Political identity: the case for transcending the left-right spectrum

By Eugène E.

Many moons and wayward conversations ago, I happened to be an unwilling witness to a political discussion between a young man and an equally young woman. The latter had what you might call “progressive” sympathies, and the young man – whose interest in his female interlocutor had very little to do with politics – was working hard to present himself as a kindred spirit. The object of his interest carried around with her something of a laundry list where every item had to have a checkmark, and things were going swimmingly right until the moment the question of gay marriage was broached. The young man opposed same-sex marriage and said so. Put off by this stance, the young woman demanded to know if her wooer happened to be a “closet right-winger”. Realizing he’d made a blunder, the young man tried to atone for his faux pas but, the damage having been done, his protestations were met with no success; and he found his ambitions permanently thwarted.

At the time, I thought the exchange demonstrated that politics was not the best tool to advance one’s romantic agenda. Today, with the benefit of some additional experience (and, I presume to hope, some acquired wisdom), I also think that it revealed the chronic intolerance that some “progressively inclined” people, who typically pride themselves on their tolerance, tend to have for those who do not share their views. But that conversation also exposed something else: the woefully inadequate political spectrum that we use to frame our political identities.

The concept of the right wing and the left wing is considered to be a throwback to the French Revolution, when members in the National Assembly sat either to the right or the left of the king, depending on whether they supported the monarchy or not. This was more than two hundred years ago. The world has changed considerably since then and has become immensely more complicated. The unidimensional left-right system is alive and well, however, and is still the lens through which we tend to view the political landscape, even though its limitations have been recognized. This entrenched use of the traditional political spectrum is a problem, and it’s not just a question of semantics or academic hairsplitting. There’s more at stake here. The straitjacket of the traditional political spectrum promotes intellectual sloth and stifles debate on critical issues, allowing extremists to highjack the vital questions of the day.

The need to have a classification system to figure out where we stand in relation to others is obvious. Political geography requires the use of a certain compass. The difficulty with the existing one is that it encourages seeing societal issues in binary terms; either something is or isn’t. It’s a world of dichotomies. This provides scope for facile thinking and political name-calling. Consider the rift that is said to define Western societies today. Societies are broadly divided into two groups: those who are in favor of globalization and openness, and those who are against such things. The former (typically, the left/liberal) are naturally modern, educated, and highly urbanized; the latter (naturally, the right) are ossified, uneducated, and rural in outlook and/or reflexes. The first camp, then, is composed of sophisticated, intelligent people who “get it”; the second camp involves a bunch of rubes and yokels. This now takes on a moral dimension: if you want to be seen as an educated, tolerant, and intelligent person – essentially, a decent human being and a noble spirit – you need to align yourself accordingly. You must not vote for a Donald Trump; you cannot be a “leaver” and in support of Brexit. If you are, there’s a disagreeable odour about you – that of sulphur. The Right cannot be right.

When those who take part in the populist backlash against the current vision of progress are not depicted as hidebound bigots or fascist sympathizers, they are condescendingly described as people who have missed the train of progress. Losers, in a word. A more civil and refined take on this might refer to a schism between people who are receptive to the future vs. those who yearn for the “good old days”. But the message is still the same, and it’s a harmful one: it shames and demonizes those who are on the wrong side of the barricades (to be fair, shaming and demonization are in no way a one-way road).

The truth is that, among those drifting towards so-called populists, there are many people who are not of the far right; they simply have had enough. Some of these people are educated, tolerant, and not at all averse to the future. But they are sick of being walloped by what they believe are, not without justification, excesses of political correctness and ultraliberalism. They balk at being asked, as they are in many European countries, to welcome millions of people who come from different civilizations and often with little intent to accept local ways of life, at an unknown cost to the security, social cohesion, and cultural traditions of the societies in which they and their ancestors have lived for centuries; accept that certain forms of sexual pathology should, in legal terms, be equated with sexual normalcy, even when simple biology tells us otherwise; with being accused, time and again, of being agents of gender oppression; and of other things that have become ultraliberal totems in recent years.

They find it especially grating when such requests are buttered with the hypocrisy that one has witnessed of late in so many instances. For example, for years now tobacco smokers have been the butt of social opprobrium here in Canada; aside from increasingly stringent anti-smoking rules, smokers have had to pay through the nose to get their fix. A few years ago, the provincial government in Ontario went so far as to ban smoking on outdoor patios (anyone who has seen smokers climb over some token barrier separating a patio from the street and smoke on the other side of the barrier will attest to the nonsensical nature of this measure). But smoking is unhealthy, and so the measures made sense; what’s more, they have proved to be effective at reducing smoking consumption, however inconvenient they might have made the lives of smokers.

