»  The American Conservative

August 28th, 2006

  What is Left? What is Right? Does it Matter?


[This was a symposium in which a selection of commentators was asked for opinions on the following questions:
1.  Are the designations "liberal" and "conservative" still useful?

2.  Does a binary Left/Right political spectrum describe the full range of ideological options? Is it still applicable?
Contributing commentators were:
Andrew J. Bacevich, Jeremy Beer, Austin Bramwell, Patrick J. Buchanan, John Derbyshire, Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, Mary Eberstadt, Nick Gillespie, Paul Gottfried, Jeffrey Hart, Nicholas von Hoffman, James Kurth, Michael Lind, John Lukacs, Heather Mac Donald, Scott McConnell, Kevin Phillips, James P. Pinkerton, Justin Raimondo, Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., Claes G. Ryn, Kirkpatrick Sale, Phyllis Schlafly, Fred Siegel, Taki Theodoracopulos, Philip Weiss, Chilton Williamson Jr., Clyde N. Wilson, John Zmirak

We were invited to contribute 1,200 words each.]


The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are only useful as a first approximation. If you tell me you are a liberal or a conservative, I have information about you I did not have before. Much of it is probabilistic: a conservative is more likely to be a churchgoer than a liberal, though there are liberal churchgoers and conservative atheists.

I think we all have a vague sense that these words describe the "shape" of our thinking about the outside world. A liberal is a person more inclined to get angry about inequalities in society; a conservative, about restraints on freely-willed actions that are not indisputably harmful.

Going a bit deeper, conservatives are those who are pessimistic about the prospects for human nature and society. This is most obviously the case with romantic conservatives like Winston Churchill, who "preferred the past to the present and the present to the future," and George Orwell, who "loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future."  Even a distinctly unromantic conservative like Dr. Johnson "laughed at schemes of political improvement," though. In the U.S., where an optimistic attitude is more or less compulsory, all this is masked with a lot of uplifting squid ink like our current — not, in my opinion, very conservative — president's professed belief that "the desire for freedom is inscribed on every human heart," a thing that is obviously false. True conservatives everywhere, however, even in America, know that we are doomed, doomed.

Some confusion arises from the history and geography of these words. A conservative in Franco's Spain, in Brezhnev's Russia, and in today's U.S. are very different creatures, though you could tease out common threads of outlook and personality. Hayek is a darling of modern conservatives, yet in the preface of The Road to Serfdom he is very dismissive of conservatism ("paternalistic, nationalistic, power-adoring, … traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical …"). Margaret Thatcher and Herbert Hoover both insisted on calling themselves liberals, though both were much too conservative to be elected nowadays.

I am much taken with modern theories of brain function that describe our mental processes in terms of functional modules. One theory postulates (1) a "socialization" module that handles membership of groups: being accepted, defending the group, being aware of other groups, and (2) a "status" module that evaluates and promotes our status in the group (and other people's statuses too), handling emotions like envy, ambition, humiliation.

If that is right, I would guess that liberals have more strength in their socialization module. They are more focused on co-operative action, group values, leveling, assigning importance to subgroups. Conservatives are stronger in the status module, not minding that some individuals stand above others and emphasizing individual action to enhance status.

That's all guesswork. I am only trying to demonstrate that a physiological foundation for our liberal-conservative inclinations is possible. If this is the case, and if genomic-evolutionary pathways for the development of these modules can be established, the consequences might be very unsettling. It might turn out that a population with some below-threshold frequency of gene variant XYZ would have trouble socializing its people into a consensual nation-sized entity. I don't say that's so, but it might be. As Steve Sailer has said, it would be a good idea to hold off on mass immigration until we know more about this.

As I recall, the terms "left" and "right" started off in the French National Assembly during the run-up to that nation's revolution. Those who favored equality for all under the law sat on the speaker's left; those who thought that some people (nobles, churchmen) should continue to have privileged status in law sat on the right.

Those dispositions were morphed by time and circumstances. There came socialism, which insisted that not only should we have equal rights in law, but we should have equal slices of the gross national product. Then there is affirmative action, which argues that groups once deprived of rights should have extra rights till they have recovered from the consequences of the prior deprivation. I think these positions are correctly located on the Left.

Similarly with fascism, to the degree that it is a coherent political philosophy and not just an excuse for a gangster free-for-all. State power is an important feature of fascist nations, and that ought to count against fascism being a Right phenomenon, since strong centralized states were traditional enemies of both church and nobility and all secondary power centers. You can in fact make a case that fascism, which gives equality of rights to all in the group, with much-magnified awareness of and hostility towards other groups, is the "socialization module" run amok and therefore hyper-leftist. If you track things back to source, though, giving more rights to this group and fewer to that group is Right according to the original Assembly seating arrangement, so that the popular conception of fascism as a Right pathology has a lot to be said for it.

With socialism and fascism both pretty decisively vanquished, how do the Left and Right impulses work themselves out today? With most features of political thought and emotion — patriotism, liberty vs. equality, fondness for established institutions, skepticism about social progress — you can track back a line of development to those original Left-Right arrangements.

But what, for example, do we do with elitism? It is traditionally associated with the Right yet is too ingrained a feature of human groups to be decisively assigned to either faction. Present-day Left and Right are distinguished by which elites they prefer, not by a fondness for, or hostility to, elites in general.

This comes up in the context of globalization. In one aspect, it is certainly Left, an evolution from that original notion of equality under the law to the proposition that it is wrong for Americans to favor their fellow Americans over foreigners in any way. Probably several million Americans believe that citizenship is a racist concept. I think we would all place such people definitely on the Left.

On the other hand, there are many reasons for ordinary people to resist globalization, and so many publicly-funded plum jobs for the right people in the globalist bureaucracy, that there inevitably arises the kind of supercilious, privileged, and increasingly endogamous elite characteristic of the folk sitting on the right in that original Assembly.

I would say that since the globalized elites offend the Right's sense of patriotism — our favoring of this nation, this people — and since, being largely unelected, they can violate our personal liberty or dismantle our institutions with few consequences to themselves, we should place globalization firmly on the Left, notwithstanding the fact that it offers some freedoms (of migration, of commerce) not previously available and sets up a managerial elite. The case is certainly arguable, though.

The world is way more complicated than it was in 1789, and the concepts Left and Right don't capture all that complexity. I have some math books showing five-dimensional solid figures projected down into two dimensions so that they can be printed on an ordinary page. That's the kind of thing we do when we talk about Left and Right. Like those geometric projections, it's not very satisfactory; but it's not useless, either.