Friday, November 8, 2019

Going to Extremes

In my last post (discussing the situation in Chile) I once again violated a resolution I keep making and then breaking. I broke my promise to stop using the political labels of “left” and “right.”

The problem is that these labels—along with “liberal” and “conservative”—are just too handy not to use. After all, everyone else uses them, and people generally understand what you mean by them. The older I get, though, the more I wonder whether these labels actually have any real meaning or whether they are merely banners to cluster around—like national flags or the names of sports teams.

Do these labels actually inform our understanding of the day’s politics or do they simply impose a mental filter that keeps us from perceiving the true reality?

A brief recap. The left/right political paradigm goes back more than two centuries. It comes from legislative seating arrangements in the time of the French Revolution. Members of the aristocracy sat in the honored position to the Speaker’s right. Commoners sat to his left. It is worth noting that in those days commoners in the legislature were not peasants or laborers but the rising capitalist class, that is, the bourgeoisie. This is also the roots of our concepts of conservatives and liberals. The former strove to conserve the institutions of monarchy and the established church, while the latter worked to liberate the people from the power of those institutions. That is somewhat at odds with our modern concept of the two words. Nowadays in America a conservative is more likely to be trying to restrain the power of government, while the liberal would be in favor of increasing it.

Of course, individual people’s political opinions do not all fall neatly into two broad categories. There is a huge array of beliefs and positions on issues of the day. For convenience, people place individual philosophies on a broad spectrum, in an echo of 18th-century France, running from left to right. Movements like communism, socialism, centrism, libertarianism, and fascism are placed along a row like colors of a rainbow to help us understand how one might relate to the others. Movements at the extreme ends tend to be authoritarian in character, while those in the center are considered more democratic.

What is interesting, though, is the affinity that those near the center tend to feel for their more authoritarian fellows on their half of the spectrum. Republicans will accept—if not exactly advertise or celebrate—any votes they can get, even if they come from the far right. Democrats, likewise, will not refute votes from hard-core Marxists if it gets their candidates across the electoral line. Why do things work this way? Why is there not more cooperation among those in the middle, even if they belong to different parties? For that matter, why do believers in authoritarianism not cooperate with others who, like them, want the government to exert more control?

The second question is easier to answer. If authoritarians want the government to have more power, it is not simply as a matter of principle, They want the power specifically for themselves or for people who think like they do. That is why you do not see communists and fascists making alliances of convenience.

Actually, that is not exactly true, is it? Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did exactly that with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, although it did not work out well for either of them. In fact, what strikes me about German history between the two world wars is the proliferation of radical movements. They all meant to rescue the country from its post-war state, and they all had authoritarian tendencies. Adolf Hitler’s movement went through several name changes, but they all had the word socialist in the title, including the Nazi party of which the full name was National Socialist German Workers Party. Historians put the Nazis on the right end of the political spectrum, but one wonders why. Because Hitler was virulently anti-communist? Yet that enmity looks to me more like a vicious rivalry among radical autocrats than like movements separated by a vast philosophical gulf.

By placing the Nazis on the extreme right of the political spectrum, though, it makes it easier for Democrats to compare Republican presidents they do not like to Hitler and Republicans in general to fascists. Hitler and Stalin may have ended up as bitter enemies, but did they not have a fair amount in common—at least in terms of disdain for democratic norms? Of course, linking politicians of the present to extremists of the past is not exclusively a Democratic tactic. Republicans unhappy with Democrats’ handling of the current impeachment inquiry, for example, have been quick to compare the closed hearings to Soviet show trials.

What interests me is why politicians in the broad center have a certain amount of tolerance for the extremes on their side of the spectrum. Is it all down to political expediency because it is the only way to get to a majority? Does that lead them to hear only what they want to hear from the fringes? Extremists have a habit of extolling the virtues of democracy in their rhetoric, yet both the hard left and the hard right would be similarly repressive—although in different ways—if they ever came to power.

If we could all get collective amnesia and forget about the well-entrenched left/right political-spectrum concept, I wonder if it would become clearer to moderates of both parties that their interests lie with each other rather than the more extreme elements upon whom they sometimes rely for votes. As it is, though, Democratic voters currently appear to be leaning in a more socialist direction. Moderate Republicans, on the other hand, have worried for more than three years about the direction President Trump is taking their party.

Will the so-called center somehow prevail in spite of all this? Or do politicians, perceiving the country as having an appetite for radical change, doing their best to foster an impression of providing it? In doing so, though, do they risk power ultimately landing with either the nationalist right or the socialist left? And we have seen plenty of examples in history of where that leads.

If it should happen, we can blame (at least in part) that concept of the left/right political spectrum that has been pounded into our brains for the past two centuries.

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