I was listening to The Tommy C Show last Saturday. At the beginning of the show, Tom discusses absolutes. He commented that he knows several Democrats “and they are not communists.” At the time, I had just finished reading Dr. Mather’s book Implicit Biases and the Unconscious: Liberal Biases, Racial Prejudice, and Politics.
In his podcast, Tom was admonishing conservatives not to paint the entire opposition with the same brush. In Dr. Mather’s book, he discusses in-group vs. out-group thinking and points out that it is common for us to view our in-group as diverse individuals while thinking of the out-group as all the same – to stereotype the out-group.
This connection started me thinking about this article. I had initially decided to write about what the political spectrum looks like but as I started researching I found statements and claims that simply did not make sense to me.
The chart above is from Drexel University and is typical of what I found. Keep in mind that the creator of the chart has the colors backward (red is left, blue is right). I also found more than one source which claimed that conservatives embrace authority and control. Dr. Mather was kind enough to provide me with a reference (cited below) that convincingly disputed the assumption that conservatives lean authoritarian (any more than anyone else does).
Black Lives Matter shouting down anyone saying all lives matter is authoritarian. Cancel culture is authoritarian.
I concluded after a few days that the left-right political spectrum, as commonly understood, is not properly understood. This completely changed the direction of this article.
The common understanding seems to be that at the extreme left you have communism, and on the extreme right, you have fascists and Nazis. I’ve always been a bit confused by the fact that when you get to the extreme ends, it becomes difficult to tell the difference. Could it be a loop rather than a line (as depicted in the picture above)? How else can you head in two different directions and end up in the same place?
I’ll use as a starting place the political center in the United States. I’ll define the center as people that believe in the ideals in the founding documents, value individual liberty, understand that we need some taxes to pay for things like defense, infrastructure, education, and public safety, and understand that some government regulation is necessary.
The common understanding of the spectrum from center to left makes sense to me. Moving from the center to the left we have FDR Democrats (social security, welfare, etc.), we have what now are commonly called progressives that favor even more government redistribution such as free healthcare and college (more taxes, more government control), and finally at the extreme end is communism. Moving from the center to the left means ever greater government control and fewer individual rights until you reach the point where the government controls everything and there are no individual rights.
The common understanding of the spectrum from center to right makes sense to me only to a certain point. Moving from center to right we have people that want to limit social welfare programs and reduce taxes. Further right are folks that want to dramatically reduce government size and power (particularly the federal government). Next, I would put the libertarians which in the more extreme form want to almost eliminate government as we understand it – all rights are individual, government power to coerce is almost completely gone. At this point, the common understanding takes a dramatic turn. At the extreme right, we have fascism. Suddenly we went from almost no government at all to government control of everything and no individual rights; everything and every individual is subordinated to the state which is under the control of a dictator.
Extreme libertarianism is to me, about as far right as one can get. It makes no sense to me at all to call fascism right-wing. Is this my own bias at work? As someone right of center, do I want to disown the “far-right”? Maybe.
However, taking any “far-right” faction or group (neo-Nazi, KKK, fascists, etc.), what I see is quite little in the way of political ideology. These groups resemble religious cults more than anything else. They typically embrace some radical belief system that can not be proven (or disproven), or a belief system based on pure fantasy (usually both). I’m not sure they belong on the political spectrum at all, and if they do, it would be far left; in the total government control camp. In any case, there is nothing conservative about them. To be fair, putting such groups on the far right is not a settled matter among historians and political scientists; there is and has been considerable debate.
How this common understanding came to be is not entirely clear. I have a few suspicions though.
What we now think of as the conservative coalition began in the ’50s and ’60s with William F. Buckley Jr. founding National Review and the Goldwater presidential campaign. Among the “groups” that formed this coalition were religious conservatives as well as northern moderate Republicans such as Nelson Rockefeller. The Republican party in general (at the time) was seen as the party of Wall Street. The religious right gained prominence during the Reagan era (Moral Majority). The political opposition and their allies in the press naturally wanted to paint Republicans as extreme. The religious right wants to make the country a theocracy and the friends of big business were angling for corporatism in the style of the Nazis (abolish trade unions, hand corporations more power, all in the service of the state). Such eventualities would indeed be authoritarian if they ever actually came to fruition. But this painting of Republicans as extreme was simply politically driven hype.
The education system is also very much responsible for this mischaracterization. The graph above, from a university, tells the story better than I can. The left bias is stunningly evident.
As for my bias, any conservative would naturally want to distance themselves from something as ugly as fascism; and we do. It’s concerning though that few Democrats seem to be distancing themselves from AOC, the Squad, BLM, Senator Sanders, and other self-described Marxists (an equally ugly ideology).
I believe, properly understood, the spectrum from left to right is from complete government control of everything to very little government control at all. The overwhelming majority of Americans fall in the center – some slightly left, some slightly right. For either side to paint the (entire) other with an extremist brush is intellectually dishonest. There are extremists on both sides, thankfully few. I think it is also important to emphasize that this is a spectrum continuously varying from left to right, and there are likely no two individuals in the country that fall in exactly the same place on that line.
If we went back in time to 1863 when the Republicans wanted to eliminate slavery and the Democrats were largely represented by wealthy planters that wanted to maintain slavery, which would we determine to be the authoritarian party of wealthy special interests?
I would like to thank The Tommy C Show and Dr. Robert Mather for the inspiration and support they provided for this article.
@thetommycshow podcast of 4/3/2021
Mather R. D. (2021). Implicit Biases and the Unconscious: Liberal Biases, Racial Prejudice, and Politics. Barnes & Noble Press. ISBN-13: 9781666246490.
Mather, R. D. (2021). The inclusion of conservatives in science: Acknowledging liberal and conservative social cognition to improve public science attitudes. In J. D. Sinnott & J. S. Rabin, (Ed.), The Psychology of Political Behavior in a Time of Change (pp. 349- 363). Springer.