Left, Right, and Politics

 

Talking American sends me thinking now and again. All the questions about the left and the right came up again the other day, questions that come up more often than I think they should, and which I fear can never be articulated in a way that contains partisan passions. That’s how it is: The terms of political art are almost unique in how contentious and disputable they really are. But this sent me thinking, as I said, so I have some questions and remarks below, and a sketch for a crash course on the politics of left and right — I hope you’ll be interested in this enough to make it possible to have more conversations and, possibly, more clarity.

  1. Is it worth learning what left and right mean in politics? Where they come from? How we ended up talking this way?
  2. Do people who talk this way think of it as more than a mere expedient?
  3. Do people who insist on talking this way have any good faith that’s not limited to partisanship?
  4. Do people who want to go beyond left and right really get what’s in people’s hearts as per the previous two points?

I might write something serious and respectable about this, but is it worth the time? I do have some provisional remarks, meanwhile, about what seems to me to be at stake:

  1. Recovering this language of left and right might bring back dispute as coming down on the yes and the no of serious questions. That’s surely needed!
  2. Another reason, related, is less about pugnacity and more about its ground. Deliberation implies a common ground, which surely is also needed now.
  3. Further, as with partisanship, there is more than mere denunciation–aspiration is part of it, too. Being on the left or the right seems to involve knowing some things and being serious about what you know.
  4. Contrariwise, there’s a danger of ending up not being for anything–not knowing even how to associate with like-minded people, for principle, or interest, or because circumstances require striving in common.

One way to think about this is the study proper to the liberal arts. That way of grasping the matter looks like this:

  1. The French Revolution and 19th century European politics. Left and right conceptions of right and rights and the political community. Some effects of the 19th century problem of progress on later social science and, therefore, on political conversation.
  2. The end of Progress: Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. The strengths and weaknesses of political liberalism; the corruption introduced by new tyrannies.
  3. American politics, in relation to its European sources, and separate from the European problem of History. (I fear this would require an addition, comparing America and Europe in the age of modern tyranny, because these things have become confused as well.)
  4. Postmodern times, when our political conversation is infected with theoretical talk and our political thought is dominated by apolitical schemes and patterns to which we are often blind, often because they come from the sciences. The attempt of political philosophy to recover political talk from theorizing, abstractions, and fashions that serve partisan purposes. (For the sake of completion, it would also be useful to deal with the world that was once run, fought over, and influenced by Europeans and Americans.)

There are 27 comments.

  1. Zafar Member

    It is well worth learning definitions for Lleft and Right because hard definitions give rigor to what can otherwise degenerate into emotion masquerading as thought.

    • #1
    • April 30, 2017, at 3:50 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  2. Tom Davis Member

    Edmund Burke is a good place to start.

    • #2
    • April 30, 2017, at 3:50 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  3. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    On behalf of Madisonian anti-progressives everywhere, bring it on! As long as there’s no Hegel involved.

    • #3
    • April 30, 2017, at 4:18 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Aaron Miller Member

    Stereotyping is a basic sign of intelligence. It is merely the application of pattern recognition to our fellow human beings. How we group people, like anything else, varies depending on our momentary needs. So a single automobile might at different times be referenced as an automobile, car or truck, sedan or coupe, sports car or utility vehicle, blue or red vehicle, 2001 model or a 2010 model, etc. And so a person will at times be distinguished as a man/woman, old/young person, Republican/Democrat, conservative/progressive, tall/short, rich/poor, and so on.

    Right-vs-Left is a useful shorthand. Like any other stereotype, it is not necessarily or even typically dismissive of exceptions or nuances.

    How is it useful? By acknowledging opposing cultural forces which permeate but also transcend politics. Though there are differences in how Americans and Europeans are inclined to use the terms, there are also similarities which continue to hint at a shared Western Civilization. The French Revolution echoes still in American society. The Sexual Revolution which taxes us taxes Europe as well.

