One of my favorite pastimes is to look for issues where I have been previously wrong about something. It isn’t that uncommon, as I am wrong about a lot of things, but I also don’t just back away from an idea without a fight.
Anyway, a few months ago I wrote an article about how communist governments aren’t leftist:
Communist Governments aren’t Leftist
Ever heard the saying “if you are not a Liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a Conservative at 35 you have…
You see, I was fascinated by this idea that people have an innate tendency to rebel against the hierarchy, and I was toying with the idea that the essence of the left was revolutionary. Certainly some leftists would agree with that, but now I think I was wrong. Or at least, I don’t think support or opposition to the hierarchy is not the essence of Left v. Right.
There are a lot of people who have come up with a lot of ways to describe the essence of left and right. Here are just a few on my favorite question and answer site:
What is the simplest way to differentiate between a conservative and a liberal?
Answer (1 of 241): Oh, that's easy! If you're a conservative, the liberals are the ones with the horns. If you're a…
Here are a few more from wikipedia:
A political spectrum is a system to characterize and classify different political positions in relation to one another…
This is the one I grew up with, showing some actual voters, although I don’t see why they don’t normalize so that the median voter is in the middle.:
This last one shows that people who support economic individualism tend to support social convservatism, and vice versa. In other words, Libertarianism and Authoritarian Communism are both unpopular (although, according to this chart, Libertarianism is even more unpopular than Authoritarian Communism!)
So why is this so? Previously my explanation went like this: the prevailing hierarchy is Christian Capitalism, so leftists oppose both of these things, and conservatives oppose them. Obviously, this is a bit of an exaggeration. I realize that the Left isn’t really opposed to Christianity (well, not all of the Left). Now, in addition to being an exaggeration, I also think it just isn’t that great of a framework to being with. It isn’t worthless, but I have found something better. So what is it?
Tribalism. The Left opposes Tribalism and the Right clings to it. Recently I talked about the book The Rule of the Clan:
The Rule of the Clan
I recently read the book The Rule of the Clan, by Mark Weiner. The basic premise of the book can be described as:
The premise is that people used to live in clans and they had no individual freedom. Only the emergence of strong central governments helped create room of individuals. This creates kind of an interesting paradox. In order to have more individual autonomy, you have to break clans, and to break clans, you have to have strong national (or supernational) institutions.
So we have this idea that more individualism is linked to more universal institutions because local institutions (like the family) are really good at oppressing people.
Anyway, we have the Universal/Individual axis, which I associate with rational, top-down, government against the Family axis, which I associated with local institutions and evolutionary change. So Leftists think they know the right answers for themselves and society, and Rightists think they know the right answers for their family.
In this model, the prevailing hierarchy isn’t really Christian Capitalism. In my new model the prevailing hierarchy is the Clan, and even though the US has always been at the forefront of breaking Clan power, among ourselves we still have some people who are relatively pro-clan. Under this new model, Communist governments are really, really Leftist in the sense that they tend to support universal top down solutions at the expense of local tribalism.
My new interpretation of US politics is also more consistent with the fascinating work done by David Hackett Fischer in the book Albion’s Seed, which talks about how US politics is heavily influence by very early immigration patterns. Basically, the South was influenced by more Tribal people, and the North was influenced by people who held to more universal principles (including individual freedom).
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a 1989 book by David Hackett Fischer that details the folkways of…
As usual, scott Alexander has a great review since you probably won’t read the whole book:
Book Review: Albion's Seed
Albion's Seed by David Fischer is a history professor's nine-hundred-page treatise on patterns of early immigration to…
Anyway, to recap, I previously thought that opposition to the prevailing hierarchy was the defining element of the Left. Now I think the Left is characterized by support of individualism, rationality, and universal principles while the right is characterized by tribalism, faith, and evolutionary progress. And the whole thing plays out in a historical context where the emergence of individual liberty is only made possible by the decline of clans. Hence the connection between individualism and trust in universal institutions based on rationality as opposed to local institutions based on relationships.
So with this in mind, where do I stand. It’s actually pretty hard to say. I definitely grew up in a very conservative environment of faith and family. But I left all that behind in favor of rationality and being my own person. Now I think that the pendulum in modern society has swung too far in terms of breaking down our families and communities. I have a natural love of technology and progress, but I have a great fear that there are huge negative consequences to our current social arrangements (or lack thereof) that we have only begun to reckon with.