Intended Audience: Those interested in political discourse and political psychology
Generalizations about political ideas, movements, and parties are often unhelpful. Not everyone’s ideas can be pegged neatly into a box. But they can sometimes be legitimately made, and even shed important light for understanding present conditions. (All language is also inherently generalizing). Many books have become best-sellers in this space, such as Jonathan Haidt’s popular work The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2013). In fact, there is now a trove of studies in psychology and even brain studies about the “conservative mind” and “liberal mind.”
I honestly don’t pay much attention to this stuff, but it’s a thing. And again, I’m suspicious of broad observations based on limited experience, but I don’t think anyone can escape constructing generalizations, stereotypes, categories, and the like. (When people say the word “Christian” or “black” or “American” or “liberal,” etc., we usually have some kind of conception in our head, even if it doesn’t reflect the experience of all people or incorporate the experience of all the people we’re talking about.)
This commonly accepted dualism been particularly unsatisfying in my experience (and many others). There is undoubtedly a “left-right” spectrum of some value, but (for example) its political representation is not always so clear. This is especially true when zooming out from America to the world (where Bernie Sanders and AOC are quite mild as leftists, despite American conservatives calling them communist; it’s a weird fact: only in America is socialized healthcare considered a “communist” idea). Furthermore, it also ignores the historical background of such “division.” (People ask today: “why is America so divided today?” without even thinking about the Civil War and the reasons it happened!) In any case, a four-fold model (which has similar inescapable problems) has, for me, been more useful and meaningful in thinking about political discourses and events, not least because it enlarges the spectrum and also qualifies it. In writing and listening and living, I keep thinking in these terms, even when I know they are inadequate.
So here we go. I wrote this in one afternoon, and it’s a severely limited and opinionated summary.
Enter: The Rightist, the Conservative, The Liberal, The Leftist/Progressive.
Each framework/ethos/consciousness exists on the right-left spectrum, and each is characterized by a dominating social and intellectual ethos that (for these purposes) can be summed up in a word. This ethos, which is often hidden (and yet so obvious) has some amount of explanatory power when it comes to current events and history. At least I think it sort of does.
- The Rightist/Fascist is about establishing supremacy/absolute power.
- The Conservative is about maintaining and perpetuating tradition. (“conservatives conserve.”)
- The Liberal is about maintaining and creating public respectability.
- The Leftist/Progressive is about changing the world to establish justice.
“Rightists”/”Fascists” (not “Fascist” in its typical sense, though it overlaps considerably) are about achieving supremacy, or absolute power. They care somewhat about tradition, but little about respectability and justice, unless these three are in service to achieving supremacy. They are perceived as being uncivilized, hateful, extreme and institutionally paranoid. Thus, they are reactionaries, haunted not just by the limitless array of enemies in the world that need to be decisively and mercilessly defeated, but by generational and internal insecurities/trauma that direct embody and manifest themselves as ideological scaffolding. At the same time, they also have confident, certain answers before questions have been asked—which serves as a mask for such psychological tension and chaos. They are the conspiracy theorists, always suspicious of consensus, organizations, governments, all educational institutions, “established facts,” and pride themselves on not being deceived like the masses. For obvious reasons, their children are always homeschooled (if schooled at all), and grow up preparing for imminent apocalypse, believing (for example) condensed jet exhaust (contrails) are “chemtrails,” that fluoride (or other chemicals) in city water is also put there by governments make the masses more pliable, that school shootings are politically planned, that the book of Revelation is continually being fulfilled in present day events, that both Jeffrey Epstein and JFK are still alive, that virtually all technological “advances” are inferior to ancient technologies, ancient aliens, etc. The past is not just respected like with conservativism, it is idolized. Patriarchy/masculinity is the highest value (and cooperates with nationalisms); women must be kept in subordination at all costs. Books questioning the status quo should not be ignored; they should be burned. War is an essential part of life (so get ready!). Guns and violence are glorified. Icons include InfoWars, Marjorie Green Taylor, Proud Boys, January 6 insurrectionists, Jacob Seed (FarCry 5), etc. Mottos: “Don’t be a sheeple,” “makes a guy wonder, doesn’t it?,” “you believe everything the government tells you,” etc.
Conservatives are deeply concerned about tradition, “our way of life.” They explicitly care a little a bit about power, but little about respectability and justice, unless these three all serve to uphold tradition. (Thus, wars are generally bad, but needed if they undermine our “way of life.”) They come across as being proud and independent, or in some cases (like Rightists), as “hicks.” Their priorities explain the focus on “traditional family values,” like emphasis on reproduction, the nuclear family and heterosexual marriage as the core of all society. (This was a very Roman idea, by the way: the father/patriarch was considered a kind of miniature emperor). It also includes “traditional” gender roles (women occupying roles in the home and being subordinate to men in all spheres of society), traditions of religion (whatever they may be), holiday and cultural celebrations, etc., However, a woman may be acceptable and (if attractive enough, according to conservative values of course) should be on a pedestal if they are apologists of conservative values (e.g., Tomi Lahren, Kellyane Conway, Monica Crowley, Candace Owens, etc.). The conservative impulse is rooted evolutionarily in kin loyalty, self-preservation, and establishing security (whether food, national, or other securities), and also explains the focus on ethnicity and race, “hard work,” and ensuring stability. Being rooted in the past, it has close ties with rural and agricultural life, trade/craft work, and has deep suspicions about formal education (though not as deep and reactionary as the Rightist). To conserve also necessarily means to fight against changes perceived as threats to the normal social, economic, religious, and political order. Conservatives thus dominate military service and nationalist wars. Icons: American Republican Party, libertarian party, American flag, Confederate flag, Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, Family Heritage Alliance, Focus on the Family, Liberty University, etc. Mottos: “protect your own,” “get’r’done,” “don’t open your mind too much or your brain will fall out,” “faith, family, freedom,” “God Bless America,” “life is the best teacher,” etc.
