Why the Left-Right Distinction in Politics is Overrated

As Robin Hanson likes to say, “Politics isn’t about policy.”

Politics is about social affiliation. As individuals, we have beliefs that we’ve developed through our own experiences and from the groups we participate in. For most, our beliefs are a reflection of our parents and our peers. We’re Catholic or Mormon or Muslim or Free Thinkers. We believe in Freedom of Choice or we are Pro Life. We like Star Wars or Star Trek or both.

But neither Trekkies nor Mormons are numerous enough to elect a president or run the country by themselves, and so we ally our personal beliefs and groups so that when we come together, we might have enough people in our combined group some shared beliefs into policy. That’s how political parties are formed. Most Mormons have allied themselves with most people from Alabama to elect Republican politicians who reflect their shared values, even though most Mormons and Alabamians would view themselves as pretty different. Over time, the shared beliefs among Mormons and Alabamians become a separate shared identity in their own right, taking on a life of their own. Being a Republican or Democrat becomes a social affiliation for many who would otherwise have very little in common.

These parties are our alliance. And we classify these parties on a scale of liberal to conservative, with the more liberal on the left and the more conservative on the right. Here’s Wikipedia’s take on the hodge-podge of groups that define the left and right.

What’s wrong with all of this? My objection is not to the left vs. right distinction itself, but rather its ubiquitous abuse and misuse.

My concerns are threefold: First, we fail to acknowledge how much these scales and alliances are time and country-specific. Second, we ignore the massive differences within the subgroups and subcultures that comprise the larger alliances. Third, by reifying these alliances as if they were a unified whole or a “thing,” we develop identity politics that makes it easier to demonize the opposition.

Our alliances and “left-right” distinctions are a function of place and time.

For each of us, in another country or another time, we would be politically allied with many people we now consider a political enemies. For the 100 years following the civil war, most white southerners voted Democrat.

What might make you self-identify on the left or right varies depending on where you are and when you hold the belief.

Let me provide just one example. Consider the example of Catalonia, a region of Spain not culturally that different from the United States. Most Catalans would self identify as leftists or very liberal. And Catalonia, particularly its capital, Barcelona, is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on earth. Walk the streets and you will never have to wait long to see Europeans, Asians, Africans, North and South Americans, or even Australians. But click on the following page and look at the list of op-ed writers for the main Catalan daily newspaper (it’s about half-way down the page). It’s 11 old white dudes and 1 old white woman. And the main “left-leaning” Spanish-language local daily paper is nearly the same.

In the United States, staffing a newspaper op-ed team at a “left-leaning” paper with 11 white dudes and 1 white woman would be an affront to leftist principles. That’s a worse record on diversity than you’d find at the Weekly Standard. Immigrants from South America and North Africa have a huge impact on Catalan society and its economy. But they have no voice in the political discourse.

Here’s an issue that makes the American left FREAK OUT! And perhaps for good reason. But for the Catalan left, it’s as if it’s not even an issue.

Alas, Catalonia’s identity politics are very different from ours. Our hot-button issues here might not register there. In Catalonia, left-vs-right is about one’s position on Catalan independence, refugees, and wealth-redistribution. Abortion and gun control don’t register on the debate. Nor, for that matter, does racial inclusivity in the public discourse.

What does the left-right distinction mean today in China? As opposed to what it meant 50 years ago? As opposed to what it means in Democratic Republic of Congo? Who the heck knows? My left is your right. Today’s right is tomorrow’s left.

Let’s move on.

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. 

— Robert Benchley

That pretty well sums up my second objection to the left-right distinction. The beliefs of all seven billion humans on the planet are far too nuanced, too varied, and too complex to lump into two groups. Only the most extreme hammer-nail thinkers obey the party line in all their beliefs.

The third objection ties into the second. When we lump all the world’s people (or our country or our region or our school) into two categories, with one group with whom we self identify and another with whom we do not, it’s easy to oversimplify the beliefs of and demonize The Other.

There’s a strong argument that demonizing The Other is the main reason we like to employ the Left-Right distinction. If you ever watch the Daily Show, John Oliver, MSNBC, or Fox News, you may recognize a formula for feeding off these oversimplifications.

Here’s the formula:

  1. Tell story about reprehensible behavior
  2. Reprehensible behavior perpetrated by Robert the Republican
  3. This reprehensible behavior is a pattern of Republican Party
  4. Tell additional stories about additional reprehensible behavior by other Republicans to show pattern
  5. The Left expresses righteous indignation about the pattern of reprehensible behavior
  6. Left is therefore just and superior

When you cram the whole world into two categories, it’s easy to find objectionable patterns among disparate groups of people. But southern whites are different from Mormons in Utah and Confucianists in China and fascists in Indonesia. The irrational behavior of anti-government militants in Idaho does not have any bearing on the rational economic arguments of a conservative professor at the University of Chicago. They are not responsible for each other’s behavior.

We all know this to be true. But the left-right distinction encourages us to think that because The Other has allied with someone engaging in objectionable behavior, the Other is somehow tacitly supporting that behavior. The problem with that thinking is that with each group comprising approximately half the world’s population, someone in The Other’s alliance will always be engaging in scandalous behavior.

This generates endless fodder for cable news programs (and the programs that lampoon them), but it’s facile and tiresome. And, of course, the identity politics associated with these groups eventually takes on a life of its own, wherein regardless of what policy is considered, our opinions of the policies are heavily shaped by who we perceive as the messenger.

In sum, our social and tribal affiliation with our political allies is very real. But the underlying policy bases to the left-right distinction are both ephemeral and flimsy. Whenever you hear a critique of “the left” or “the right,” you can feel confident a lazy generalization or a straw man will soon follow. Which is why I think that the left-right distinction in politics is very much overrated.