    Sometimes we are allies and sometimes we struggle alone. But we are all caught in a maelstrom that has been spinning for centuries. We don’t all see it the same, but we can’t avoid talking about it. Not all of our problems are connected, but enough to merit notice.

    • #4
    • April 30, 2017, at 4:54 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Nanda "Chaps" Panjan… Inactive

    Um, I’m gonna go listen to Miss Ella…Okay?

    • #5
    • April 30, 2017, at 5:57 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  6. Mark Camp Member

    The first step in communicating one’s idea is to define one’s terms and assumptions. So if these two words are used in expressing an idea then yes, it’s important to know their definitions if one wants to understand the idea.

    All the questions about the left and the right came up again the other day,

    Do you mean that questions about the definitions of left and right came up again the other day, or that questions about ideas called left and right came up the other day?

    …questions that come up more often than I think they should…

    If you are referring to questions about the definitions of these terms, I would say this. They should come up and be answered, either explicitly or by common understanding, exactly as often as the terms are used. If someone communicates an idea that requires the definition of “left” and “right”, and defines these terms more than once, then in that case you are right. He has raised the question more often than he should have.

    • #6
    • April 30, 2017, at 5:58 PM PDT
    • Like
  7. Aaron Miller Member

    Americans at least might begin by asking the question: How does the Democrat-Republican divide manifest beyond matters directly of government?

    • #7
    • April 30, 2017, at 6:06 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. The Reticulator Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    The first step in communicating one’s idea is to define one’s terms and assumptions.

    I wonder if that’s really true. Doesn’t a lot of communication happen without that happening first?

    • #8
    • April 30, 2017, at 6:38 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  9. Paul Dougherty Member

    I can’t help but think Rush Limbaugh is somehow to blame. By that, I think he should get recognized as articulating, very effectively, politics in terms of left and right with such bright lines and encouraging the choosing of ones partisan team. Unless, of course, someone can think of a comparable predecessor?

    • #9
    • April 30, 2017, at 9:49 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Brian Wolf Coolidge

    Answering the left and the Right divide in American politics is different from Europe and has multiple parts.

    Part One is political and intellectual history of the United States. Being Classical liberals all of American politics were to the left of Europe for the first 100 years of American history. Both political parties operated inside this Classical Liberal framework with politics in American turning on levels of corruption and desires for reform. Whoever was out of power was a reformers ad who ever was in power had a problem with various levels of corruption.

    The Civil War was a big driver of American politics as Slavery was a giant moral issue and by winning the war Republican became dominate in national politics for a long time. But look how hard it is classify the Civil War in light of the modern left right spectrum. Modern Conservatives want to conserve the Constitution and the moral and political order embodied by the other founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence. The Southern Rebels began to hate the Declaration and wanted to overturn the Constitution of the United states. Yet they wanted to do this in defense of a long established social order in the South they wanted to preserve as long as possible. If they played by the rules of the Constitution they anticipated losing control of their social order over time so they tried to change the rules by force.

    In so far as they were against Classical liberalism and its universal values they were on the “Right” and the Union was on the “Left” of the time. But if you take the modern terms of Left and Right the Southerners were Radicals and the Union was Conservative.

    So you really only get into “Left” and “Right” in the era of the Progressive movement when Progressives were in both parties and Conservatives were in both parties. Which starts off in the early 20th century. In that case things really about the old left, Classical liberalism, against the Radical Left of Socialism. Even then though a lot of the Progressive movement was inspired by Prussia which was a Right-wing European country that tried to use limited socialism to defeat the Classical Liberal left and de-fang the radicals left wing, leaving a Right-wing governing order in place. This made Progressives a strange mix of right and left wing politics. The earliest Conservative politicians like Taft and Silent Cal were fighting to preserve our Constitution against the Progressive movement that wanted to introduce a mixture of European Right-wing and radical left-wing politics into America.

