The myth of left and right

For the last half-century, American politics has been defined on a left and right spectrum. What if it’s a myth?

Editor’s note: This story is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.

American politics is at a breaking point. This became obvious when a mob of American citizens, upset with the results of the 2020 presidential election, stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to stop Congress from tabulating the electoral votes. In order to work, democracies require citizens who respect the rights of individuals, defer to the outcomes of elections, and abide by the rule of law. But today’s toxic political culture has caused many Americans to abandon these vital norms. Ideological tribalism and partisan hatred have become so rampant that frightening numbers of American citizens countenance violence against their political opponents to get their way.

How did we get to this point? The standard explanations — media echo chambers, party polarization, racism, status anxiety, misinformation, demographic sorting and even fear — tell only part of the story. An important but overlooked contributor to American political dysfunction is a widespread misunderstanding of ideology.

Seven ideas to reduce political polarization
One nation indivisible

The standard view of American political ideology says that politics is largely a clash between two worldviews that can be modeled on a political spectrum. The left-wing worldview, we are told, is expressed in a preference for greater government control of the economy, social permissiveness and foreign policy dovishness, while the right-wing worldview is expressed in a preference for free markets, social restriction and foreign policy hawkishness. Taking these worldviews to extremes leads to totalitarianism — fascism at the far right or communism on the far left — while the more respectable positions exist at the center left (“progressivism”) and center right (“conservatism”).

This model of politics frames our thinking, shapes our language and sets the terms of public debate. It creates a sense of personal identity for millions of Americans, is taught in classrooms across the country, and is used in nearly every political discussion, whether on social media, in the halls of Congress, on cable news or around the dinner table. It is, without question, the most influential political paradigm of 21st-century America.

It is also completely wrong.

Ideological tribalism and partisan hatred have become so rampant that frightening numbers of American citizens countenance violence against their political opponents.

In this last half-century, Americans have increasingly used a simplistic left-right spectrum to describe politics and, at the same time, politics has become ever-more divisive, hostile and rhetorically extreme. 

This is not a coincidence. Thinking of politics along a spectrum contributes to the rancor and dysfunction that characterize public discourse today. While most people acknowledge that politics has become increasingly tribal, they generally assume that there must be some bedrock philosophy or value that each tribe rallies around. There is not. Terms are useful inasmuch as they are predictive, and it turns out that ideological terms are only predictive across contexts describing who people support (tribe) but not what they support (a philosophy). The single biggest fallacy in politics today is that the political spectrum refers to divergent worldviews when, in reality, it refers only to divergent tribes.

In the 2024 election season, for example, candidates will be discussing topics as diverse as abortion, budget deficits, immigration, inflation, climate change, aid to Ukraine, drug control and affirmative action, but contrary to a century of conventional wisdom, we can’t model all of these issues on a single spectrum. 

Where on a unidimensional spectrum do we place someone who wants both more redistribution of wealth and more restrictions on abortion? Where do we place someone who wants aggressive action to stop both climate change and crime? The left-right binary spectrum we use to understand American politics presumes that politics is about one thing, but the reality is that politics is about many things and complex humans in such a complex realm will have many sets of diverse views that can’t possibly be modeled on one line.

This seems obvious, but one of the most prevalent myths of our time is “political monism” — the idea that politics in America can be defined by a single issue. For most people, that issue is “change”: those who favor change are on the “left” and support the bundle of policies considered “progressive,” while those who oppose change are on the “right” and support the bundle of policies considered “conservative.” The prevailing wisdom says that a person’s orientation on the single issue of change determines their position on all other issues. 

Political monism is the dominant paradigm among politicians, academics, journalists and the politically active public. Nearly every Republican running for office this year would say that they support Republican policies because they are “conservative” while nearly every Democratic candidate would say that they support their party’s policies because they are “progressive.” They have convinced themselves that the position they take on the one big issue determines their position on all other issues.

This conception of politics is wrong. Not only does political monism defy common sense, but there is simply no evidence for it. The reality is that politics, like any other complex realm of life (such as medicine, physics, art or chemistry), is pluralistic. It is about many things, not just one big thing. Yes, there are two main political parties, but each party stands for a basket of unrelated policies, some of them good and some of them bad.

The left-right binary spectrum we use to understand American politics presumes that politics is about one thing, but the reality is that politics is about many things.

