I’ve decided it’s time to jettison entirely the words “Left” and “Right” when used with reference to political ideologies. I came to this conclusion after a very interesting discussion with my mother. While we were talking about the military Junta in Burma, she let drop the fact that she believes that all tyrannies come from the political Right.
I was taken aback, especially when my mother explained to me that the Soviets, Nazis and Italian Fascists were all tyrannies from the Right. I could understand her confusion about the Nazis and the Italian Fascists — after all, Jonah Goldberg wrote a whole book trying to educate people out of their confusion on this subject — but her statement about the Soviets perplexed me.
Further questions and answers elicited this line of circular reasoning, which I’m absolutely certain is not unique to my mother: All military dictatorship are, by definition, from the Right. Socialism, which is by definition from the Left, is an economic and class theory that does not have anything to do with the military. If it were properly applied, the military (or the police) would not be involved in a country’s repressive governance. If a country becomes repressive, it must mean that the Socialism has been wrongly applied. And repression, by its nature, especially with police power behind it, is a Right wing phenomenon — with the Nazis as her example. The fact that the Nazis were socialists was irrelevant to her, because they were failed socialists — they’d moved right when they became militaristic. Nothing I said about history and labels shook her from this circular reasoning.
Because my mother holds these beliefs (and, as I said, I’m sure she’s not alone in them), the fact that American conservatives are denominated as the political “Right” is, to her, proof positive that, if Republicans become dominant, America will become a country governed by a military tyranny. (And this, of course, is precisely what the hysterical “Left” keeps predicting will occur.)
I offered my mother a different way to view the “Left” and “Right” divide, and one that reassured her that she will not be hunted down by the State police for having “wrong” thoughts, a la 1984. I told her that it would be more accurate to define tyrannical systems as “Statist” — that is, they have political systems that vest all power in reside in the state. Whether it’s a military dictatorship, a religious dictatorship, or a Marxist dictatorship, individual citizens have no rights. All power rests in the state.
Mom was readily able to acknowledge that this definition provides a unifying thread for repressive governments, whether one looks at Soviet Russia (or Putin’s Russia), Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Cuba, Burma, Argentina, Iran, North Korea, or anywhere else, now or in the past. In each case (and this again harks back to Goldberg’s points), the repression arises when the state, not the individual, becomes dominant. Power resides in the state, people must conform to the state’s desires, and non-conformists are punished swiftly and brutally. As I said to her, the state has no conscience.
Keeping this definition in mind, I asked her to look at the American political parties, Democratic and Republican. Again, she was able to concede that it is the Democrats who seek to consolidate more and more power in the state. They want to gather medical care under the state’s umbrella; they want to expand the reach of public education with mandatory preschool; they want to increase taxes so that the state decides how money is spent, rather than individuals; they want to limit parental decision making with regard to children; they want to control what we can hear on the radio; etc.
Although everything the Democrats seek is phrased in loving terms (“the state will take care of you”), the fact remains that, by electing Democrats, people will cede more and more power to the State. Envisioning this scenario, my mother also agreed that, once the state has that power, it keeps it — and it keeps even it if less beneficent people than our good, nanny-like Democrats are in charge. Also, with the DMV as an example (sorry DMV employees), she acknowledged that, despite the good individuals that may work in a government organization, large government entities such as the DMV are, as often as not, inefficient bullies.
Once I’d wrung all these concessions from my Mom, I dragged her over to the Republican side of things: While Republicans may pine for old-fashioned morality, and while a lot of Republican Congresspeople have distinguished themselves by being pigs at the taxpayer trough, the purer form of Conservatism is obsessed with less government, not more. It wants lower taxes; less government involvement in education and family matters; more market freedom for decisions about insurance and retirement; and free speech on the radios, just to name a few issues.
Conservatives want to contract the power of the Federal government, not expand it, because they have recognized that tyrannies, regardless of the political ideology that powers them, are Statist. Republicans, I said, are Individualists. Given the opportunity to shape this country’s politics, they are the ones who are least likely ones to lead America into the tyrannical, militaristic regime she fears.
It was quite an amazing conversation because, by the end, she really grasped the difference between Left and Right. Right is not Nazis and Fascists and failed Communist states. In America, Right is about individual rights, and Left is about Statism — and it is Statism that, when it runs amok, is dangerous.
Anyway, because of the fact that this type of confusion has poisoned the meaning of these commonly used political terms, I think it’s more accurate to describe the two American ideologies as Statist and Individualist — and I know on which side of the political aisle I want to reside.
UPDATE: My thoughts on this subject have been affected by growing up with an ex-Communist father (who voted for Reagan), by all the reading I’ve done lately and, especially, by Jonah Goldberg’s book. What I’ve since learned, though, is that I could have taken a shorthand approach to all of this. Science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, back in 1963, created a chart that shows differing political behaviors and, having defined those behaviors, then places on the chart the various political ideologies.
This is a smart way to do things because, instead of looking at the way in which any given ideologue defines and boasts about his politics (Soviets loved to talk about “freedom”), it looks at where those ideologies actually fit in a behavioral chart. Enjoy the chart, but don’t take the wiki article too seriously. Mr. Pournelle has tried to correct errors there, and been rebuffed. Apparently the wiki editors think they understand his theory better than he does.
Mr. Pournelle blogs here, putting up links to articles and blogs that interest him.