Buckling and curling in the US political spectrum

Sometimes I think my liberal friends are wrong when they say that the Right has moved further right in recent years. Maybe they are correct, but here’s another way of looking at it. If you think of the spectrum as two poles with a center point, I’ll agree that the center has shifted right since the emergence of Fox news and talk radio, but the right ideological pole, with its emphasis on deregulation and privatization, lower taxes, a distrust of group-based rights, etc., has held firm. This means the right half of the spectrum has been compressed, bunching up and causing internal tensions. To keep to the metaphor, one could say that the right half of the spectrum has constricted and buckled, with new subgroups like the Tea Party and the Alt-Right buckling up from the base like tectonic plates. I propose, for the sake of argument, that we consider these groups not as philosophically more conservative, but rather as a sublimated version of the base. Sure, they push further right on some issues, like immigration, but for the most part they are not more right-wing but just a less grounded (historically, factually and psychologically) version of the conservative base: the idiot version of birthers and Obamacare death panels.

Although this analysis has seemed to take a partisan turn, the Left fares not much better. It might be that those who think the Left has moved further left may be wrong. Yes, they have become more strident, more unwilling to compromise, more given to vitriolic name-calling of their conservative counterparts, but that merely indicates a change in tone, not a philosophical move to the left. So has the Left buckled also? Not exactly. Has it stretched further left? I don’t think so. I think the problem on the left is that it is “curling” back to the right. The “true north” of the left-wing vision dates to the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. The left-wing goal then was to liberate people from all conventional restraints on what to say and think, on living arrangements and paths to self-actualization. Part and parcel of this liberatory vision was the Left’s old emphasis on economics, on policies workers — white, black, male, female, gay, straight — could fight for together to mitigate the prevailing inequality and free up those paths to self-actualization. (Through this lens, Occupy Wall Street was perhaps the last gasp of whatever Left had existed in the US.) Culturally, though, the goal was to celebrate our sexuality and our differences without denying our shared humanness, to see each other as brothers and sisters, regardless of race or demographics. We were fellow human beings, first and foremost, and it was precisely the vantage of that shared humanness that brought into focus the absurdity of racism, sexism, and other social and economic injustices.

But now the curling. The Left’s new tendency to police sexuality (a new puritanism ever watchful to prove, e.g., that male desire and heterosexuality are intrinsically exploitative), to police dissent, to set us-vs-them identity-based triggers that shame and alienate white from black, male from female, for short-term political gain. In the New Left’s view, it seems that viewing each other as brothers and sisters regardless of race and gender is a “microaggression,” bridges are replaced by walls and defending one’s turf against “cultural appropriation,” the post-60s battle lines with a rainbow coalition of progressives resisting a status quo Establishment are replaced by demographic battle lines between white and black, male and female, and all of the other reified categories of the intersectional encyclopedia. In these ways – the cultural policing, the revivified segregation of demographic groups into insulated interest groups, the authoritarian resistance to dialogue and free expression – the Left has curled back toward the “Right” as it was defined on a 1960s spectrum.

So my contrarian conclusion to my friends at both ends is that the spectrum has not widened but narrowed, with the Right buckling up and the Left curling back. Sure, there are still policy differences – on immigration, health care, environmental regulation – and, to be clear, I favor the liberals on these issues – but the shorter the horizontal space of the spectrum becomes, the more ad hominem and the more vicious the personal attacks on those who disagree. And this is the state of things today. The only hope, if there is a hope, is for some new force to emerge outside of today’s left-right spectrum, a unifying voice that can connect with the idea that we are all in this together, and with a limited amount of time to address issues of environmental destruction and inequality and tribalism before the tipping point. There were such inspirational voices in the past, so perhaps it can be done again, but not from within the political spectrum as we now know it.


Obama’s Legacy Has Already Been Destroyed, Andrew Sullivan, New Yorker (5/18/18)

We need a PC that includes White People, John McWhorter, CNN Opinion (11/25/16)

1960s vs Post-1980s Liberals

BookCoverImage    year-bfly-cover    Cover png

14 thoughts on “Buckling and curling in the US political spectrum

  1. Consider that this is because every compromise that could be reached has been both reached and implemented. Yet, the Left cries out for more, largely because so many of those compromises achieved little to no results because they were based upon the Left’s refusal to place any blame on those with “protected traits.” Consider also that the Right has consolidated exactly because of the Left’s ever broader and ever increasing attacks upon normalcy.


  2. A fine geological metaphor, Doc!

    So while we have rocks in our heads, I ask, What is so bad about, or even preferable to, our current state of tribal partisanship and fraught politics? Like the movement of tectonic plates, hasn’t it ever been thus (albeit with what seems to be a long trend toward less violent conflict)?

