The folly of political labels
The terms “left” and “right” are often used to refer to two globally opposed political ideologies. But what do these terms really mean?
If one accepts the general consensus, the left comprises progressives, social-liberals, greens, socialists, secularists, communists and anarchists, while the right includes conservatives, neo-conservatives, reactionaries, capitalists, monarchists, theocrats, nationalists, Nazis and fascists, among others.
But generalized classifications leave much to be desired. So what’s the best way to codify who’s who along the ideological spectrum?
A good starting point might be to define what ideology is: “A body of ideas reflecting the beliefs and interests of a nation, group or culture. It includes the doctrines that form the basis of economic and political systems and underlies political action.”
Set against that definition, it may surprise some that the general consensus categorizing left and right political ideologies is actually quite arbitrary. For example, why is communism categorized as a leftist ideology, while Nazism (a form of fascism) is classified as a rightwing ideology?
These two “isms” fought a death match in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. Nonetheless, they are not polar opposites, far from it. From a historical perspective, communism and Nazism are actually first cousins and competitors for the same constituencies. One needs to look no further than their respective doctrines and policies.
Both the communists and the Nazis were socialist utopian visions of the future. Both ideologies believed in government-controlled health care, guaranteed jobs, euthanasia and rigid gun control. Both confiscated inherited wealth, spent vast sums on public education and made use of extensive surveillance mechanisms and secret police.
Both ideologies promoted secularism, inserted the authority of the state into every nook and cranny of daily life, loathed the free market and eliminated free speech.
So why should these two ideologies with almost identical policies be categorized as opposites?
An even greater incongruity exists when trying to categorize the ideologies of the Middle East. Are they left or right? Saddam Hussein modeled Ba’athist Iraq on Stalin’s communist Russia. Saddam’s Iraq was secular (left), but its historical underpinnings were religious (right). Iraq’s Ba’athists were socialist and secular in nature and had a great deal in common with Hitler’s Nazis inasmuch as Saddam relied on developing an extremist national consciousness as a means of uniting the people against enemies, both internal and external.
Meanwhile, the Islamist movements in the Arab world share many of the same goals but predicate their political philosophies on religious ideology rather than secular socialism, making this another example of what are considered opposing ideologies (secular vs. religious) pursuing similar ends.
Perhaps a more appropriate model for ideological cartography would be a continuum that depicts the left as ideologies embracing a high degree of governmental control of society’s functions, while the right believes in little or no governmental intrusion into the functions of society.
Within this context, any form of government exercising total control of its citizens — socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism, Islamist movements, etc. — might rightfully be considered ideologies of the far left, while ideologies that practice limited governmental control would be ideologies of the right.
However, this model doesn’t pass the litmus test, either, because if the far left means complete governmental control of society’s functions, by deduction the far right must constitute no government at all.
But throughout history the absence of government has always led to anarchy, which the general consensus deems as leftist. Moreover and as a practical matter, anarchy is a political vacuum. History is replete with authoritarian forms of government filling political vacuums. So is no government a philosophy of the left or right?
Is a pro-choice woman who has a “carry and conceal” permit left or right? And what of the man who believes gay marriage should be legal in all 50 states, but thinks it’s patently wrong for Obamacare to force the Catholic Church to provide birth control?
The fact of the matter is that ideology defies simple categorization and we do ourselves a great disservice by attempting to pigeonhole people into ill-defined ideological categories.
Quote of the day: “Half the lies they tell about me aren’t true.” — Yogi Berra
Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.