Tuesday, September 07, 2010

New Visual

Glenn Reynolds linker to an American Thinker article about lefties and language. I am not interested in commentary on the article in general at present. I had some things I liked about it, some things I didn't.

But there is an interesting concept here, which the the author states he has long held, yet I am taken with as if it is new: that there is not really a left-to-right political continuum in American politics. The libertarians have a nifty little few-question test which people have taken a billion times, which sets out the political landscape along two dimensions, left-right and statist-individualist. I don't link it here because I have thought it only a mild improvement. That may be what Walker is hinting at here - certain sections of his essay betray a sympathy to that construction - but he is more concerned with the idea of current liberals as statists, with no particular ideology modifying that.

Let's take that idea one step further, or perhaps sideways. Let's pretend there are no axes at all. Let's consider liberalism a separate force all it's own embedded in the body politic, or if you prefer, a distinct group. I am undecided whether to picture that as a colored circle, as in a Venn diagram, or a pole of attraction, like magnetism or a city-state. For the moment, no matter. Think of society just going along with its competing interests between groups, and into this mix something new and quite separate is added.

This can be either positive or negative - I am not making a value judgment in this part of the essay. In the time of the Roman Empire there were factions who wanted to pull the general culture one way or the other, and into this mix was added Christianity, a new idea that did not fit previous categories. Or more recently, Adam Smith brought forth his idea of free markets into a western Europe that was divided along a continuum of mercantilists to physiocracists. Marxism, or the idea of an Ubermensch/superior race, were also new things brought in to an existing system. It can go both ways.

Walker states the the whole idea of a left-right continuum was brought in by men of the left, who have succeeded in imposing that framing on all discussions in the last century. That sounds plausible, but I don't know it to be true. Perhaps the idea was not imposed on us by intellectuals of a certain political stripe, but was readily accepted by all groups.

But once we have accepted the idea that liberalism is not a broad swath along a linear scale, but a set of ideas accepted by - according to Pew research - about 19% of us, our picture of the remaining 80% of us changes drastically. All the other ideas of imperialism vs. isolationism, regional interests, class interests, racial and ethnic rivalries (because they usually gravitate to different industries and economic sectors), urban vs. rural vs. suburban, settled vs. frontier - all come back into play. There would be another circle called conservatism, though this area would definitely have smudgy boundaries, but it would be one idea among many, not the lone opponent to liberalism.

In America, this liberal group gathers much of its energy from an aristocratic strain - ironic considering its marxist origins that it would invert thus. Rather than an hereditary aristocracy per se, it is part cultural view, part ethnic (progressives are disproportionally northwest European or Jewish), part quasi-meritocracy.

Well, play with that in your minds and tell me what you think.


Texan99 said...

I must think about this more before I comment fully, but I wanted to say first that I grew up thinking of myself as a liberal, but I never was a statist. What I thought the word meant was something to do with equal opportunity: that no one would be frozen out of any areas of life because of ethnicity, religion, or gender. So for instance the classic liberal position would be to decry quotas that limited the number of Jews who could be admitted to the best universities. The idea was that you would take each person for what he was, not what group he belonged to or whether he'd been born into privilege.

karrde said...

Texan--I've seen that sentiment elsewhere.

A blogger named Steven den Beste phrased it as "I'm often called conservative...because I'm liberal". He went on to say that his insistence on individual rights, which was classically liberal, put him counter to many moderns who describe themselves as liberal.

On the broader subject, I think I see the multi-group thesis as accurate.

One reason that the single-axis description has lasted so long is that the American system favors a pair of large parties. With two parties, it is easy to assume that there are only two large political groups worth mentioning.

British-style electoral systems favor coalitions of single-issue parties...but often lack the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative.

The American system favors coalitions at Party conventions, but also has more room for regional variations...which makes the entire project of political classification very messy.

Der Hahn said...

Random thought brought up by your essay, AVI - I don't think the people who describe political views as in left-right terms are thinking of a contiuum so much as they are thinking of a vector.

Fred Z said...

Every person is the non-linear sum of many orthogonal personality vectors. Which change over time - everyone knows the 'conservative' one lengthens and the 'sex' one ... shrinks.

The problem with the 2 axis left-right and statist-individualist analysis was not the axial analysis but that not enough axes were used.