    As a species we are facing some of our most complex problems ever, including the most existential one of wise resource use and management. Shouldn’t we have the most lively debates possible on these issues, even at the risk of deep rancor, resentment and conflict? Isn’t that the long-standing way of humankind (the most successful mammalian species to date)? What new force(s) other than human dialectic and the work of the Four Horsemen are we hoping for at this stage of our habitation? Lasting solutions can only come from deep-rooted debate, trials and errors.

    None of the gods we’ve invented to date have had the power to sow peace among all men. The need for meat cannot be bred out of the tiger. The jewel is in the lotus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so right and so wrong, Bodhisattva. Cheers to your idea that we badly need robust debate, including trial and error. But I find that robust debate is precisely what has disappeared from the body politic at this time. Standing across an unbridgeable gulf shouting “racist,” “nutjob,” and “Hitler” at the other side is not robust debate. Watching for any deviation from the party line, and then scarlet-lettering the deviant, is not robust debate (and “trial-and-error” is exceedingly dangerous when the monitors are out 24/7 searching for one-slip-and-you’re-out infractions). Ostracizing not only those who disagree, but also those on your own side who do not hate the opponents with sufficient vitriol, is not robust debate. I agree with you in principle but have a darker view of what is happening on the ground. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my friends on either side welcome all viewpoints to the table for further discussion and debate.
      Per the tribalism, I think that, rather than stimulating productive debate, it has exactly the opposite effect. It replaces rational principles and evidence-based reasoning with an identity-based litmus test. It defines itself against the enemy tribe, not as someone to work with but as someone to be defeated. This is an impediment to productive debate. The opposite of tribalism – shared humanness – is conducive to productive debate, insofar as it sees us all as brothers and sisters, it sees our differences as negotiable, we can have our differences AND work together, because the layer of our differences is undergirded by a layer of shared humanness. It is only the vigilant recognition of our shared humanness that enables us to navigate and celebrate our differences without fear or shame.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Simultaneous rightness and wrongness seems the very condition of our species, brother. I agree with you completely that the sense of shared humanness among people is by far the most fertile ground for productive debate. But we must also accept that, thus far, the growing seasons for the crop of shared humanness have been rare and fleeting; that humans develop great tools for cooperation and development in one generation and then forget how to use, or utterly misuse, those tools in the very next. Great cooperation, innovation, prosperity invariably lead to hubris, complacency and distraction, which give way to fear of loss and hatred of the other (the latest round of “winners” walling itself off physically, mentally and emotionally from the rest of their brethren). Desire and fear delude us into the illusion of separateness.
    Our life spans and lifestyles are such that wisdom (cultivating the ability to transcend desire and fear) is long in coming and departs quickly if the next generation is neglected in the ways of education and communication. We are now (and again) living through one such era of neglect, mass-forgetting and skill-erosion; of petty selfishness and avarice in an environment which has rarely been more productive and prosperous. This is why the Four Horsemen always have chairs at the debating table. Inefficient thought and cooperation lead to ever more efficient horrors.
    Wisdom, the prerequisite for shared humanness, is the new (old) force you raise hope for in your original post. But it is not a force easily gathered; it is a force requiring the most delicate and relentless attention our species can, and so often fails to, muster. As the Gospel of Thomas says, “The kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • We agree mostly. I agree that a condition of diverse people living together in harmony is rare, but shared humanness as a principle, a theory, a way of looking at our species, is not so rare. I might argue it was the dominant theory among progressives on race and gender from the 18th-century Enlightenment to the 1980s – Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Wollstonecraft and on up to Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King, all emphasized that once we see our shared humanness we will see the absurdity of racism, sexism, etc. So it is true that utopia manifest is rare if not impossible, but believing that the principle of shared humanness is key to moving forward toward a more ideal union has been fairly commonplace among progressive social visionaries for most of the modern era.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “The only hope, if there is a hope, is for some new force to emerge outside of today’s left-right spectrum, a unifying voice that can connect with the idea that we are all in this together, and with a limited amount of time to address issues of environmental destruction and inequality and tribalism before the tipping point. There were such inspirational voices in the past, so perhaps it can be done again, but not from within the political spectrum as we now know it.”

    I think our time is coming, man. The writing is on the wall. One thing we have now that we didn’t have in the sixties is the Internet. People of integrity in the lower socio-economic classes who have been screwed by the callous oversights of those in power can now network with each other without having to be daunted by rising costs of transportation, but can do so in real time, in an instant, without spending a cent, through the same assortments of key words that introduced me to you, and you to me, and both of us to mounting numbers of others of like-minded. All it will take is a sudden, huge jolt — of possibly catastrophic proportions — and this nation will see what the People are truly made of. Verily, the sixties are not dead. That Spirit is rising, and will rise again — and prevail.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Pingback: How to lose elections to a lunatic* | shakemyheadhollow

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