Liberals (especially white upper middle-class) are all about respectability. They care little about supremacy, traditions and justice unless they are readily portrayed as being respectable. Their attitude and disposition comes across as arrogance. Reputation and public appearances are paramount. The liberal family will ideally be raised in a respectable part of town (not on the rural farm, or in poor, non-white communities), where children are expected to go to a respectable school (American Ivy League universities or Oxford/Cambridge), go to respectable churches (Episcopal, mainline Presbyterian, or Catholic, though this is rapidly changing with secularization), and above all, obtain a respectable middle-class career (doctor, professor, investor, manager, democratic lobbyist, etc.). Liberals talk much about progressive values, but often do little but bolster their own institutions; attending the picket line and going on strike is not respectable, for the way society should change is through the approved, appropriate channels of political discourse (though this may include annual marches and even some protests of the non-threatening variety). They “will the ends without willing the means.” Voting within our sacred democracy is how we change our society. American institutions should not themselves be changed, for there is nothing wrong with them; we should modify and reform from inside in order to shave off the rough edges of capitalism. Women should have some power in society, and even gays (but not so much for transgender and queer people). The poor should be pitied for not having their basic needs (but not the wealthy people and political systems that systematically make them poor). “Third world countries” should be pitied for not being like them in the U.S. (but not so much the U.S. for colonizing those countries). Harvard University, the New York Times, and the Democratic Party are icons of contemporary liberal respectability. (I can’t think of any mottos or representative pithy sayings).
Leftists/Progressives are driven by justice. They care little about tradition and respectability unless it upholds (perceived or real) justice, and seek the abolition of absolute power/supremacy. Progressives constantly run against societal norms and boundaries, and are thus socially marginalized and find a home amongst marginalized groups (immigrants, refugees, the disabled, ethnic minorities, gender minorities, communists, anarchists, etc.). They may come across as being fringe, kooky, or just radical. They are radicals, frequently working behind and in front of revolutions (violent or otherwise). Public education is central, as it is one of the key mechanisms of societal change that is more amenable to progressive values (for mandatory public education of girls and boys is itself a progressive accomplishment, achieved at the Paris Commune). Worker power is also central (unions and cooperatives are themselves anti-capitalist/progressive accomplishments). Not living in the past like rightists and conservatives, nor in the snail-paced propositions of well-to-do liberals that have more iconic value than real value, Progressives live in the utopias of the future, which moves and “progresses,” and yet continually disappoints. Inclusion is a central value (though obviously not for those who oppose inclusion, and groups that wage war against progressive values). For some Leftists (just like with any other groups), their knowledge of social, intellectual, political, and economic principles and history is rich and genuine (e.g., Philip Foner, Gerald Horne, Cornel West, Aviva Chomsky, Gerda Lerner, etc.), for others, meme-like, impressionistic, and rhetoric-based, which in popular revolutions can culminate in poor leadership, instability, dystopia, and societal paralyzation instead of liberation (because liberation from oppression is the ultimate goal). Contrary to white liberals, there is no respectable democracy from which to work in America, and both political parties are owned by Big Capital. America has always been a nation founded on white supremacy, slavery, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and colonialism; the constitution should probably be burned. Temporary instability is a small price to pay for freedom and justice. Icons: Paris Commune, Michael Parenti, Malcolm X., Angela Davis, arrested climate activists, antifa, MeansTV, Green Party, Socialist Party, Communist Party, etc. Mottos: “No Justice, No Peace,” “People Over Profit,” “Seize the Means,” etc.
Each framework has its own contradictions.
- For rightists, how can one be so certain of one’s conclusions and be so skeptical of the most qualified persons and institutions at the same time? (If we can’t trust videos of NASA showing a round earth, or of thermometers proving climate change, what can we really trust?)
- For conservatives, weren’t all “traditions” once progressive? (How can one reject slavery and affirm women’s education and right to vote given conservative values, which point in the opposite direction?) And shouldn’t laws benefit everyone instead benefiting conservatives?
- For liberals, if liberalism represent minorities and genuinely seeks systemic change, how can one do that while being made up of the respectable majority within the current respectable system? (How can the planet be saved and world change while depending on the same corporate, capitalist donations in Congress, which are specifically designed to prevent such change? Biden is quite respectable…and the fact that he accomplished nothing of real value supports that image.)
- For progressives, must the world be reinvented in toto to significantly improve it, or are there some institutions and values that should be retained? And to what degree must one tolerate/not-tolerate the cancers of fascism and capitalism, and what amount of coercion is acceptable in establishing revolutionary change? (Should any newspapers be censored in the ideal society of freedom and justice, and would a democratic answer to this question truly be ideal?)
All, of course, implement forms of “ends justifies the means” legitimation. The values of each are viewed as being of utmost importance, and in worse cases, reductionistically dismissing all other values as less important. (This isn’t to collapse their actual importance; it is my personal view, for example, that justice is far more important than the values of the other three, which is part of the reason I’m most sympathetic to the “progressive” outlook.)
You can tell that the more one writes about each one of these, increased specificity makes them more and more useless. So I’ll end here.