    That is just the political and ideological history but since World War II you also have people that do not follow their ideological roots but are just opposed the other party in general. So you have Right-wing socialists voting for free market Politicians and left-wing libertarians voting for big-government Politicians. The votes don’t make much such politically or from an intellectual perspective but make a lot of sense from a cultural and tribal sense. I know a lot of Christians that believe in pretty far left economics that vote for free market Republicans just because the Democrats have made their contempt for Christianity so clear.

    So it is a wonderfully complex issue and deserves quite a bit of discussion especially if want our political system to function again since both parties right now have coalition that are basically dysfunctional.

    • #10
    • April 30, 2017, at 11:34 PM PDT
    • 5 likes
  11. Brian Wolf Coolidge

    It is nice, from my perspective that I don’t seem have a word limit on my comments anymore. It might be a pain for others but I am enjoying it!

    • #11
    • April 30, 2017, at 11:36 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  12. genferei Member

    Brian Wolf (View Comment):
    It is nice, from my perspective that I don’t seem have a word limit on my comments anymore.

    I’m enjoying it, too.

    Left and Right only have a meaning in a particular political – and therefore usually national – context, which context includes the entire history of politics in that country (or other political unit). Some ideas which were ‘of the Left’ a century ago are now ‘of the Right’ and vice versa. But those ideas will be different in each of Germany, France, Italy etc. And very different in Britain and the US, which has a history of politics that predates the influence of the French Revolution, and thus the terms Left and Right.

    • #12
    • May 1, 2017, at 12:58 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  13. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Paul Dougherty (View Comment):
    I can’t help but think Rush Limbaugh is somehow to blame. By that, I think he should get recognized as articulating, very effectively, politics in terms of left and right with such bright lines and encouraging the choosing of ones partisan team. Unless, of course, someone can think of a comparable predecessor?

    That’s a very good comment. I cannot go into the history, even the recent history–& it would be way too contentious, or, let’s say, partisan–but it’s worth thinking about how come we’re so sure we know our teams & recognize each other as friend or enemy by signs… It would be found, on investigation, that it was as much political passion as principle that led in specific cases to the development of the new American partisanship of our times.

    Mr. Miller is right to point to our basic pattern recognition–but he is innocent to compare the difference between tall men & short to that between political partisanship. Height is just far less contentious or murder-inducing. But also, it makes no claim on the right way of life. Partisanship does.

    There is something, too, to the moral effects of speech. Politics is so much about telling ugly truths. When one describes, as one thinks, adequately & accurate politics with which one disapproves–the words are full of outrage, anger, & worse.

    Anyway, I’ve been mulling over doing some writing about this. I hope people will be interested in following my sketches. I’ve been thinking what I could offer as a contributor on matters political. I don’t want to make people angrier than they already are. Maybe some clarification could help moderate anger.

    • #13
    • May 1, 2017, at 4:13 AM PDT
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  14. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    Americans at least might begin by asking the question: How does the Democrat-Republican divide manifest beyond matters directly of government?

    One way of thinking about this: Why are Americans so keen on segregating on political lines?

    Why are there so few venues or opportunities for Americans to talk to each about politics without anger bursting through–when just about every American one meets has the same opinions about politics: It’s full of crooks & incompetents; it’s not as important as private life; & no one’s gonna tell me what to think about it!

    • #14
    • May 1, 2017, at 4:15 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  15. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Gumby Mark (View Comment):
    On behalf of Madisonian anti-progressives everywhere, bring it on! As long as there’s no Hegel involved.

    I can’t wait to start a Ricochet series to bewilder conservatives with all the wisdom of the modern philosophers. It could be something like How I learned to love Hegel, Nietzsche, & whoever else I can think of–Rousseau, there, another great guy. Lots of insight–these people were really friends to us.

    • #15
    • May 1, 2017, at 4:57 AM PDT
    • Like
  16. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Also, if you read Nietzsche on music, you’d recognize yourself, worshipping in the church of rock!