Ideas have consequences, and this idea of a left-right binary has many negative consequences. Here are just a few: 

Political monism gives the illusion of omniscience. The reality is that we are all flawed humans with incomplete knowledge trying to find workable solutions to difficult public problems, but monism tells us that we can know the correct answer to every public problem simply by choosing the correct side of the one big issue. Thus, the political spectrum turns us from scouts into soldiers and tells us that solving political problems is as easy as defeating the forces of darkness on the other side. 

Political monism is largely responsible for the cancel culture that has taken such a firm hold of society. If all of the policies of my side are rooted in a single righteous principle (progressivism or conservatism), why would I allow someone who disagrees to speak when I know that their position is rooted in evil? If all left-wing policies promote progress, then an opponent of any left-wing policy is, by definition, an opponent of progress who doesn’t deserve to be heard. If all conservative policies defend traditional values, then any progressive policy should be viewed as an attack on those values.

Political monism also turns the virtue of principled dissent into a vice. Since each party stands for a bundle of unrelated positions, we should applaud those who are willing to speak out against the failings of their own side, but the monist delusion tells us that since all the policies of one’s own party are connected by one key value (“progressivism” or “conservatism”) then breaking with the party means betraying that sacred value. Deviation from the party line isn’t courage; it is “selling out.” No wonder dissenting politicians like Jeff Flake or Tulsi Gabbard have been run out of their parties as traitors — there can be no room for disagreement when policies are connected by a single righteous principle. Monism takes the admirable trait of independent thinking and reframes it as a lack of conviction. 

Political monism reduces our ability to compromise. Historically, politicians have cooperated with those of the other party in the name of putting the public interest ahead of partisan interest, but today’s political monism tells us that such compromises amount to “cooperating with evil.” Political monism serves to misinform and confuse. It leads us to believe things about people and groups that simply aren’t true. George W. Bush expanded the size and scope of government far more than did Barack Obama and yet Obama (“on the left”) was routinely denounced as a socialist and Bush (“on the right”) was routinely denounced as a free market fundamentalist. Monism led people to believe lies about our presidents and their records. 

Perhaps most tragically of all, political monism reduces our capacity to think. People who conceive of politics in terms of a spectrum demonstrate lower cognitive ability, are more given to motivated reasoning (allowing emotions to affect how information is processed), are less intellectually accurate, are philosophically inconsistent, and are more likely to believe outright falsehoods. One of the greatest ironies in all of this is that people adhere to political monism in the name of advancing a righteous principle (“progressivism” or “conservatism”) and yet the research shows that monists are generally far less principled than political pluralists. 

No wonder dissenting politicians like Jeff Flake or Tulsi Gabbard have been run out of their parties as traitors — there can be no room for disagreement when policies are connected by a single righteous principle.

If political monism is false and damaging, why does it persist? One reason is that as a theory of political science, monism explains the curious fact that distinct issue positions tend to bundle together in a binary pattern. That is, someone who supports abortion-rights is also more likely than the average person to believe in raising income taxes while someone who is anti-abortion is also more likely than the average person to believe in cutting income taxes. Many see this correlation and draw the understandable conclusion that a person’s views on taxes and abortion must be connected at some fundamental philosophical level. Since political beliefs tend to cluster into two major bundles, people assume that there must be a single issue underlying all others leading to this binary pattern.

But we don’t need political monism to explain this correlation; tribal conformity explains it much better. Policies tend to coalesce into two bundles not because there are two main approaches to one big issue (progressive or conservative) but because there are two main political tribes in America (Democrat and Republican) and people tend to conform to the positions of their tribes. Political monism says that people start with a philosophy (e.g., for or against change), adopt political positions based on that philosophy, and then join the tribe that shares their positions. Actually, this is backward. People first anchor into tribes — because of family, peers, leaders or a single issue they care about — adopt the positions of their tribe for social reasons, and then invent an after-the-fact story explaining how all of those positions are philosophically connected. Political tribes naturally tend to be binary (because of the rule-oppose nature of politics), but political dispositions do not. There is a reality of binary political tribes, but not a reality of binary political outlooks — that is the myth of left and right.

