led to very real changes a generation later, and the rise of the Third French Republic. So don’t discount the Arab Spring or Occupy just yet. They are not over, just changed. The language of the 99 percent survives, as a sign that the political culture was affected.
Anarchism was put in that continuum at the extreme end of the left of the line, and to be honest, as a philosophy it does not fit in it. It is not far left, nor far right (in the 21st century we have anarchists on the right), it just does not fit. It was forced into that line because as a concept, all ideologies had to fit in it. On the other end, in the 20th century, we find Authoritarianism.
These days the other end in the US includes far right racial nationalists, White Identity Politics, and many of the militias, as well as neo-Nazis and Neo-Fascists. When we think of those, we think usually of white people, and it is not entirely correct for some groups. They also share in this nihilist worldview and also seek to destroy what exists. Like anarchists, they have no answer as to what comes next. However, white nationalists seek separation of the races, giving us a tad more of a picture of what comes next. In some ways, they also exist outside that political order, however.
In between these two extremes, that do not fit, you have other ideologies.
The 19th century gave us resistance to the rise of capitalism, in the original critique in Marxism. Karl Marx is seen by many economists as the other bookend of Classical Economics, first started by Adam Smith and when seen in that light it is hardly that radical. As a political theory it did explain the excesses of the first wave of the machine age. It is coming back in fashion because his critique of the first wave will be very adequate in the third wave, that is automatization and robotics. It is also coming into fashion because of extreme forms of income inequality not seen since 1929 in the United States.
However, Marxism led to other forms of capitalist critique. Some were imported into the US, such as the Anarcho-Sindicalists with the mass migration at the latter half of the 19th century. This rose in the Union movement as a reaction to the first wave of globalization. In the US we know them as the Wobblies. They also included socialists and communists, as well as communes, which were common in 19th century US.
This influx of immigrants and ideologies, led to a movement in the US on how to absorb immigrants to the body politic. This movement is uniquely American and sits right on the center of the line since it was embraced by both major parties. That is the progressive movement of the early 20th century. This is critical to understand. This movement is not a 21st-century movement. One of the many critiques of modern day progressives is that Hillary Clinton could not be one. Alas she was. Her progressiveness however, was firmly planted in the 1910s.
What were Progressives of the early part of the last century looking for? They believed with a passion that the United States was the first meritocratic society. They also believed that education was the key to middle class life. Moreover, that middle class was the ideal of what was to be an American. The professional class was the heart of the nation. If you look at the present day Democratic Party elite, this is exactly what they believe in. So when rank and file progressives complain that they are not true progressives, it truly depends on your definition of what is a progressive. If you are talking of the original term, Clinton is very much a progressive.
So what are the rank and file progressives that hold views to the moderate left of that true center? Many of them are Social Democrats, which is where a government does regulate and tightly control the capitalist, but also socializes things like roads, infrastructure and education, as well as health care. Unlike Bernie Sanders, they are not willing to call themselves that. The confusion also comes since in the US we would rather be dead than red, so the Democratic Party used the term liberal over the course of the 20th century, or rarely FDR Democrat. However, they were not liberals in the strict sense of the 18th century. However, the term became a slur.
On the center right you also had progressives from the early part of the century. President Herbert Hoover was the last of the progressives incidentally. But you also have people who at times did not mind that government, as long as they were fiscally conservative and staid within their means. For many decades the main criticism of the liberal state was precisely that.
Then you have Libertarians…who seek personal liberty and no intervention by the government, except in national defense. If this sounds like the classic liberal of the 18th century, it is because they are.
Alas political scientists, who understand how much under real strain this left, right and center straight line is, have come with different ways to explain this. The Political Compass is one of the best for people who want to find where they are, but do not want to read scores of political science theory. It also does not force things like this strict model does.
They use four quadrants and you can take the test. We actually encourage you to take the test. It takes into account that yes, you can have some anarchist views, and some very conservative views. They do exist in all of us. It also tests politicians using their stated positions and voting patterns. No surprise here, most American politicians fall within a very narrow range incidentally, on the upper right quadrant.
However, there is now emerging science that is helping us to understand how the mind works. We know that conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala than liberals. I am using the 18th century definition, incidentally, just for ease.
This leads to a very different perception of the world. If you have a larger amygdala you tend to perceive threat at a higher rate than if yours is smaller. Both have benefits in evolution. One will allow for more experimentation, the other will lead to higher levels of alert status. It does explain however, how one group will be less likely to experiment and would like to preserve what is known, while the other has less of an issue with change.
This is not something that people have had access to in the last 300 years, but it is starting to change how we conceive of politics, at least at a scientific level.
Then there is how language affects you and me. This is the emerging field of Neuropsychology. How you construct language and how you conceive of the world will mean that you will create mental images and moral structures in your mind. This will help you explain why at times you have trouble talking to your conservative or liberal uncle. You two cannot talk to each other, because the frames each of you uses are at times mutually exclusive.
George Lakoff and Frank Luntz are the leading exponents of this at this time. There is a certain level of scientific denial at play in the Democratic Party, as Lakoff explains however, while Republicans have embraced this science. No, facts will not convince the other side. Well crafted frames might. Frames are snippets of language.
Lakoff explains that liberals conceive of society as a nurturing place, where rights, and obligations matter. If the Rights of Man come to mind, it is because that document was a series of liberal frames. Conservatives, on the other hand, think more of the stern father figure who will punish you if you get out of hand. Remember, Burke and these days Vladimir Putin and many modern day American Conservatives, speak of law and order, and how to preserve things. This is normal to how their brain works.
Science is making large strides in understanding this. It also gives you tools to bridge the divide. Healthcare is a great example. Many liberals have carried signs to town halls that read. “Health Care is a right.” Every other liberal in the room will nod in agreement. Who could argue with that? The person on the stage who happens to be a conservative and you are trying to reach, that’s who. In their minds, you do not encourage moochers to get on the government dole. You punish them. So how do you reach them? The disorder caused by people going to to the Emergency Room of course. Those long wait times when you actually need to go, because people are there for a mere cold. You need to talk about the cost, and their taxes going up and them having to cover healthcare that otherwise is not paid for. Or the fact that people might actually revolt, or that their local hospital will have to close. It is not that they don’t get it until it happens to them. It is that they fear disorder.
This emergent field is also starting to challenge how we conceive of economics, and how economic decisions are made by people. The rational actor, a well known chestnut in economics, is starting to recede. Why? It seems our brains are set to still work in the savannah, looking for food and avoiding predators. Here is a scary concept. We as a species would still function well in the savannah, however we have all the comforts of modern life, and nuclear weapons. So which brain will “win” in the end is not an idle question. But understanding framing is essential. You and I are not just subject to it in political ads, but also in commercial pursuits.
We also live in a society where these words, both liberal and conservative, have lost meaning. So yes, when you speak to your uncle, there is a good chance neither is using the same definition for a particular term. A common language is essential for a functional society. And no, your libertarian uncle is not a fascist, and Nancy Pelosi is a right of center politician, not a far left communist. However, this is extremely basic material that somehow we are no longer taught.