    • #16
    • May 1, 2017, at 4:57 AM PDT
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  17. Stina Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    One way of thinking about this: Why are Americans so keen on segregating on political lines?

    Because American politics isn’t about just politics anymore.

    LM Montgomery had an interesting way of illustrating Canadian politics… Tory and Whigs… it was a playful rivalry like sports… and it only occupied the domain of politics. Once politics were done, you moved on to the Farmer’s Almanac and planting seasons.

    Everything it seems in American Life is in the political domain. You can’t talk about the weather without bringing in politics! And things have become so intensely divided that even in the most fundamental aspects of human life, there exists direct opposition. Feeding a baby, diapering methods, potty training. Being male or female, gay or straight, work at home or out. Everyone has an opinion that is as good as fact.

    It just so happens that people who cling definitively to one opinion over another overwhelmingly occupy one side of politics or the other. Which just increases the division.

    • #17
    • May 1, 2017, at 4:59 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  18. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Titus Techera (View Comment):

    Gumby Mark (View Comment):
    On behalf of Madisonian anti-progressives everywhere, bring it on! As long as there’s no Hegel involved.

    I can’t wait to start a Ricochet series to bewilder conservatives with all the wisdom of the modern philosophers. It could be something like How I learned to love Hegel, Nietzsche, & whoever else I can think of–Rousseau, there, another great guy. Lots of insight–these people were really friends to us.

    There you go with Hegel again! On the other hand, I go back and forth on the truth of my opinion about him.

    • #18
    • May 1, 2017, at 5:26 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  19. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Also, if you read Nietzsche on music, you’d recognize yourself, worshipping in the church of rock!

    Why read Nietzche when you can listen to him?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHZZyARRCFw

    • #19
    • May 1, 2017, at 5:46 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  20. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher

    Stina (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    One way of thinking about this: Why are Americans so keen on segregating on political lines?

    Because American politics isn’t about just politics anymore.

    Everything it seems in American Life is in the political domain. You can’t talk about the weather without bringing in politics! And things have become so intensely divided that even in the most fundamental aspects of human life, there exists direct opposition. Feeding a baby, diapering methods, potty training. Being male or female, gay or straight, work at home or out. Everyone has an opinion that is as good as fact.

    It just so happens that people who cling definitively to one opinion over another overwhelmingly occupy one side of politics or the other. Which just increases the division.

    That’s what I feel has happened over my lifetime. There have always been contentious political issues, but there was always the “rest of life”. Now politics and one’s political identification seem to overwhelm everything. It’s certainly happened in my own case, but feel it occurred as a defensive measure as I felt more and more under assault.

    • #20
    • May 1, 2017, at 6:00 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  21. Aaron Miller Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Why are Americans so keen on segregating on political lines?

    We don’t segregate. We mix and interact on a daily basis. We work together, play together, invite each other’s children to share time, etc. More often than not, we avoid talking about our conflicting values.

    So the conflicts grow.

    • #21
    • May 1, 2017, at 6:56 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  22. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    Why are Americans so keen on segregating on political lines?

    We don’t segregate. We mix and interact on a daily basis. We work together, play together, invite each other’s children to share time, etc. More often than not, we avoid talking about our conflicting values.

    So the conflicts grow.

    Monami, Americans do not mix & interact on a daily basis. Not across racial, economic, class lines. The segregation is beyond what you might easily imagine–at any rate, beyond what you now suggest.

    • #22
    • May 1, 2017, at 8:46 AM PDT
    • Like
  23. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    Stina (View Comment):

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    One way of thinking about this: Why are Americans so keen on segregating on political lines?

    Because American politics isn’t about just politics anymore.

    LM Montgomery had an interesting way of illustrating Canadian politics… Tory and Whigs… it was a playful rivalry like sports… and it only occupied the domain of politics. Once politics were done, you moved on to the Farmer’s Almanac and planting seasons.

