What plagues humanity is the staying power of bad ideas. Concepts that are fundamentally irrational (ie. the means substantively don’t match the ends) or even simply nonsensical (ie. no intellectual substance in the first place) can stick around in popular thought and discourse indefinitely if the social psychological conditions are in place. The “left” versus “right” dichotomy is one such concept – one that is both irrational and nonsensical, yet pervasive.
Consider the most basic point: what is “left” and what is “right?” Dictionaries tend to only offer for definition, for instance, that leftism means the principles and views of the left whereas rightism means the principles and views of the right. They do not actually specify what those “principles and views” are, and for good reason. There are no ‘principles and views’ that are necessarily right but not left or viceversa. The terms are arbitrary. They can mean anything or nothing, and often do. What is “left” to you may be “right” to me, or to my grandpa, or to a person in another state or country or in a different language.
Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazis) are often cited as an example of the “extreme right-wing,” but also less often as an example of the “extreme leftism.” Self-identified leftists may refer to Josef Stalin as “right-wing,” yet he is often put forward as an exemplar of “extreme leftism” by others.
At the root of this confusion is the concept of an aggregated, one-dimensional left-to-right spectrum of positions itself. It is inanely childish, an oversimplification to the point of being worse than nothing. (Worse because it creates artificial division, confusion, groupthink, etc.) If it were an accurate representation of the differences between human positions on the world, imagine the epiphanic moment of its discovery: “My God! A line!”
Various political scientists have attempted to refine the concept into a form that actually means something. MIT political scientist David Nolan popularized the so-called Nolan chart, where economic and civil liberty are the two axes and left-right is the diagonal:
an alternative, circular spectrum:
These spectra are less nonsensical and do have some substantive point, however they are still problematic. The actual sociopolitical positions of human beings exist on different levels of complexity and what these kind of visualizations miss, among other things, is the matching of means to ends. Two people may want the same ends, but see different means to those ends as optimal. A simple graphing of means to the same ends is not a question of personal position, but one of objective reasoning, logic, and science. To adhere to some means to an end based on some attraction to the means other than its likelihood of bringing about the ends is irrational. And, of course, people may (do) have differently prioritized ends, which are not aggregatable as Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel prize for demonstrating… and this is assuming “left” or “right” really even are positions, as opposed to
- geocultural background (I grew up a small town in the South, naturally I’m a conservative) or
- aspirations of social identity (I am a cultured urbanite, I’m man of the left) or
- personal identity or emotive labeling (I care about people. I feel I’m of the left, it’s part of who I am) or
- a perceived attitude about the world (I’m for America, I’m a patriot, I’m of the right)
or various other things unrelated to the actual substance of the positions. With regards to the substance of sociopolitical positions, the “left” vs. “right” dichotomy is functionally a non-concept… and in a perfect world would have been abandoned long ago. Alas, it persists in popular thought and discourse to detriment of critical thinking.