This post is part of my commentary series on John David Lewis’ short book Early Greek Lawgivers.
Lewis begins his book with a scene from Plato’s Laws, in which three men discuss the best laws for a fictional city. In examining this discussion related to the source for laws, Lewis identifies two major themes that are relevant today; the first is tradition versus innovation. (Note that I will address the second theme in a subsequent post).
When I was in school, this was the essence of what defined the left vs. right political continuum. Those on the left were for change, reform, and innovation; while those of the right were focused on deference to tradition and restoring society to the true path of the past. Similarly, in “Terrorism in democracies; Its social and political bases”, Ted Robert Gurr identified two general political motivations for terrorist organizations: radicalization from the left and reaction from the right (Origins of Terrorism, p. 87-92.).
Today, this left-right continuum is criticized as no longer making sense. One point of criticism is the similarity of the fascists and communists in their methods and goals, thus it does not seem relevant that they should be on opposite poles of this continuum. Yet, this placement was based upon the backward looking vision of fascists for restoring past national glories and the communists progressing to a new condition based upon the synthesis of past contradictions.
Now, there is a move to create a new more relevant continuum. The Libertarian quadrant may be the alternative most commonly seen by students. Craig Biddle of The Objective Standard offered his own alternative recently, which he called “Political ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Properly Defined”. However, I find that these alternatives are actually different tools for a different purpose instead of being actual alternatives and are attempting to hijack existing useful concepts by redefining them with limited referents. Further, while relevant to reframing current political debate in some places (like the US and Canada), these so-called alternatives are typically not relevant historically nor currently where such are not the alternatives actively in the political debate. Thus, if you live in the moment and the history of political ideas overtime and their impact are not relevant to you then such may be alternatives for your limited perspective.
Why are alternatives attractive? Our current major political parties are coalitions that combine factions without a consistent perspective on the traditional view of left and right. Further, government has expanded to such a wide variety of policies that the same person can be a traditionalist on one set of issues and an innovator on a different set. The so called alternatives seek to reconcile these contradictions by developing a unifying theme related to the relationship between the individual and the collective. Ironically, those that champion such alternatives typically put themselves on the right when they are actually not traditionalists.
Contrary to the policy based view on left vs. right, today what had been left is now right, and through the neoconservatives leftists are attempting to set the agenda for the Republican Party, which is considered traditionalist today, but was downright leftist 150 years ago. Using a non-US example, the Russian communists were leftists in the 1910’s, but had become the right by the 1980s.
Personally, as I see that tradition versus innovation is a constant choice over time and place, I find that it is currently and historically relevant to conceive of these alternatives as left vs. right. Today, that would put both Obama and Romney on the right as the defenders of a tradition of an expansive and invasive government. Meanwhile, those like myself are leftists as we champion refocusing the government upon its proper domain of protecting individual rights by subordinating retaliatory force to objective law; truly an innovative agenda in the present political context.
As an example, conservative Robert Bork has argued in favor of the maintenance of Social Security regardless of its constitutionality because it has become part of our American tradition and therefore should not be changed. Is such an argument from the left or the right? To me, it seems obvious that argument is from the right given its traditionalist orientation, yet he advocates government coerced retirement planning.
The left vs. right continuum represents the relationship between the present political conditions and the direction (past vs. future, tradition vs. innovation) advocated for policy. As such, it remains relevant. Instead of replacing a valid concept with an alternative, a new and separate concept related to the how policy reflects the advocated relationship between the individual and that state should be used.