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Times change, and issues change, but human nature remains remarkably enduring. One political constant through the generations are two general attitudes that compete with one another. These attitudes encompass many factions and schools of thought, some of which don't see eye-to-eye on the details, though they loosely cohere on the broad strokes. These two attitudes shift and evolve with the times, but the underlying psychology, values, and intuitions of each remain as constant as human nature. While language can be particularly imprecise when discussing political labels, we can't properly discuss these attitudes without calling them something. So, let's call them the left and the right.
One of the clearest distillations of what the left and the right are came from political philosopher Richard Rorty in his 1998 book “Achieving Our Country.” Rorty, himself a leftist, defined the right as the belief that society's moral identity has already been achieved for the most part. Those who subscribe to this view therefore seek either to preserve the current way of things, or to return society to a point in the past when it was better. The left, by contrast, sees society's moral identity as still to be achieved, unfinished, and therefore seeks change toward progress. At bottom, virtually every meaningful distinction between the left and right can be boiled down to these different perspectives and the goals they inspire, but it deserves more exploration.
The right is the side of tradition, caution, and the status quo. It represents a wariness of change, in some cases even close-mindedness. The right mostly wants things to stay the same. This sometimes manifests as a desire to return to some previous state of affairs — real or imagined — from which we should never have strayed, and then keep that the same. If forward movement is unavoidable, the right wants it to be as slow and incremental as possible.
The right is nearly always the side standing in the way of change, arguing that changes are too much too fast, that there is overreach, pendulum effects, and unintended consequences. The right tends to be pessimistic regarding human nature, and the capacity for big changes to be successfully implemented as intended. Often, the right sees humanity not as it should be, but as they believe it is. When the right sees big or new ideas, it does not see potential — only the potential for things to go wrong.
The right has a desired end goal. The kind of society the right wants to see is either mostly already here, or in need of being recaptured from the past, and all that need be done at that point is to maintain it. This is not at all how the left thinks.
The left is the side of progress, bold ideas, and change. It represents an impatient need for trailblazing forward that in some cases can be reckless. The further left one goes, the urgency for progress is exponentially intensified, and the direness of the problems are magnified.
The left is nearly always the side pushing for change, or for casting down existing systems, orders, or hierarchies. The left looks to the future, to an infinite horizon that can never be reached. The left is the side of hope, possibility, and optimism with respect to human nature and the capacity for big changes to work. It sees humanity not as it is, but as the left believes it should and could be.
The left does not have a desired ultimate end goal. However victorious it might be, the left can never and will never be satisfied. There will (or must) always be a new goal, some further peak to reach for. Leftist thought, in its quintessence, cannot admit of any future state, however paradisiacal to our present eyes, where it would be acceptable to declare that our moral identity has finally been achieved, and we must now shift to preserving it. There is always more work to be done.
The right and the left can both sometimes appear to act out of character. When viewed in context and through their underlying psychologies, however, these actions almost always make sense. For example, if a particular policy represents a change from the status quo, the right will generally oppose it. But if the cry for change has amassed an unstoppable momentum behind it, such that change is inevitable, the right may back this very same proposal in order to prevent a competing, more ambitious plan. They may also back it because they sense that doing nothing might lead to an upheaval far more radical than any changes brought about by the policy in question. Superficially, advocating for reforms seems out of character, but in context, the decision makes sense — conceding smaller changes can shore up the system enough to prevent greater changes later.
Similarly, the left may vehemently oppose certain proposals which would legitimately constitute progress from the status quo, if by doing so there is a chance to enact a more ambitious policy or drag the conversation to the left. On the surface, the left is resisting achievable progress, in some cases progress they themselves have advocated for previously. But in context, it’s jockeying to maximize change over time. The left may also sometimes adopt tactics that seem to contradict their values, such as creating rigidly enforced orthodoxies and hierarchies, if doing so creates an avenue to force certain changes through society that would otherwise either be impossible or take much longer.
The Right's Advantage
In every contest between the two, the left is at an inherent disadvantage. The left's goals are often more complex, counterintuitive, harder to explain, and less familiar. It requires much less knowledge, understanding, and expertise to keep things the same as it does to progress forward. Anyone can stick with what they've got or come across an idea and reject it. But it takes ingenuity and vision to develop a plan and put it into action. It is the difference between criticizing an idea versus coming up with one of your own. Both are needed, but one much more difficult, and therefore more important, too.
There is a reason why higher educational attainment and intelligence are correlated with a leftward skew. But wisdom is not unique to or correlated with either side. It may take more brains to build than to criticize, but sometimes the building plans are fatally flawed. It's true that the right, at the macro level, is more appealing than the left among those without a great deal of education, but that should not be taken as a categorical disparagement. Formal education isn't the be-all and end-all. The highly educated can — as a result of their education and the socio-cultural cloisters it funnels them into — be stunningly out of touch with the general public, human nature, and the mundane but essential necessities of what it takes to make ends meet and get things done. Education and raw intelligence are also no guarantee of common sense, but they do guarantee that one will be more adept at self-deception and self-rationalization.
