April 14, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Left, the Right, and the Fragmentation of the Political Spectrum
I READ in an article reference to intriguing research into the partisan and extremist nature of today’s politics. It has lately been fashionable to ascribe these problems to the rise of the so-called “social media,” which have compartmentalized persons according to their prejudices, and have then proceeded to bombard them with all manner of biased information to reinforce and confirm their particular convictions. So far as I am concerned, there can be no doubt these “social media” have at least exacerbated the problem. Yet the studies in question suggest that the “social media” cannot be blamed exclusively, because such partisanship and extremism exists as much among those who do not patronize the “social media,” as among those who do.
The question then becomes—what is the real cause at the bottom of the growing divisiveness in the political and social life of the United States and elsewhere? I have offered my own hypothesis in the second part of my essay “The Democratic Era.” I would like here to explore but a single aspect of that hypothesis.
I believe that what we are witnessing today can best be described in these terms. For several centuries now, and certainly since the universal triumph of classic liberalism throughout Europe, the West has conceived of all political positions as standing on a spectrum running without break from the far left through the political center to far right. But today, for the first time in several hundred years, a simple linear spectrum is no longer an adequate means of comprehending the political positions of individuals, or the disagreements that divide them. I will offer but several examples of the points at which it can be seen breaking down.
Item: The left has historically been associated with freedom of speech, while the right often wished, for instance, to put restrictions on speech in cases of menace to the public order, or vulgarity. But today, a part of what is known as the left has proved itself on countless occasions to regard freedom of speech as a value quite subsidiary to others, amongst which the most prominent is political correctness.
Item: The right has historically opposed the expansion of governmental programs, as welfare and public healthcare. Yet the “alt-right,” which is commonly understood to be the American far right, has recently suggested that it is, if not supportive of a certain delimited idea of universal health care, then at least not intrinsically opposed to it.
Item: the left has historically been associated with pacifism, while the right, often for reasons of its native nationalism, has been the more bellicose of the two. Yet the neoconservatives, who are among the most militant part of the right, trace their intellectual genealogy to communism, to the farthest of the far left. More: the strike in Syria (to take a very current example) was largely embraced by the left, even as it was called starkly into question by classic conservatives and most vehemently denounced by the alt-right.
These are, again, but a few examples of changes which can be perceived throughout the political and social life of the West. It seems to me that these suggest the breakdown of the spectrum we have so learned to take for granted that we cannot even conceive of politics outside of it any longer. The question of why this has happened is complex; more to our present purposes is the question of what results from this change.
Any political spectrum, the left-right spectrum not excluded, presupposes a certain community of aims between all parties involved. There must be a degree of agreement regarding end results on the part of all, which permits one to speak of individual disagreements as falling along a continuum. Consider, by analogy, colors and sounds. We can speak of colors as falling on a continuum, because all of them pertain to the same category of things and share certain basic characteristics: red and yellow, despite their evident difference, own a similar nature, insofar as they are both produced by light waves. Similarly with sounds: a pitch of C is not identical to a pitch of G, but because they both are produced by sound waves, we can speak of them as belonging to the same category. But it would be absurd to draw a sensual continuum between red and a pitch of C, because the nature of these things is incommensurable; there is no point of contact between them.
The historical continuum of left-right, similarly, presupposed a certain agreement of ends. Put generally, the spectrum between left and right was contained within the idea of “classic liberalism,” as embodied in the United States by the Constitution, and in other countries by related documents or by related traditions. In our day, this continuum has broken, because the disputes between political parties are no longer over political means, but rather over political ends. The very idea of “classic liberalism” no longer contains them; the desire is rising today for the first time since the Second World War to establish altogether new political forms.
As a result of this, it no longer makes sense to speak of a spectrum of political opinion; the spectrum, if you will, has shattered the limits of that sphere in which it was once entirely contained, and in consequence has fractured along its sharpest divides. The parties of contemporary politics exist in spheres totally or fundamentally divorced from one another. The very vision of the progressives differs tout court from that of the alt-right; and both have precious little in common with classic liberals or classic conservatives. Because there is no widely presupposed basis of agreement on the ends that government should be seeking, the disagreement between these different groups takes on increasingly hostile and aggressive tones, and is ever more likely to degenerate into violent altercations.
I perceive that there is nothing that can be done to resolve this problem. Indeed, I predict the conflict will only grow the more heated and the more fractious as time proceeds. It seems to me that this is the necessary consequence of democracy, and it seems to me that all these ills have been badly inflamed by the so-called “pluralism” that the Occident has with such inexplicable enthusiasm embraced in late years. As of this moment, I foresee only two ways forward for the West: a dangerous, difficult, volatile, and debilitating fragmentation of the disagreeing political groups of the West into smaller and weaker nations, whose greatest challenge will be the production of a political federation for their international protection; or else an open conflict between disputing visions for mastery of the whole, which very well might instigate, if not civil wars, then certainly an unheard of degree of dangerous and incendiary civil unrest within our larger societies.
But simultaneously as these troubles fall upon our heads, we will be given a priceless opportunity, which comes rarely to this human history, to reassess and redefine our very notion of politics, to reevaluate the goals, visions, and ends which guide and shape all of society. Because of the weight of this responsibility, it would be well for us to understand, within the extent of our powers, the nature of the crisis into which we are precipitating, and the possibilities that it presents. Fit objects of our study are the failings of the present system and the causes that have brought these failings about, as well as all within the soul and the spirit of humankind that it does not cultivate, encourage, or improve.
For amidst all of the trouble that is coming, we may still hope—for times of crisis are times also of hope—that the political alternatives which issue from our present decisions, will better fit the whole life of man, than this artificial “left-right” division which we really are perfectly justified in finally abandoning.