Yet in October, Canada’s federal government legalized marijuana, a decision that was all but symbolic, since the authorities had been turning a blind eye to the use of cannabis for some time. Now smoking a joint is legally permissible, and the sight of people using marijuana for “recreational” purposes as they amble in the streets, in the halo of a small, highly malodorous cloud, is becoming increasingly common (along with the pungent smell and the occasional tubercular cough that come with it). What was the point of all the massive anti-smoking efforts if we’ve just legalized another form of smoking, particularly one that impairs the mind? Note that tobacco smoking is associated, in North America at least, with working stiffs and blue-collar laborers – the kind of semi-derelicts who are blamed for voting in ugly right-wing populists. Marijuana, on the other hand, is just the perfect way to unwind for a young urban sophisticate who is employed by the “creative economy” and who thinks that anyone questioning gay marriage or open borders is a potential brownshirt. Asinine generalizations, of course (but then maybe not – Elon Musk famously enjoyed a spliff during a web show; would he have smoked a cigarette?) – but that’s what dichotomies look like.

Or consider the recent decision by a number of Canadian broadcasters, including the national one, to stop playing the old Christmas hit Baby, It’s Cold Outside in order to avoid offending people who have taken exception to parts of the lyrics (apparently, the kind of seduction that goes on in the song is a bit too strong for the tastes of our times). Compared to much of the objectionable “cultural” trash with which our society is bombarded on a daily basis, the Baby, It’s Cold Outside stuff is pretty tame; but such is the gift of #MeToo. The contents of many a rapper’s song promoting a rather, shall we say, casual attitude towards intimacy with women, and women as such, are appalling, but it’s this Christmas song that has been found controversial.

And on and on it goes.

People in modern societies are confronted with this kind of ultraliberal hydrocephalus on a regular basis, and there’s also a compounding effect. Inevitably, they react to it. They need not have right-wing views to react – that’s just the point. What does the French Revolution have in common with the migrant crisis in Europe? Nothing, yet we are using antiquated terminology to help steer us through a debate that requires a very modern outlook, with the results that we have seen – this concerns the migrant question as well as any other social issue. If you think immigration into Europe should be strictly controlled and Merkel’s 2015 decision to admit more than a million migrants was not the greatest idea, you might be an ethnonationalist, a xenophobe, or even a racist. If you question gay marriage, you’re a homophobe. If you criticize #MeToo, you’re a sexist and a misogynist. At all events, you’re a right-wing zealot, and I feel that the use of the unidimensional political spectrum lends to that kind of reductionism, simplification, and labeling (of course, a lack of tolerance and, frequently, common sense are also contributors). As few decent people want to be identified as right-wing zealots, a vacuuming operation is performed on more moderate voices; the only real opposition is then put up by fringe elements. This vacuuming effect might well be one of the main causes of the recent rise of ring-wing populism.

I am not unaware that there are bona fide homophobes among those who oppose gay marriage and that there are racists among critics of Merkel’s reaction to the migrant crisis. There might be highly unsavory elements among those who share my own position on a number of questions. I do not – and would not – want to be affiliated with them. But should one of these unsavory elements say that the sun rises in the east, it will be rather fatuous of me to say that it actually rises in the west just to contradict someone I would not care to be associated with.

The traditional political spectrum also informs our understanding of the current situation insofar as it is influenced by history. There’s been a lot of debate (and a flurry of books) in the past couple of years concerning similarities between our times and those of the 1930s. The tendency to look to the past to divine the future is understandable. While history does not usually repeat itself and should not be confused with poetry, its pedagogic value should never be discounted. The focus on the 1930s is also understandable: as factions resisting or opposing mass immigration in the West are considered to be on the far right of the political spectrum, commentators, historians, and analysts are moved to examine the last time the far right had a meaningful impact and came to power. That’s where the 1930s come in. However, there’s a risk that the results of any such analysis might be compromised by the limitations of our unidimensional approach.

I have recently read an insightful book by Paul Hanebrink, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers. A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism charts the development of the myth that the Jews were behind the spread of Bolshevism in the 20th century. It is a well-written text that shows how hate can be deployed by recycling medieval myths and inserting them into a modern context to be used as political currency. (To be sure, the presence of Jews in revolutionary movements was prominent in a number of cases, but it was nowhere near what the proselytizers of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth said it was. Furthermore, the history of revolutionary movements in Europe did not start with the Jews, but with the French Revolution, which was a lodestar for later revolutionaries; in his memoirs, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, himself no stranger to revolutionary fervor, writes extensively about the German revolutionaries of the 1840s that he encountered, whom he describes as “cosmopolitans” through and through, and who were certainly not Jews. Finally, the author of the most brutal chapter of the most Bolshevist state in the 20th century was not Jewish: Stalin was notoriously Georgian.)

It is the conclusion of the book that I found problematic. In the epilogue, Hanebrink argues that, as the Iron Curtain disappeared, East European countries with an especially checkered past were called upon to confront their own roles in the persecution of Jews in the 20th century. The extent to which these countries recognized their role, Hanebrink points out, reflected their historical consciousness and maturity. This is an argument that I find easy to accept. But Hanebrink gets himself into trouble by subsequently stating that Holocaust memory has become a metonym for certain liberal values, which certainly raised the eyebrows of this author. As he writes, “The Judeo-Bolshevik myth was reborn in post-Communist Europe as a tool for challenging the premises on which transnational memory of the Holocaust rested – and with those premises, the liberal civic ideals of multicultural toleration, human rights, and European integration that Holocaust memory culture had come to symbolize so powerfully” (the italics are mine).