If the left enacts changes that are poorly thought out or implemented, the changes may be ineffective, cause great harm, or have unintended consequences. And so, the left also has the greater burden of responsibility, because the side that brings about changes that turn out poorly will always be more to blame than the side who obstructs needed change. The left’s goals are harder to understand and sell, their role is more difficult, and their failures more damaging.
The Dance That Sculpts Society
Yet for all of these advantages, the right cannot stop the left, they can only hope to contain them. Sure, the right might win a skirmish here or a battle there. They might even string together a series of victories. But the left always wins the war. Always. Young people are collectively more open to change than older folks, more likely to embrace new ideas. It’s true that most people drift rightward as they age. But the shift is rarely total — some portion of one’s views are usually carried from their youth. As the generations change, conservatives die of old age, to be replaced by young leftists who retain some of their progressive views throughout their life. Most of the left’s ideas permeate and percolate through society in this way until time has laundered them of their unfamiliarity, complexity, and radicalism — at which point they become mainstream.
The left endeavors to speed this process along with political activism and by leveraging their cultural dominance. Left thinking naturally aligns with art and creativity, and every generation’s storytellers and cultural influencers end up doing more than political activists to advance left-leaning ideas and sentiments. The task then falls to the right to either hold the line or attempt the roll back the clocks if they can, and to obstruct and stymie the left if they cannot. As the left (and the right, for that matter) rarely controls majorities of political power or public opinion commanding enough to unilaterally pass their agenda, the right, even when in the minority, can successfully stand in the way of change. The ensuing war of ideas, cultural back and forth, and political negotiations serve to moderate and soften change. This is the ebb and flow, the give and take, that is needed for the stable, sustainable, long-term health of a society.
Any country where the left was completely unchecked would soon become dysfunctional. Change too much too quickly and people will not be able to keep up. Systems will be unable to absorb and integrate the changes. The delicate, intricate, and most importantly, organically formed and distributed nature of society and its inner workings will be disrupted catastrophically. And that’s to say nothing of the many inevitable unintended consequences from so many changes. It would be a disaster.
On the other hand, a society where the right was completely unchecked would stagnate and devolve first into mediocrity, then into irrelevance, and eventually into squalor. In an ever-changing world, standing still is losing ground. The problems we face are always shifting and evolving. They won’t slow down out of politeness because we’ve decided to freeze time and turn the country into some kind of nostalgic rerun tableau. First the world would pass us by, and then we would be swallowed by problems that walls, missiles, and bullets are incapable of solving.
An unbridled left would be like floodwaters inundating a land and ruining everything. A right with a stranglehold would be a parched desert. But in tandem, each side checked by the other, is like a dam that lets water through at a reasonable flow. Enough to provide water to the land, but not so much that it becomes flooded. We can debate about what the ideal balance is, but a balance we must have.
A Note On Moderates, Centrists, and Labels
Political labels being what they are, even though I’ve explained how I’ve used the terms “left and “right” — pertaining to the attitudes toward change and the moral identity of society — people still bring their own meanings with them, and may try to impose them over the versions used for the purposes of this essay. Some might see “Democrat” or some other left-leaning political party every time they read “left”, or see “Republican” or some other right-leaning party when they read “right.” Or one might see “left”, and think far-left, such as some form of marxism, or interpret “right” to mean far-right. Again, I have deliberately chosen Richard Rorty’s definitions of the left and right precisely in order to make these categories broad enough to encompass every faction.
One cannot speak of whole societies without resort to generality, and generality requires concepts that are widely inclusive. While there may be many differences and disagreements between, say, a moderate left-liberal and a socialist, or a bow-tied never-Trump neocon and a hardcore MAGA type, these two sets of people on the left and right still fall neatly into their respective camps using Rorty’s definitions. They may disagree on the details, but they share the same foundational attitudes toward change and society’s moral identity.
This raises the question of where centrists fit in all of this. Centrism, in this view, is mostly a pseudo position. However moderate one’s views may be on a particular issue, or in politics generally, the choice still has to be made whether to push for changing the current way of things, or keeping them the same. Regardless of the varied forms those attitudes might manifest as, politics really does reduce to that binary, at bottom.
See also: “Meta-conservatism: The Last Hope for the Right”
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I'm unsure if this really captures the left/right divide all that well. It does capture strong currents within both - namely the progressive strain of leftism and the conservative or reactionary strain of rightism, but there are plenty of examples of both leftists wanting to turn back the clock and rightists wanting to change society.
An example of the former is how many leftists want to reverse economic liberalisation efforts undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s. e.g. through strengthening unions and anti-monopoly regulation, reversing various welfare reforms e.g. means testing, or re-nationalising certain industries. On the latter, rightists were often the first to introduce economic liberalisation in the first place - for example the Goods and Services Tax was introduced in Australia by the right amidst fierce opposition from the left.
Good essay, though it seems to imply that all societies are generally shaped by this dance between left and right when that isn't necessarily the case. In many emerging nations for example where the national identity is only weakly established and ethnic conflicts predominate, it's arguable whether there even is anything readily identifiable as a left-right divide.