What if the ideological conflict dividing America today were really an illusion? In The Myth of Left and Right, Hyrum and Verlan Lewis argue that, in fact, it is. Moreover, they contend that the illusion is far from harmless. Their argument is crisp, hard-hitting, largely right, and always thought-provoking, but not without shortcomings.
Hyrum, a history professor at Brigham Young University, and Verlan, Stirling Professor of Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, present two alternative ways of thinking about ideology. One, the “essentialist” model, holds that there is a durable philosophical essence to “Left” and “Right,” and that American political strands (“conservatism,” “liberalism,” “progressivism”) share that essence. The other model—theirs—is a “social theory” of ideology, in which ideological camps are defined more by tribal attachments than by loyalty to any unchanging philosophical essence.
The Lewises note that the language of “Left” and “Right” came out of the French Revolution and had no purchase in America until about a century ago. The terms “conservative,” “liberal,” and “progressive” came into use in America in the decades following the Civil War, but were not attached to an all-encompassing Left–Right spectrum. Reports from the Russian Revolution introduced Americans to Left–Right nomenclature, and soon afterward the concept was first used to identify branches of the American socialist movement. Eventually in the 1920s, the overarching Left vs. Right ideological framework was “domesticated” and for the first time applied to mainstream political forces in the United States. Hence, attempts by historians and political analysts to retroactively force the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Hamilton and Jefferson, Jackson and the Whigs, or the Southern fire-breathers and Lincoln into a Left–Right ideological straitjacket are deeply flawed.
By contrast, the particularities of 1930s American politics made plausible the collapse of political differences into two main categories of Left and Right: support for bigger government (especially in the economic realm), or opposition to it. Politics revolved almost entirely around the New Deal and could fit comfortably within the unidimensional world required for a simple Left–Right spectrum. However, that simplicity was soon overwhelmed by the rise of the Cold War and a variety of new social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. The cacophony of distinct political issues and debates has only grown louder since then. Yet the idea of Left and Right has remained, and even grown stronger.
Today, the Lewises argue, “Left” and “Right” are competing bundles of unconnected and sometimes incompatible issue commitments held together by tribalism. The authors bring to bear a wealth of social science research that shows that people’s issue commitments are more heavily influenced by group loyalties than by philosophical consistency. They also catalogue a history of various political stances that, for example, began as Right, then were considered Left, and sometimes back again, depending on the the coalitions’ needs. Trade protectionism, for example, was “Right;” then “Left;” now “Right” again (or maybe “Right” and “Left”). Foreign interventionism took the reverse course. Today what counts as “Right” and “Left” has become conflated with party, and party with the views of individual leaders. All of this, the Lewises contend, cuts strongly against the “essentialist” concept of ideology and in favor of their “social theory.”
They go on to argue that ideological essentialism is not only wrong but harmful, a prime cause of the nation’s dyspeptic politics. Because a wide range of issues are reduced to two tendencies, essentialism breeds simplistic and inaccurate analysis. Because moral virtue (or, from the other side, vice) is imputed to the entire bundle of positions, it also breeds dogmatism, intolerance, and self-righteousness. Because it reinforces the natural tribalistic tendencies of human behavior, it reduces internal accountability, encouraging conformism and intellectual laziness and discouraging healthy dissent within each tribe. In short, “Ideological tribalism may be the single greatest threat to the continuation of our constitutional democracy at present.” So why does ideological essentialism persist, if it is so destructive and such a poor representation of reality? Partly because it offers simplicity and partly because it “hides our partisan sins. It allows us to be tribal without feeling tribal.” If we label our politics as Right or Left, we can convince ourselves that we’ve followed reason rather than a subrational tribal instinct.
Correcting Knee-Jerk Ideology
The Myth of Left and Right has much to recommend it. It strikes a heavy blow against the contemporary tendency toward brain-dead analysis, by which many Americans think that all they need to know about an argument is from which tribe it originated. Those of us who spend much time on college campuses know that rigid ideological thinking has made great strides there, among faculty and students. In many places a long list of accepted propositions is now beyond discussion or debate, despite the shortage of facts or logic supporting them. And, as the authors note, those propositions come as a package which must be accepted in its entirety.
True to the spirit of the title, the authors demolish a great many myths, and land blows in every direction. Their chapter on the question of “the authentic Left and Right” examines a series of notions put forth by varying analysts trying to define the true essence of the two main ideological groupings in America. In the process, they concisely and effectively dismantle the idea that America’s ideological competition boils down to compassion versus greed, intelligence versus ignorance, idealism versus realism, equality versus hierarchy, courage versus fear, authoritarianism versus tolerance, and other nostrums.
Likewise, their chapter on the results of ideological essentialism is strong, identifying intellectual, moral, and political consequences that, taken together, endanger republican government. Altogether, the book is a strikingly reasonable antidote to an age veritably drowning in knee-jerk ideology. All of this is done in one hundred pages of text, complemented by forty-six pages of notes, many of which are illuminating in their own right.
An Arbitrary Binary?
The Myth of Left and Right is not without shortcomings. The pugnacious tone and repetitive character of the book may be necessary to break through the hard shell of essentialist presumptions that guide much of the study of American politics, but some readers may not find it appealing.