Hanebrink accepts this connection between Holocaust memory and the liberal civic ideals he mentions, as he makes clear elsewhere. But it’s rather muddled thinking, and such a connection can only be made with significant qualifications. Holocaust memory is one thing; European integration is another. If this connection is followed all the way to the end, one can suggest that opposing European integration (a political matter) is tantamount to challenging Holocaust memory (a human tragedy) – a suggestion that would, at a minimum, be unhelpful, not to say irreverent. The instrumentalization of the Holocaust to support a political doctrine is inappropriate; taking one of the darkest pages of the European history of the 20th century and finding a place for it on a unidimensional political spectrum smacks of manipulation. For, once such a connection is made, a European statesman finds it difficult to turn away migrants from the Middle East. He tells himself that he’s seeing a recrudescence of far-right sentiment in his country, which suggests that we’re living in the 1930s, which in turn suggests that the Muslim arrivals are the new Jews, which finally means that he is to welcome them if his liberal credentials are to be upheld. A sui generis historical event, then, is used to shape the present immigration policy.

This is not very coherent. Let’s be clear: Muslims are not the new Jews. There are many reasons why such comparisons and analogies don’t stick. The European Jewry persecuted by the Third Reich had been in Europe for centuries and was in many cases completely assimilated; the Muslim polity in Europe is, for the most part, not older than three generations; and, in the case of the 2015 migrant wave, the arrivals had no pre-established links with Europe. Second, the persecution of Jews had ethnic/racial overtones; anti-Muslim sentiment is driven more by religious overtones (which does not make hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims any more acceptable, but there’s still a difference – one cannot choose one’s ethnic or racial origins, but religion is a choice). Third, if we are to accept the notion of Judeo-Christian civilization and its attendant values, we must also accept the “Judeo” part of it, as any Christian worth his salt would; Islam, though, is not part of Judeo-Christian civilization. Finally, Europeans today are very different from the Europeans of the first half of the 20th century. At that time, Europe was much stronger; its history was a history of wars and revolutions, and Europeans were prepared to participate in them. The situation is different today. European populations are shrinking; its youth has no experience of warfare – a crisis is what happens when Facebook or Twitter is down. Europe could absorb shocks easier a hundred years ago than it can today, and welcoming millions of people from high-risk regions that belong to different civilizations is much more dangerous. Comparisons with migrants from Africa and the Middle East today with the ships carrying Jewish refugees during the Hitler era are misguided.

Yet Hanebrink makes just such a comparison in the epilogue, singling out the migrant crisis of 2015 as a cautionary tale and conflating the history of the Holocaust with a number of ultraliberal values. It is unfortunate, unaesthetic, and also counterproductive, since this kind of conflation carries the risk of encouraging ideological hostage-taking and inane political partisanship.

Should we discard the lessons of history? Of course not. On the contrary, we should learn from history. But we should not instrumentalize history to buttress political programs as we take on the problems of the present and the challenges of the future. Yet we do it anyway, and it seems that the unidimensional political spectrum that underpins our weltanshauung plays a role in that. There are doubtless plenty of cases where the far right is indeed the far right. But is the Dutch Geert Wilders really all that similar to Hungary’s Jobbik? Yet the left-right political spectrum places them in the same antichamber.

There have been attempts to overcome the unidimensional political spectrum. A number of years ago, the Political Compass (https://www.politicalcompass.org/) developed a two-dimensional chart to address the limitations of the standard political spectrum. The respondent is invited to express his (dis)agreement with a number of statements dealing with social and political issues. I have taken the test; the results revealed that I am situated at a safe distance away from Hitler, Stalin, and other ghouls of the 20th century. Well, that’s a relief. However, the results produced by this test should be taken with spoonfuls of salt, to say the least. Many of the statements are formulated in a way that’s superficial; others are just plain silly. For example, who would disagree with the statement that “governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public”? Statements such as “it’s natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents” and “astrology accurately explains many things” get you closer or further away to Hitler or Thatcher on the chart, depending on how you answer. Clearly, there’s room for improvement.

I am not suggesting that we should reinvent the wheel, if the political spectrum can be thought of as a wheel. Nor am I recommending that we ignore history or legitimize those political operators who should never be legitimized. We should be vigilant, we should be on guard against threats to freedom and (a much-abused term that has been subjected to rounds of devaluation, but I will use it anyway) democracy, and we should call extremists and fringe players by their proper names. But it would help if we went about it responsibly, treating complex issues with the care that they deserve, and if we avoided ad hominem attacks and character assassination to silence dissenting voices. Rethinking the way we apply the political spectrum, if not the political spectrum itself, would be a good way to start.