Left-Wing, Right-Wing: How Useful is This Distinction?

We are often told that the left-wing, right-wing distinction is trivial or irredeemably vague and that various “postmodern” Issues, such as those concerning difference, render the distinction irrelevant. But a recent book by Christopher Cochrane – Left and Right: The Small World of Political Ideas> – tells another story.

His study indicates that most people in industrialized countries, when asked, locate themselves on a left-right scale. Although most respondents struggle to define abstractly what “left” or “right’ is, they know the difference when they see it – that is, when they are quizzed about specific policy areas.

Cochrane’s extensive analysis reveals that political ideas tend to fall into two untidy bundles. Cross-nationally, the core commitments of left and right remain remarkably consistent, though not surprisingly subsidiary political ideas shift over time and vary somewhat from country to country. Those who self-identify as being right-wing or conservative anchor their political orientation in support for liberal capitalism. The principal political value of the left is egalitarian social justice, which generally makes them critics of free markets and the actual practice of liberal democracy. No surprises there. More interesting, however, is the raft of policy positions that have become associated with the left or right over time.

Let me summarize some prominent commitments of the political left as mentioned by Cochrane:
• Support, at a minimum, for a universal welfare state
• Sympathy for union and labour rights
• Opposition to expansion of the military budget
• Concern to combat climate change (arising in the 1980s and with greater urgency since the 1990s)
• Support for “difference”: multiculturalism, immigration, racial, gender and gay rights.
It is interesting that climate change has become a leftist issue. But, on reflection, the identification is unsurprising: concerted action to minimize the catastrophe generally entails severe restrictions of free markets and extensive state intervention, both of which are anathema to the right.

Those who identify themselves as on the right hold to a very different, and sometimes opposed, set of values.
• Support for a small state (in principle though rarely in practice), with a preference for targeted or contributory social programs
• A high priority to law and order and individual rights
• Backing for a large and expanded military
• Defence of traditional (“family values”) morality
• A growing resistance to multiculturalism, immigration and refugees
• Opposition to non-market or extensive reforms to deal with climate change.
Needless to say, the implications for policy of these commitments are wide-ranging.

What of the political centre? We often hear that the centre is where (or was where) the majority of voters gravitate. But Cochrane refers to the centre as a “vacuum” or “meeting place.” By this he means that centrism is not an ideological position comparable to left or right. Instead, the centre comprises those who are indifferent to left-right distinctions, those who have “mixed feelings” (in the sense that they are on the left on one policy area and the right on others), and those of the moderate right and moderate left who feel compromise is needed. I think this demystification of the vaunted centre is one of the most interesting facets of Cochrane’s ideas.

But where do liberals fit? I don’t think this is an issue that the author engages. It is nonetheless important, both in terms of locating political ideas and devising political strategy.
Presumably, liberals are usually on the right – for example, neoliberals since the 1980s have favoured free markets, lean states and individual rights. But, in highly inegalitarian societies such as the US today, liberals – or more precisely, social liberals – situate themselves on the moderate left. That is, the existential affront to the liberal concern for equality of opportunity drives many liberals to affirm the idea that the government must intervene to re-create genuinely equal opportunity. Equally, the erosion of individual rights will drive some liberals to a more radical, interventionist stance. What this reasoning suggests is that social liberals can be important allies of the left – but that their fundamental commitment to free markets will at some point spark a division with those who are skeptical of, or outright opposed to, liberal capitalism.

The central conclusion we might draw is that the left-wing, right-wing right distinction is both real and significant in that it draws together a wide range of policy positions into two categories. We could, of course, extend the analysis to distinguish degrees of leftness and rightness. That would be useful in situating far-right populism and the revolutionary left, for example.

A final observation relates to political strategy. Even a casual perusal of the major commitments of left and right suggests that, in North America at any rate, the right is in a much stronger position in framing issues. They have recourse to some of the most powerful founding myths of our societies: individualism, freedom and free markets, patriotism (military strength) and family values. How will the left effectively counter such framing with their own story-lines and policy stands?

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About Richard

I am a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. I am currently interested in understanding how the humanistic tradition of the left can be adapted to fit the realities of the 21st century. I am particularly concerned with how we can deal equitably with the deadly challenge of climate change and live with globalization. My most recent academic research has focused on the Left’s experience in the Global South and on counter-hegemonic globalization. Africa has been the major site of my field work; I have also travelled widely in Latin America and Asia. My most recent books include Reinventing the Left in the Global South: The Politics of the Possible (2014), a revised and expanded edition of Civilizing Globalization: A Survival Guide (co-editor and co-author, 2014), and Social Democracy in the Global Periphery: Origins, Challenges, Prospects (co-author, 2007).

4 thoughts on “Left-Wing, Right-Wing: How Useful is This Distinction?

  1. Jon Kraus

    I thought that your analysis of left/right divisions was on target. You indicate that Cochrane found that most people in industrialized countries locate themselves on a left-right spectrum, especially when asked w/ regard to policy ideas. In the US, at least, where genuinely left ideas are not really articulated by either party, I suspect that there is major inconsistency in the thinking of many people. Increasingly, a younger generation, 22-35, think of themselves as independents. On social issues, however, they tend to favor left-liberal ideas re. environment, marijuana consumption, voting rights, equal rights (at least in theory) for women, & are opposed to racial discrimination. But many simultaneously embrace “free markets” and are opposed to state regulations & interventions, in effect supporting those who oppose the implementation of the socio-economic issues that they favor. An enormous percentage of people, I fear, think that in voting they will select the “best candidate,” regardless of party, ignoring the fact that parties in the US are increasingly coherent in the pursuit of key public policies. And it appears, not least from the 2016 presidential election, that many are quite willing to wrap themselves, and their futures, in the flag, with their hopes set soaring by propagandistic slogans such as “Make America great again.”

    1. Richard Post author

      Yes, there can be a lot of inconsistency: people who are left on some issues and right on others. In the US, that tendency is probably reinforced but the fact that, as you say, neither party is clearly leftist and DP candidates take campaign donations from the wealthy and corporate interests. But I suspect that the left-right division is firming up even in the US in the context of polarization.Elsewhere, the left right distinction is increasingly clear, I think, though the left is so disorganized and weak in Europe that the populist right is ascendant. That’s why we need a “new” left better adapted to the 21st century and able to counter effective right wing framing of issues, not least by scapegoating immigrants and refugees.

  2. Francisca Danquah

    I really enjoyed reading. Although centrism is not an ideological position comparable to left or right as stated by Cochrane. I hold a personal opinion that, most African Countries are at the Political centre, specifically Ghana. They are neither solely on the left nor on the right but as rightly said by Cochrane, they are on the left on one policy area and the right on others. For example, they want a liberal market and a welfare state where the government supports and provide Utilities at the same time. The current government in power claim they are Conservatives with a motto “Development in freedom” while the immediate past government claim they are socialist.

    Thanks Professor Sandbrook for sharing this.

    1. Richard Post author

      I agree, Francisca. Although the NDC and the NPP manifest populist versus conservative styles, in government they both pursue fairly similar policies. That is probably in part because the Ghanain government has limited policy autonomy within the global economy.


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