David Bonazzi for the Deseret News

Of course, this doesn’t mean that nobody in politics has any principles, it only means that conformity explains the correlation between distinct issues much better than political monism. For example, someone who is strongly pro-life for principled reasons is likely to associate with other pro-lifers, join the Republican Party, start watching Fox News, identify as a “conservative” and then adopt the tribe’s position on income taxes. It’s not that an underlying “anti-change” worldview makes someone against both abortion and taxes, but that people anchor into tribes for principled reasons and then adopt their other policies. 

If this seems a little confusing, here’s an analogy that can help: Think of political parties like baskets of groceries. Currently, if we go to the store, we just pick the products we like, one by one, and put them in our basket. But what if the grocery store required us to pick one of two preselected baskets full of random products? We would naturally choose the basket that had more of what we liked and less of what we didn’t like, but we wouldn’t pretend that everything in the basket we chose was somehow philosophically connected and therefore better than everything in the alternative basket. 

And yet this is exactly what we do in politics: The monist myth tells people that all the many political “products” (issues) in their “basket” (party) are philosophically united (by “conservatism” or “progressivism”) and therefore superior to all the products in the other basket. This leads people to consider anyone who chooses the other basket as wrong about all products and therefore stupid and/or evil for choosing that basket. While it’s true that we can’t vote issue by issue — we must choose either the Democrat or Republican “baskets” —  we can think issue by issue by rejecting political monism.  

Doing so solves many of the puzzles that are currently baffling political analysts. Many are confused, for instance, about how conservatives who had once been such avid champions of spreading freedom in the world can now be so indifferent to the plight of Ukrainians. If the conservative philosophy led people to support Iraqi freedom, why isn’t it now leading them to support Ukrainian freedom? The answer is that it was never about philosophy. Conservatives didn’t tend to support the Iraq War because of an anti-change worldview (indeed, invading Iraq was highly revolutionary) but because of tribal solidarity. The historical record shows that support for military intervention by self-described liberals or conservatives is entirely contingent upon who is in the White House.

Tribalism also helps us solve the puzzle of conservative support for Donald Trump and “National Conservatives” more generally. Many see self-described conservatives advocating expanding government power for nationalist ends and ask, “How is it that these conservatives can support big government when conservatism is a philosophy of limited government?” The answer is that conservative policies do not emerge from a philosophy, but from a tribe that is always changing as the coalition changes. 

Although tribal conformity is a much better explanation for issue-position bundling than political monism, committed partisans have a hard time accepting this reality. By and large, they prefer to believe that a single issue on a spectrum, not socialization, explains the policies they support. Why the self-delusion? Because it allows them to be tribal without feeling tribal. It allows them to conform to everything their team supports while feeling like they are being principled in following the philosophy of “progressivism” or “conservatism.” We humans are naturally tribal beings — we need groups to belong to and identify with — and although nearly everyone understands this, what is far less understood is how much we humans are given to disguising our tribalism with noble-sounding stories, often without even knowing it. Political monism makes us feel like philosophers when we are behaving like lemmings.

Even as there are individual psychological incentives to perpetuate the monist delusion, there are also institutional incentives. Our two main parties propagate the myth of left and right because it creates loyalty, energy and support among the membership. The falsehood that a party stands for a righteous philosophy creates an angry and motivated base that will spend much more time, effort and money advancing the party’s cause. For instance, the Republican Party is far more likely to raise funds with a letter that says, “If you want to promote the cause of conservatism and defeat the evil forces of left-wing extremism, donate to the Republican Party today!” than a letter that says, “The Republican Party stands for many unrelated issues, but we hope you agree with enough of them to donate.” We find similar institutional incentives in today’s news and information outlets. 

We have a choice to make in this upcoming election season. We can either cling to the monist delusion and talk about politics in terms of a left-right binary, with all of the confusion and rancor this entails, or we can embrace the pluralist reality and see our tribes as grab bags rather than philosophies. Not only would the pluralistic outlook reduce hostility and open our minds, but it would also help us see more clearly to understand and evaluate the candidates and movements that are growing in prominence this year. We need less talk of “left-right,” “progressive-conservative,” and more talk of actual issues. Ultimately, we need more political conversations based in reality and fewer based in the myth of left and right. 

Adapted from “The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America” by Hyrum Lewis and Verlan Lewis. Copyright @ 2023 by the authors. Oxford University Press.

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.