Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Great Divide

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.”
—British writer and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell
Last month a friend was visiting from the States. As we discussed America’s strange political situation, he shared an interesting take. One lesson his father taught him early on and which stuck with him was that, “when there is trouble, it always comes from the right.”

That got me to thinking. Does trouble really always come from the same side? And what do “left” and “right” really mean when it comes to politics anyway? That may seem like a silly question in this polarized time but, to my mind, it is always good to question things that we think we know. For the simplicity of mass consumption, political views have been purposely reconfigured by the media and by politicians as binary. Everything is either/or—either conservative or liberal, either Democrat or Republican, either right or wrong, either left or right.

The world is much more complex than the dumbed-down binary view suggests. In the U.S. there is a wide range of varying opinions that do not easily fit in the either/or pigeon holes—and that’s just the Republican party. There is also diversity of opinion on the Democratic side, but it seems somehow more reined in, mainly because Democratic voters tend to be very united, if only by the notion that letting Republicans into power is a horrible prospect.

If you do not see the diversity of opinion out there, then you may be over-influenced by the mass media and/or whichever political party you pay attention to. For a long time the modus operandi of the political parties has been to focus on the most extreme individuals in the opposite camp and then paint those whackos as representative and typical of the entire party. That is why so many Democrats take it as given that all Republicans are knuckle-dragging, science-disbelieving, religious fundamentalists and why so many Republicans think the typical Democrat is a rabid communist who wants to confiscate all private property.

Where does the left/right terminology come from anyway? As with so many things, we can thank—or blame—the French. The terms go all the way back to 1789 when, in France’s National Assembly, the king’s supporters sat to the assembly president’s right and supporters of the French Revolution were on his left. During the 19th century, as political groupings grew, re-generated and sub-divided, the terms left and right were refined into categories such as extreme left, extreme right, center left, center right and, simply, the center. Generally, the left was called the party of movement and the right the party of order. In the 20th century, the notion of a left/right political spectrum spread to other countries. In Britain the terms came into use in the 1930s in debates over the Spanish Civil War. Early on, the left was generally considered republican, that is, anti-monarchial, and the right was conservative or pro-monarchy. How do these labels work in countries like the U.S. where absolutely no one is in favor of a instituting a monarchy?

Today the left is understood to champion values such as equality, rights, progress, reform and internationalism. That sounds pretty good, right? But political scientists also lump in other strains as part of the left, such as anarchism, communism and socialism. Similarly, the right is considered to comprise such values as authority, order, duty, tradition and nationalism. Again, political scientists throw in other disparate strains, which included libertarians, imperialists, monarchists and fascists. How do a libertarian and a fascist have anything in common?

When you think about it, this two-way division of political philosophies really makes no sense. Do not the center-left and center-right have more in common with each other—espousing moderation and democratic principles—than they do with either the extreme-left or extreme-right, both of which tend toward authoritarianism? In fact, do not the latter two groups have more than a fair amount in common themselves? In fact, if we study the history of Germany and Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, we find that groups considered communist and fascist and which spawned Hitler and Mussolini were all part of the same general grouping of agitating movements. Today people generally talk of the Nazis as “right wing” even though the party’s name was an acronym that prominently included the word socialist.

That is the strange thing. Parties of the center-left and center-right are often more inclined to build coalitions with or seek votes from parties on their fringes rather than poaching them from the center. That leads to what are called “establishment” Republican politicians, who are pro-business and pro-immigration and moderate on environmental questions, courting votes from voters who are farther right, who may be nativist and religiously fundamentalist. In turn, relatively moderate Democrats like the Clintons, who at the end of the day are not that far off from the philosophy of moderate Republicans, find themselves sweet-talking everyone from socialists to fairly narrow interest groups with their own hardline agendas. Why do the groupings in the center not align against the fringes on the left and right?

It’s a mystery. Sometimes the center does come together. One could argue that is what happened in the case of Ronald Reagan, who was not only popular among Republicans but also attracted a lot of blue-collar voters who were traditionally Democrats. Similarly, Bill Clinton was popular among Democrats while also attracting a large number of so-called swing voters, many of whom had voted for Reagan. During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, however, the lines hardened with center-left and center-right gravitating toward their fringes. Why? Was it the war in Iraq? Was it the fundamental change in the economy in which the middle class saw its standard of living erode in the face of globalisation?

My worry is that what we are seeing is something more ominous. As traditional religion becomes less relevant in the West, it is as though politics has replaced religion in becoming the chief way people identify themselves and their values. If that is true, then the increasingly implacable lines we see drawn between left and right are less honest policy differences and more old-fashioned tribalism. And the more people’s positions are pulled toward the extremes as opposed to the center, the more people will accept the extremes’ insistence on specific results over adherence to constitutionalism and compromise.