Left, Right, And Tribal Loyalty

It’s been my observation that, when someone tells you to stop thinking in terms of “left vs. right,” they’re always in some sly sense complimenting themselves. On their sophistication as analysts. On the complexity of their worldview. They want you to recognize that they’re not a narrow-minded partisan, someone who can only parrot the talking points handed down from party headquarters. (That’s what those racist, red-state FOX viewers do. They’re the ones who oversimplify political affiliation.) They want you to recognize that they’re capable of drawing their own conclusions, of crafting their own platforms, independent of the chattering groupthinkers surrounding them.

I tend to tune out around that point. Better that than hear some unattributed rehash of yesterday’s All Things Considered. I’ll daydream of chuck roast, plan the evening’s workout, that sort of thing. The bold freethinker—unfettered by group loyalties, uninfluenced by inherited ideas—is along the lines of a sea monster to me. I’m willing to bet money they exist somewhere, but I’ve never met one. And I’m not sure the wisest course of action wouldn’t be to harpoon it on the spot if I did.

So, no. Even though I’d encourage my fellow travellers to hold the left/right binary at arm’s length, it’s not because I think I’m above mundane tribal loyalties. Not at all. In fact, I’d encourage us to hold it at arm’s length because I’m not above mundane tribal loyalties. And I don’t think any of us are. Our friend Paul was covering this terrain just last week. You can call it thede. You can call it caste, class, ethnicity, tribe, whatever. But your loyalties to your people, however defined, and the inclinations you’ve inherited from those people color your thinking whether you like it or not. And your thinking will be thus colored no matter how many times you go through the hallowed prog ritual of “examining your own biases and prejudices.” You can’t change it.

(Isn’t it odd how the progressives on the one hand attribute nigh-omnipotence to the concept of prejudice? They think it’s a major determinative force behind our linguistic habits, our legal codes, our economic practices, etc. etc. It’s all ethnocentrism all the way down… And then on the other hand they believe they can overcome or adjust for their own biases. If only we were all such superheroes of moral conduct, able to channel the tides that have shaped history by dint of sheer willpower. Oh well. Surely they’ll forgive us for falling a little short of their powers.)

The terms left and right facilitate a lot of the sorts of discussions that we like to have around these parts. They’re shorthand, a stand-in for a lot of conceptual freight that would be otherwise difficult to transport. The left stands for egalitarianism, for wealth redistribution, for the forward march of holy Progress, for social entropy, for pathological altruism, for any number of things. The right stands for hierarchy, for tradition, for order, for a skepticism of grand utopian schemes, for a recognition of human fallibility, for reverence, and so on and so forth. The left stands for a leveling universalist impulse. The right stands for the specificities of blood, soil, time, place.

And this is where reality outstrips the terms we’re referring to it with. A major critique of contemporary leftism is that it believes that its categories and its concerns ought to suffice for the whole world. It believes that in modern, liberal democracy it has found the end of history. That all the nations of the earth have been yearning in secret for universal suffrage and religious pluralism and the inalienable civil right to gay marry your pool boy all of these long centuries. That now enlightenment has broken upon the globe. We insist in contrast that there are different ways of running one’s societies that are native different people. We insist that human beings are not interchangeable the world round, that we have our own preoccupations, traits, satisfactions. But it’s important to note that in setting every possible political conviction on the continuum from the chaotic left to the divine right, we’re actually recreating the same sort of totalizing, universalist scheme that we set out to overturn.

Such a recapitulation often has very practical consequences, too, especially when our various intramural disputes come to the fore. When disagreements arise in our ranks, often our first maneuver is for the perceived rightmost ground. You insist that one component or other of your comrade’s position has been compromised by creeping leftism. You demonstrate that your own is free of such taint. Viola! You’ve carried the day.

These maneuvers aren’t always purely manipulative. Don’t let me get too carried away here. Most of us grew up with a progressive worldview. It was in our educational materials. It was in our TV programs. It was, for all I know, injected like high fructose corn syrup into our chicken nuggets. So it’s reasonable to look out for ways in which its various distortions and mendacities might still be affecting our thinking. But we also must realize that not all of our disagreements devolve to such ideological holdovers. There are real, meaningful, deeply felt differences even between traditions that we would consider properly hostile to the idols of modernity. The whole history of Europe can attest to this. The history of the Church as well.

