Sunday, January 6, 2013

Left, Right, and Other Directions: Getting Over One-Dimensional Politics

During the French Revolution, members of the National Assembly began to sort themselves according to their politics. Traditionalist supporters of king and church sat on the right, while those favoring radical ideas like establishing a more secular republic sat on the left. The terms "left" and "right" stuck, and today we talk about a political spectrum spanning the range from communism on the far left to fascism on the far right.

It's a strange idea, really. For one thing, the directions are completely arbitrary. If the members of the National Assembly had sat in a different arrangement, today we might be talking about far-left Republicans and far-right Democrats. Also, the idea of a political spectrum implies that political views are simple enough to plot along a single dimension, and that everyone's political views can be accurately plotted on that line. They can't. I have a friend who is an absolute fire-breathing liberal...except that he's against gun control. Where do you put him on that line? You can't. Like most people, he's simply not one-dimensional.

The political spectrum is a crude instrument. It reminds me of one of those cheap radios which, instead of having separate knobs for bass and treble, simply has one labeled "tone". Still, these days in the United States, even the idea of a political spectrum seems to be too subtle for some people. We've slipped into either/or, black/white thinking. The center has not held. It's given way to a sort of no man's land where people fear to venture, for fear of being called a traitor.  The other day, I picked up a recent issue of The American Spectator. The first article in the magazine referred to Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, as "Judas" for saying nice things about how the Obama administration handled Hurricane Sandy. I've heard other moderate Republicans, like the Davids--Frum and Brookes--called traitors. Many on the right these days collapse everyone left of center into a big heap; lumping liberals, socialists, and even communists all together.

But liberals do the same things. Some of them see Obama as a traitor for some of his centrist--even right-leaning--policies (keeping Guantanamo Bay Prison open, for example). Some of them also consider it taboo to say nice things about the other side. I've had some very liberal friends get mad at me for saying far-right politicians might be decent people in some ways.

These days, in other words, we see politics less as a spectrum and more like this:

It's either/or. You're either a liberal or a conservative, in this view, and there's no room in the middle. It's like the tone dial on that cheap radio has gotten even less useful. It's become a switch, which forces you to choose bass or treble. If you try to step into the center, you'll find you have nowhere to stand. Move that way from either direction, and someone behind you will lump you with the other side and call you a traitor.

Maybe we should put the center back, and give it some respect. People tend to think of moderates as wishy-washy fencesitters. But that's not necessarily true. Some people carefully considere all the evidence for and against various issues, and the conclusions they draw happen to place them in the center. Those who think moderates must be too noncommittal to take a stand are subscribing to the simple-minded view that there are only two possible sides. Besides, moderation has a long and respectable history. As smart people like Aristotle and Buddha have reminded us, wisdom very often requires finding a balance between opposite extremes. Principled, thoughtful moderates should hold their head high, and tell both sides they have a right to be there.

But the center is a precarious place to be. It's less well-defined than left and right. Those in the center don't have a clearly defined group they can identify with, so there's a temptation to join one side or the other. Ideologues on both sides are suspicious of them. So, moderates can stay in the center and be glared at from both sides, or they can join a side and have clearly-defined allies. Contrary to the charges of wishy-washiness, it can be much more comfortable to take a side. In Elmer Kelton's Texas Ranger Trilogy, the sheriff trying to keep the peace says, "I'm just tryin' to stay in the middle ground". His wise preacher friend replies, "That can be the most dangerous place of all. People shoot at you from both sides."

With the human tendencies toward binary thinking and tribalism, being a moderate is like standing on a knife-edged ridge. If you're not careful, you'll roll down one side or the other, into one of the more well-defined groups. Maybe you'll have fiercer enemies then, but you'll also have fiercer friends. You'll have a well-defined identity, and a social support system. This may sound a bit like a slippery slope argument, but in this case the slope really is slippery. There's a lot of pressure to join one side or the other.

So, maybe instead of thinking in the binary bins of left and right, we should put the center back in its rightful, respectable place, as a well-defined group. Maybe this country needs a Moderate Party, so that the moderates have a place to call home.

