Meanings of Words change
The meanings of words change over time. Charting those changes of meaning has been the goal of the Oxford English Dictionary since it's inception in 1755. Being aware of how the meanings of words are constructed and reconstructed over time is what Jacques Derrida called "deconstruction." I have leaned hard on the notions of "right wing" versus "left wing" in my writing. (See, for example, Liberal Entropy: The Challenge of Doing Nothing.)
"When You think you right . . . "
Reading Tara Henley, in particular her substack article "When You Think You're Right even if You're Wrong," I am troubled by the short-comings of the right-left binary, as is she apparently. I'm supposed to be a left-leaning liberal and she often sounds like a conservative, so it is disconcerting to discover how frequently I agree with her.
Etymology of left and right wing
Just a quick reminder: the expressions date to the period immediately after the French Revolution (1789) and referred to where representatives sat in the National Assembly. Monarchist who tended to be well-to-do traditionalists sat to the right of the Speaker; anti-royalist revolutionaries representing the proletariat sat to the left. As time has marched on, the binary has been recast as Conservative versus Liberal, Republican versus Democrat, even Capitalist versus Socialist, though none of these binaries are exactly equivalent.
Remember when opposing free trade meant you were a left-wing radical?
counts as left or right keeps shifting. Remember when opposing a
free-trade deal meant you were a left-wing radical? (The images are
from protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, April
2001. See also The Erasure of the Left.)
In 2015, Donald Trump, a right-wing Republican, began campaigning
against free-trade deals which won over the casualties of globalization,
the American working and lower middle class. Eventually, even Hilary
Clinton and Barack Obama began to back away from their fulsome support
of free trade.
What Has gone awry with the left-right binary?
The real problem in recent years has been the floundering attempts to squeeze every political issue into the left-right binary. The issues of the day simply do not fit the left-right dichotomy. Vaccine mandates, Tara Henley's particular hobby horse, are a case in point.
When Pierre Poilievre, Canada's Conservative Party Prime Minister in waiting, rushed to a photo-op with the anti-mandate "Freedom Convoy" as it headed to Ottawa, I thought he had kissed his political career good-bye. The convoy managed to arouse a great deal of both public antipathy and fractious support, but the Conservative politician's public embrace of a prima facie working-class protest seemed contradictory if not hypocritical. Nonetheless, I remained mindful of Steve Bannon's claim that the Bernie Sanders constituency and the Donald Trump constituency were the same working and lower middle-class voters. Even David Graeber, a card-carrying member of the left if there ever was one, writes:
Ultimately, the more liberal members of this professional-managerial elite became the social base for what came to pass as “left-wing” political parties, as actual working-class organizations like trade unions were cast into the wilderness (The Utopia of Rules p. 20).
The actual working class, who bore a traditional loathing for such characters, either dropped out of politics entirely, or were increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right (The Utopia of Rules p. 21).
Left-wing in Canada
When I was working on a local NDP campaign (New Democratic Party; i.e., what passes for "left wing" in Canada), I was struck to learn that our greatest support (number of votes) came from the most upper-crust neighbourhood in the riding. It made sense to me that "enlightened" professionals would vote for the left, for equality and social justice but, at the same time, it seemed the party whose raison d'être was to represent the working class was abandoning and/or being abandoned by that cohort of voters.
Rob Henderson (another Tara Henley guest) coined the expression "luxury beliefs" meaning "ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes." Henderson surmises that upper-class elites while enjoying wealth and status also want to signal that they are "sophisticated member[s] of the educated class." As an example he cites a conversation with a middle-class classmate who was raised in a stable home and planned to marry herself but claimed that "monogamy and marriage are outdated [....] oppressive patriarchal institutions.”
Causes of Poverty
I found his example telling. When I was preparing a lecture on The Grapes of Wrath, I discovered repeated claims that a significant cause of poverty was marriage breakdown. It was immediately obvious to me that while marriage and family were, first and foremost, emotional and social bonds, the family is also an economic union. Go looking for who exactly is dealing with poverty and chances are you will discover single mothers and the children of fatherless households. "It takes a village to raise a child" is a nice idea, but these days few of us live in villages. In my experience, two parents is the minimal requirement for raising a child, and a supplementary army of siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours is helpful if not essential. However, "family values," (as I've discussed elsewhere) remains a quintessentially "right wing" expression.
A corollary to Henderson's "luxury beliefs" are what I would call "privileged values." (See Virtues, Vices and Values.) Both the detractors and the supporters of woke and cancel culture are, above all, proof that we live in the age of moral superiority. Today, everyone thinks of themselves as morally superior and behaves or at least vocalizes accordingly. The great paradox of moral superiority is that people who feel morally superior self-license to act immorally at every turn. In other words, if you think you're one "the good guys," then you're likely to think that whatever you do is "good"--no matter how amoral, immoral or morally challenged it is. And the illusion is easier to maintain if your privileged circumstances insulate you from the challenges, costs, consequences and contradictions of your morally superiority.
John Bolton versus David Graeber
Perusing John Bolton's The Room Where It Happened and David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules, it is fascinating to read a right-wing hawk and a left-wing dove complaining about the same thing: bureaucracy. Graeber's thesis is that bureaucracy is sustained by an underlying threat of violence. Bolton complains that bureaucracy prevents him from exercising the threats of violence which are his stock and trade. As Donald Trump once quipped, "If I listened to John Bolton, we would have had World War Six by now." In Bolton's mindset, "Give Peace a Chance" is Chinese propaganda. Despite my having decried and derided bureaucracy most of my working life (see, for example, This Professor Should Be Fired), reading Graeber and Bolton I came away thinking "Thank gawd for bureaucracy!"
Bureaucracy or the alternative
To cannibalize a bromide about democracy, bureaucracy may be imperfect,
but it's better than all the alternatives. Bureaucracy protects us
from left-wing anarchy and right-wing bullying. The important point
here is that bureaucracy is neither innately left wing nor innately
right wing. In specific cases, bureaucracy may tilt left or right, which
is why this binary still matters.
"On Baggage, Bureaucracy and Brokenness"
However, in her most recent newsletter "On Baggage, Bureaucracy and Brokenness," Tara Henley references Alana Newhouse's claim that
[ . . .] the most vital debate in contemporary America is not between liberalism and conservatism. But rather, it is “between those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America, and that it’s an emergency, and those who do not.”
The examples are numerous: lost baggage, the bureaucratic run-around, the broken health-care system. We've all been there. Personally, every time I encounter these screw-ups, I imagine a left-right binary. Someone is profiting from these screw-ups: the underfunded health-care system allowing the super-wealthy to remain under-taxed, the telecom giants which deliberately send you from one automated "help line" to another intending that you will give up on requesting service or getting a response to your complaint, the airline company paying minimum wage to part-time baggage handlers.
The Problem of perseverance
Henley's observations about "perseverance" in "When You Think You're Right even if You're Wrong" cut close to home. My cognitive bias always leans left, so I must admit that when an issue seems left-leaning, I'm likely to get onboard. And, of course, I always think I'm right, even when the evidence challenges my thinking. I believe in the left-right binary, but when, where and how the binary applies, and perhaps more importantly, when it doesn't apply--these are the real questions. The problem is when the binary is applied too quickly and easily, too dogmatically, too broadly, too loosely. In short, the problem is when the binary becomes a replacement for thinking rather than a way of thinking.