A Case for Leaving the Left-Right Axis as a Model for Political Analysis

By Stefan M. Kløvning

OPINION – The United States has a concerning problem with political polarization. That proposition shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point. Polls by Pew reveal that the general population has become increasingly polarized between 1994 and 2017, towards more people consistently holding convictions within their respective ideologies (Liberal/Conservative).

Now, having ideological diversity within the debate of how the country ought to be governed isn’t a problem with political polarization by itself. It can actually be an advantage. The problem is intolerance between those of different ideological convictions. Both groups appear to find the other side intolerant in some way. Conservatives often point out the intolerance of Liberals to the degree that they shut down or cancel Conservative speakers from campus (i.e. Mac Donald, Shapiro, Peterson, Yiannopoulus, Murray and many others). Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in 2016, “Today’s students are indeed both more left wing and more openly hostile to free speech than earlier generations of collegians,” and quoted polls from the Higher Education Research Institute which found that 43% of students believe colleges have the right to ban speakers they consider extreme. Liberals, however, seem to look at intolerance by Conservatives against the rights of women, African-Americans, people in the LGBT community, etc. and respond with more intolerance (whether or not these Conservative speakers actually hold these kinds of biases towards these groups). This conception is likely the reason why 30% of Democratic women have blocked, unfriended or stopped following someone on social media because of their political views, as opposed to just 10% of Republican women. In this sense, intolerance begets more intolerance, which leads to further political polarization. This was the theme in Jonah Goldberg’s recent piece for the National Review, called “Why Racism Begets More Racism”, whose underlining point was that intolerance towards another person’s skin color, i.e. addressing someone with a negative connotation as “white” or “black” make them think of themselves in terms of race, which triggers a group-based threat in one’s sub-conscious that’s evolved for tribal conditions for a very long time, making oneself identify more with that in-group, and thereby causing the subject to become more racist. This feature of the sub-conscious doesn’t make many exceptions and is easy to observe in the modern political polarization regarding differences in ideologies.

My main proposition for this essay is that using the Left-Right axis as a mental model for understanding political issues exacerbates this group-based subconscious feature to think more in favour of your in-group and more against your out-group, and justifies strawman-ing entire ideologies by careless comparisons of ideologies on the same side of the axis.

The political connotations of “Left and Right” originated in the French revolution of 1789, where the supporters of the revolution stood to the president’s left, and the supporters of the king to the right. This explains why those considered on the Right politically today, are often considered to value tradition and being careful with proposals of great societal change, as opposed to those on the Left who are considered to be more eager to try and experiment with new ideas like UBI and M4A to ensure everyone in the country can have a dignified life. The Left-Right model might seem like a harmless tool for conceiving of political differences in this sense, but the devil lies in the details. For what, exactly, of one’s tradition, is it one seek to preserve when one considers oneself on the right? As D’Souza points out, the United States has never had a monarchy, there isn’t any monarchy for American Conservatives to preserve. For D’Souza, some of the main traditions American Conservatives want to preserve is the Constitution and the founders’ determination of every American having the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The real problem with the Left-Right model is that it allows for poorly based comparisons between different political ideologies which appear to be on the same side of the spectrum. “Nazis and Fascists were right-wing, alas the right is the wrong side to be on!” “Communism was left-wing, alas the left is the wrong side to be on!” Though these are exaggerations, one tends to see these kinds of comparisons come up from time to time, especially the former, with the news not seldom refer to Conservative and Libertarian figures as “alt-right”, “Nazi”, “Fascist” without quoting what kind of ideas that belong to these political doctrines, whose careless application of language implicitly holds the kind of logic delineated above. These vile comparisons create a justification for ourselves to shut down discussion with the other side even before we know their opinions or reasons for holding them. When these discussions across the political divide are thereby shut down, they get more intolerant to one another proportionally to how little they understand each other. As a psychological model for understanding how politics work, therefore, it appears more like a burden than a contribution.

Stephen Hicks, for instance, pointed out, “where do you place George Washington on this scale”, where do you place the Whigs or the Federalists, etc? Based on your conception of the model, you can probably place them somewhere according to your knowledge of these groups, but the problem with that is that you’re analyzing foreign political ideologies through the lens of your understanding of the ideologies of the Conservatives and Liberals and the differences between them (which the Left-Right spectrum is in most cases directly associated with), instead of regarding “Conservatism”, “Progressivism (or Modern Liberalism)” and “Federalism” as distinct categories that ought to be analyzed from the bottom-up based on their own principles and ideas, and compared with each other through differences and similarities in these rather than using the Left-Right model as a medium, which so often ends in misleading or straight out wrong conclusions.

Leaving the Left-Right spectrum as a model for political analysis might be an inconvenience at first, considering that most people you know likely use it in their everyday vocabulary about political matters, but in the long run, I think it will overall be better for the mind and the political climate more generally without the logical fallacies that come along with using it as a medium of comparing ideologies. To straw-man an entire political ideology, pretty much the simplest thing you can do today is to use the Left-Right spectrum as a medium, and few on your side of the aisle will raise an eyebrow. The majority of people today would agree that the Nazis and the Fascists had heinous faults in their policies, ideas, and principles, and sometimes one can reasonably compare certain policies, ideas and principles that come up today with those that they espoused. But lest these comparisons become so carelessly thrown around that they become useless, which many Conservatives and Libertarians already consider the case, leaving the medium of irrational political comparisons and rather start addressing the distinct political categories appropriately according to their self-professed ideas, principles and policies, is an option I consider having the merit of reducing the intolerance that’s currently plaguing the polarized American political climate. If we want our own ideas to be properly understood, we should also have the humility to try to understand those we try to convince.