Of course, this just divides the binary vision of politics into three categories--Left, Right, and Moderate--and that's still much too simplistic. It still lumps everyone on the right, and everyone on the left, together--as though there were no diversity on either side. But there's a great deal of diversity. Ronald Reagan was no Mussolini, and Barack Obama is no Lenin. People on both sides think there's a slippery slope from the moderate regions of the other side to the extreme regions. Some on the right, for example, think that if we institute universal healthcare, before long we'll be living in collective farms or gulags.

But I admit that as a moderate liberal, I've had the same thoughts in the opposite direction. George W. Bush really did remind me of Mussolini when he talked about the country "speaking with one voice". The little black bumper stickers that said "W. The President" scared me. I thought they smacked of fascism; of authoritarian ultra-nationalism and blind allegiance to a charismatic leader. I kept thinking of the quote attributed to Sinclair Lewis, "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross". Still, I doubt that W was really an American fascist. I think he would have stopped at some point and said, "That's far enough". But I wish he had said so more often.

It seems that some people on the left see the political spectrum like this:

While some on the right see it like this:

The right sees the left on a slippery slope that could tumble into communism, and the left sees the right on a slippery slope to fascism. But neither slope is as slippery as the other side thinks. I tend to be fairly liberal, and many of my friends are more liberal than me. But none of them are communists. I've only ever met two communists, and that was in Canada.  Liberal or not, I didn't identify with them. In fact, I thought both of them were loud-mouthed fools. I don't think I know anybody who is even a socialist, if by "socialist" you mean someone who thinks "the state should own most means of production". Most liberals are just that: liberals. They're not socialists, much less communists. And most conservatives are conservatives. They're not closet fascists or Nazis.

There's a lot of diversity along the political spectrum, and in the United States today, it may be that the only slippery slope is away from the center. But even if we think in terms of a spectrum instead of a binary opposition, we're still just thinking in terms of one dimension, and that's just not enough. I started to realize this in college. That was the heyday of campus political correctness, in the early '90's. While I'm glad we no longer refer to humankind as "Man", sometimes this movement went too far. Liberalism was starting to turn away from freedom of speech more than I liked, and I started thinking of the political spectrum as a sort of circle, where the farther you got toward either extreme, the less you were interested in preserving freedom.

But I was still thinking in one-dimensional terms, as though there were some law of nature that says politics must be plotted on a single line, however slope-y or circular. It makes more sense to just add another dimension, as the people at have done. They have added a dimension of authoritarianism versus libertarianism.

This gives us a two-dimensional chart. The left-right axis charts economic attitudes: if you're for extensive government control of the economy, you're on the far left, and if you're all about free markets, then you're on the far right. But your place on that axis might have nothing to do with your views on personal freedom. Someone on the left or right economically could still be a strong believer in civil liberties. On this chart, Stalin would be in the upper left, while Hitler or Mussolini would be just right of center at the top. Someone like George W. Bush would be somewhere in the upper right, but (hopefully) not that close to Mussolini. American libertarians, who are usually all for personal freedom about things like sex, drugs, and religion, but also pro-free market, would be in the lower right hand corner. The traditional left-right spectrum can't do justice to libertarianism at all.

But this chart has its drawbacks, too. Some authoritarians, for example, are all for tradition, while others are for revolution. The religious right in the US is authoritarian to varying degrees about traditional values, but Stalin and Mao were authoritarian in a completely non-traditionalist way--they wanted to overturn the traditional order. The chart above can't capture that difference well, because it defines left and right in purely economic terms. Some people handle this by taking a slightly different perspective, and separating social views from fiscal views, as in the chart below. You hear libertarians in the United States saying they are fiscal conservatives and social liberals. A libertarian might be farther right than Ronald Reagan on economic issues, but couldn't care less about people's religion, sex life, or drug use.

But this chart still just shows two-dimensions.  To capture the traditionalism dimension as well as the authoritarianism/libertarianism dimension, and the left-right economic dimension, you would have to have a three-dimensional chart: a cube. But that would be hard to visualize.  Besides, what if we added another dimension? Nobody can visualize a four-dimensional chart. It's better to visualize more than two dimensions as shown below. Now we've upgraded the stupid little "tone" knob. Now we have an equalizer. We're Hi-Fi.