    Everything it seems in American Life is in the political domain. You can’t talk about the weather without bringing in politics! And things have become so intensely divided that even in the most fundamental aspects of human life, there exists direct opposition. Feeding a baby, diapering methods, potty training. Being male or female, gay or straight, work at home or out. Everyone has an opinion that is as good as fact.

    It just so happens that people who cling definitively to one opinion over another overwhelmingly occupy one side of politics or the other. Which just increases the division.

    In this sense, however, I fully agree with Mr. Miller: Americans do not talk politics about politics & instead they end up turning everything else about politics. This is like families or married couples who end up arguing about anything because they cannot solve decently some important thing…

    • #23
    • May 1, 2017, at 10:05 AM PDT
    • Like
  24. Aaron Miller Member

    Titus Techera (View Comment):
    This is like families or married couples who end up arguing about anything because they cannot solve decently some important thing…

    But we are not divided by “some” (one) thing. We are divided by many things — fundamental things; the bedrock of society. Like Eurocrats wanted to uproot Christianity but keep the unity it had formed, American leftists want to uproot all the basic assumptions of Western Civilization and pretend that everything built on that foundation will continue to stand.

    As Stina says, we can’t even agree on who is a man or a woman anymore. A dog could make that judgment, but now we have human beings who refuse to. There can be no negotiation with madness.

    • #24
    • May 2, 2017, at 6:05 AM PDT
    • Like
  25. Titus Techera Contributor
    Titus Techera Post author

    There are not many things, Mr. Miller. There are a few; at bottom, one disagreement organizes & nerves all the others & makes Americans so angry with each other. Secretly, in all the quarrels the question of human dignity moves, & what is being prepared, inasmuch as events prepare a crisis, is a question: Does the majority, the mode of settling questions in American public life &, often, in the American mind, have any justification because of its assertion of the equal dignity of all Americans?

    Of course, if Americans become each other’s enemies as leftists &, I suppose, rightists, each blaming the other for everything intolerable, then in their hearts there is already no more America.

    • #25
    • May 2, 2017, at 7:10 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  26. crogg Coolidge

    I, for one, hope you continue this inquiry. I have struggled with these labels and their meaning for a long time.

    • #26
    • May 2, 2017, at 8:10 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  27. Bob Thompson Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):
    But we are not divided by “some” (one) thing. We are divided by many things — fundamental things; the bedrock of society. Like Eurocrats wanted to uproot Christianity but keep the unity it had formed, American leftists want to uproot all the basic assumptions of Western Civilization and pretend that everything built on that foundation will continue to stand.

    This says a lot. When the republic that is the United States was founded some among the founders held a view that suggested once such a republic exceeded a certain size its very survival would be jeopardized. A federated republic would mitigate some of the dangers of this fate. The abandonment in the United States of the principles of federalism has shown the wisdom of these thinkers. My own thoughts lead me to a conclusion that the founders did not consider that ‘politics’, thought of in the context of the OP, should be prominent in the Constitutionally defined limited role of the federal government. These, my own, thoughts are naive, if, in fact, the assurances and the concessions made by the Federalists to the Anti-Federalists were mere shams put forth to get started on big central government in control as many held was Hamilton’s objective. Most ‘politics’ has little to do with the limited government functions set forth for the federal government at the time of the founding. What we now have at the federal level in the United Staes is almost all ‘politics’, hence the Left-Right divide in national politics. Even were the federated form preserved in action, the U.S. would yet have this divide of ‘politics’ at the state and local levels of government and we would see many government sanctioned variations for domestic living (maybe) instead of consistent attempts for one size fits all.

    I do think the essence of the left-right divide is the group-individual divide. We, in the U.S. see this more in our founding principles than perhaps registers with European left-right divide but it is showing its face in the Brexit and other movements against the EU these days.

    All in all, it seems very difficult to have something we might think of as republican government in huge expanses of land and diversity of people like the U.S. and the EU, a great recipe for conflict.

    • #27
    • May 3, 2017, at 11:04 AM PDT
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