God didn’t see fit to mechanically replicate mores, aesthetics, constitutions in one people after another. And sometimes differences in these areas cause conflict. I suspect, for example, that many of my political preferences are shaped by the Southern instinct to get the gubmint of my property so’s I can live in peace and quiet, whereas many of my Yankee counterparts seem to be operating on a model where you optimize your system of government in such a way that it can take an active yet beneficial role in citizens’ affairs. Whether one of these is farther right or farther left strikes me as a little academic. What they are is instinctual and probably irreconcilable. And in the greater scheme of things there are about as many different political instincts as there are political tribes. I wouldn’t want to be the one in charge of arranging them all in their appropriate order on the left, moderate, right progression.

I’m not arguing for so-called “cultural relativism” in any of the foregoing. There are, in my humble opinion, higher cultures and lower ones. There are civilized peoples and barbarians. There are social orders than tend towards corruption and evil, as well as those than tend toward the good. And the integrity of the latter ought to be guarded jealously from encroachments by the former. But what I am saying is that it’s easy to reify the left vs. right continuum, to misplace in it concreteness. And that reification, I think, causes us to interpret simple differences of sensibility as signs of a direr schism.

So I say we continue to use the terms leftist, rightist, etc. where conversational efficiency behooves us to. But let’s not forget, in our more elaborate conceptualizations, that politics do not break down into two neatly opposed sides but more into an assortment of tribes. It’s not just a matter of accuracy, either, but one of strategical import. The clear implication is that we ought to be encouraging cooperation between the tribes most closely related to our own, who’s interests align with ours, rather than attempting to settle with authority which tribe is the rightest or the leftest of them all.

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  1. Yeah, but the Right in the US is mainly loyal to a tribe not their own. See (for example) the thousands of comments at Breitbart in response to the Ted Cruz incident.

  2. Frankly, the left-right spectrum does have two major problems. First, it refers to regime type, not ideology, and assumes that ideology is proxy for regime type. From Right to Left, the spectrum is Absolute Monarchy, Constitutional Monarchy, Republic, Democracy, Dictatorship of the Proletariat. This is basic 18th-19th Century (French) political thought, which most moderns ignore. There is no free market v. socialism dynamic in this spectrum, nor is there a social con/social lib distinction. These are tacked on by people who are abusing the words to fit their purposes.

    Secondly, all forms of government on the spectrum are liberal or progressive. All. Bar None. You have the forms favored by Hobbesian Liberalism, Whig Liberalism, Lockean Liberalism, Rousseauan Progressivism, and Marxist Progressivism. 18th Century Absolute Monarchy itself is not a reactionary/traditionalist form of government, but a Hobbesian Enlightened Despotism, containing the same errors at its root as the Whig tradition.

    So yes, the Left-Right spectrum is useless, and even pernicious. It serves to place non-liberal ideas outside the conceptual universe of political theory. This is how mainstream conservatives exclude traditional or theo-centric ideas from debate, because they fall outside of the spectrum, and therefore aren’t “real” political ideas.

    1. You’re probably correct in your statement about the terms’ original meanings, and, for all I know, you’re correct on your second point as well. But those aren’t the sort of questions that typically keep me up at night. I don’t mind how far afield the from its historical definition the left/right dichotomy is. I just don’t want to current usage to gum up the works for its users, prompting us to hunt for heresies where there are actually only differences of temperament in play.

      1. I one continues to use the Right-Left paradigm, then do you propose to deal with the use of this concept to exclude non-liberal ideas? By that I mean this line of judgment:

        “Right-wing or conservative means classical or whig liberalism. Therefore it stands for religious freedom. People who advocate for restricting the immigration “rights” of Muslims are against religious freedom, therefore they are not right-wing. If they are not right-wing (and certainly not left-wing), then their ideas are outside the bounds of politics, illegitimate, and can be suppressed or ignored.”

        Frankly, I’ve heard this argument a great deal, (mostly from Iraq veterans, actually, who tend to be the looniest Islamophiles I’ve ever met, beyond even liberals) and not even from liberals, but from evangelical free-market conservatives.

        1. Apart from various internet outlets, I can’t say I run across too many arguments couched in the terminology of high political theory like that. But even so I don’t think you need recourse to such terminology to answer it. You’d just want to point out that ideas like “religious freedom” arose in a time when a far higher degree of cultural, religious, and ethnic homogeneity could be assumed than now, that those days are behind us, and that carrying on as if we still live in them is delusional and dangerous, especially where Muslims are concerned.

          This thread seems to illustrate my overall point, though, which is that of wrangling over the particulars of political language there is no end. You can expect models like left/right, however defined, to carry some water in the area of analysis. But you can’t really expect them to resolve debates or disagreements for you. Brokering agreements between different groups of people is a much messier task than simply labeling ideologies.

  3. Well, as a reactionary man I agree with what Mark Yuray wrote: “The Whole Political Spectrum is Leftist”.

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