More substantively, it is not clear where, within the Lewises’ scheme, to place thinkers who have thought of themselves as conservative or liberal while arguing against ideological thinking and the politicization of life. Are they part of the problem of ideology, having identified with a tribe, or are they part of the solution? The authors sometimes seem to fall into essentialist labeling themselves, implying that there may be more to ideology than they concede. For example, they write that “Hitler and Mussolini were extremely pro-government and extremely right-wing,” but if “right-wing” is only a tribe, not a way of thinking, how can one be “extremely” right-wing? They also complain about the ideological homogeneity of college campuses, though it is hard to see an accretion of disconnected parts as being “homogeneous.”
Pointing to the fiscal excesses of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, the pair make a case that small government versus big government is not a defining feature of conservatism and liberalism. As far as it goes, they are not wrong, but they may be missing an important comparative element. George W. Bush was no one’s idea of a tightwad, and he did in fact push through a Republican Congress the largest new entitlement program since the Great Society, the Medicare prescription drug benefit—but Democrats voted against it because they wanted to spend much more. Likewise, Trump showed no fiscal discipline, yet Democrats complained that he was stingy. Perhaps Republicans have retained a reputation as the “small government” party not only because voters are tribalists, but because their opponents remain committed to even bigger government.
In other areas, too, the authors are guilty of pushing their argument too far. This is especially true when discussing the connection of social conservatives to the Republican coalition starting in the 1970s. We are told, for example, that Barry Goldwater was pro-choice and supported gay rights before social conservatives took hold of the Republican Party, but those were not issues in 1964 and Goldwater did not swing to those positions until late in his career. In fact, as a candidate for president he made national morality a key campaign issue and gave a thirty-minute-long, nationally televised address criticizing the Supreme Court’s recent decisions against school prayer. Likewise, Ronald Reagan is said to have shifted from a pro-abortion stance as governor of California to an anti-abortion stance as president, but the “liberalization” of California law he signed in 1967 merely allowed abortions up to the twenty-first week of pregnancy, and only if the mother’s life or health were in danger or pregnancy was the result of rape—much closer to Reagan’s position in the 1980s than to the abortion-on-demand regime introduced by Roe v. Wade.
Likewise, the Lewises treat the movement of religious conservatives into the broader conservative/Republican coalition as evidence for their theory. It is true that before Reagan most evangelicals or conservative Catholics were Democrats (or apolitical) and many were fond of economic interventionism by government. But the fact that they changed “tribes” due to issues like abortion, school prayer, and education—rather than sticking with their tribe and changing their positions on the issues that were most important to them—actually throws the “social theory” into question. It turns out that people will sometimes put philosophy over tribe on the issues they really care about, and then will adjust issues more peripheral to them to suit their new tribe. Even then, socially conservative voters had to be given plausible reasons to embrace economic conservatism. As Eric R. Crouse showed in his 2013 book The Cross and Reaganomics, many conservative Christian leaders and publications made the argument to those voters throughout the 1980s that free-market economics not only worked better than big-government economics (as the Reagan economic boom demonstrated) but was important to advancing human freedom and dignity, personal responsibility, and real opportunities to escape poverty. Big government was reconceived as a manifestation not of compassion but of an idolatrous deification of the state. Whether this process represented craven, post-hoc rationalization or an awakening to a genuine community of interest is not as easy a question as the Lewises insist.
The story of the religious conservatives reveals a more general issue that the authors might have profitably explored. They certainly succeed in proving to the reader that the pieces within each ideological bundle have shifted over time and do not inevitably go together, but they go well beyond that in concluding that each coalition’s bundle is fundamentally random. However, even if there is not a permanent essence to Right or Left, that does not mean there is no logic underlying the bundles that exist (or, for that matter, shifts in the bundles). What dynamics produce the bundles? What underlying logic creates the tribe in the first place? Why do the shifts happen? These interesting and important questions go unexamined. As a result, one gets the feeling that the overall picture presented is somehow less than the sum of its parts, however sensible most of the parts might be. Though labels and coalitions may be quite movable, at any given time (including now) ideological identifications can tell us something intelligible.
In the face of the dark picture they draw, the Lewises offer several prescriptions: start by recognizing the myth—the shortcomings of ideological essentialism. Then “go granular,” by which they mean look at issues—and people—individually. Change the way we talk about politics by abandoning use of ideological prefixes. Find different and better tribes built not around politics but around family, neighborhood, church, and other intermediary institutions of civil society. Finally, engage in “adversarial collaboration,” including scholarly research performed in teams that have both the pro and the con side of the issue represented. All worthwhile ideas, though the final suggestion is a tall order given the lack of diversity of opinion in the academy. These quasi-Burkean or Tocquevillian prescriptions will probably find a friendlier reception today in the tribe of the Right than that of the Left, another indication that ideological predispositions may be more durable than the authors are willing to say.
In the end, whether one thinks “Left and Right” is a purely fantastical concept, or merely an exaggerated and frequently destructive one, The Myth of Left and Right is worth the read. It leaves the reader eager to look beyond—but also to dig deeper into—our current binary.