Now we can start to do justice to the range of views people really have, especially those who can't be accurately placed on the simple left-right spectrum (and most people can't). Here we can see how a moderate liberal who values civil liberties (me), compares to an authoritarian communist like Stalin. Regardless of what some people think about liberals, we're not that close:

Of course, there are many more factors that determine a person's politics than these three, and other ways of dividing them. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has parsed political attitudes in a different way, along five different dimensions that affect peoples' political leanings: "1) harm/care, 2) fairness/reciprocity (including issues of rights), 3) ingroup/loyalty, 4) authority/respect, and 5) purity/sanctity".  (I described these in detail in this post). The "authority" dimension is similar to the one in the Political Compass chart above, but views on economic policy and traditionalism are divided into multiple other dimensions. In the chart below, we can see how American liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and Tea Party supporters differ on these dimensions.

Now, in all the charts above, we're talking about people's attitudes in general. We're not talking about particular political issues. But the traditional left-right spectrum fails us when it comes to those, too, as in the case of my gun-toting-but-otherwise-liberal friend. So why not divide those up too, and tackle each one on its own terms, rather than lumping them together? After all, why should your stance on abortion have anything to do with your stance on gun control, or gay marriage? Maybe a common set of values informs your opinions on all three, as it does for many in the religious right, or maybe it doesn't, as with libertarians.  It makes more sense to picture each issue as a separate knob on a political equalizer, like the one above, except with particular issues instead of general attitudes.

That's a whole lot more sophisticated than the left-right spectrum, to say nothing of the liberal vs. conservative dichotomy. But it's still a little too simple. Because if we focus in on most issues, we'll find that they are really a set of issues. For example, the range of possible views about abortion can't be captured by setting a knob somewhere along the pro-choice/pro-life axis. What about someone who is pro-choice up until the fetus can experience pain, and pro-life afterward? We would have to put such a person somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but it would be more accurate to just have a more complex scale--an abortion attitudes equalizer, perhaps. Or maybe it would be better to forget the graphics at this point and describe in words the nuances of that person's belief.

That's the thing: all labels and graphics are limited. They're just maps, not the territory itself. The more detailed the map, the better (within reason), but no map captures the full complexity of the political landscape. Some may say we should keep things simple, and that all these nuances about politics are too complicated. Well, reality is complicated, and our political views need to be complicated enough to navigate that reality honestly, if not always effectively. People forget that. They forget that reality is more complicated than our simple dichotomies, and even our sophisticated charts. When they mistake the maps for reality, they start thinking reality is as simple as their maps are. It isn't.

Political labels tend to short-circuit independent thought. As soon as we label ourselves as liberals, conservatives, libertarians, or whatever, we're in danger of thinking: I'm a ___________ therefore I think ___________. That's backwards. What we should do is decide independently what we think about each issue, based on a careful consideration of the facts and arguments, instead of how we were raised, how we label ourselves, or what our friends think.

Of course, that's hard to do. We don't have time to research all the issues, we have different psychological predispositions and biases, and it's easier to follow a crowd and buy an ideology as a package deal. In fact, it's hard not to, because political groups have more to do with tribal loyalty than critical thinking. Whether you're part of the liberal tribe or the conservative tribe, tribalism is a powerful force. Break ranks on a hot issue, and you're sure to be criticized, and possibly ostracized.

These are all real issues, but none of them have much to do with truth. In fact, they all get in the way of it. Tribalism, in particular, is a lousy way of figuring out what's true and right. People should think very carefully before calling people traitors because they've drawn a different conclusion than the rest of their peers. No worthwhile ideology should seek to protect itself from dissent. If what we're seeking is truth, not ideology, the idea of betraying an ideology is nonsensical. Our loyalty should lie with truth, not ideology. If the ideology is wrong, we shouldn't believe it anymore. If we think something because someone tells us to, or because that's what people with our label are supposed to think, we're not actually thinking. We have to learn to think first, and apply labels second. Or maybe we should just ditch the labels altogether, so we'll remember to think for ourselves.