What the Left and Right Can Learn From Each Other

It’s no secret that we’re living through a period of widening political polarization. Social media and social fragmentation have secluded us in our own political bubbles, where we rage against our ideological enemies from the comfort of our own unchecked biases. As a result, most intellectual engagement between the left and the right today amounts to nothing more than a slew of vitriolic ad hominems thrown back and forth, with both parties presuming, smugly, their own moral superiority. Needless to say, this undermines any possibility that these interactions will result in increased self-knowledge or collective enlightenment. In fact, they often deepen the cleavages separating political foes.

Various theories have been offered to explain what undergirds the left–right split, but perhaps the most illuminating is that offered by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind. Haidt argues that political differences largely stem from differing moral psychologies: that is, progressives and conservatives, in their moral evaluations, place weight on distinct moral values. According to Haidt, then, it is not ridiculous to say that the left and right inhabit distinct moral universes. Haidt has contributed much to our collective self-understanding, but I don’t believe his theory explains the reasons for political polarization in toto. Merely knowing the psychology behind our divergent political opinions is insufficient to inspire us to understand our adversaries. In fact, it seems just as likely that progressives and conservatives will co-opt Haidt’s theory to shore up their own assumptions, and avoid contaminating contact, under the motto my psychology is different than yours, plain and simple—so leave me alone.

However, in addition to having distinct moral psychologies, the left and right disagree so vehemently due to their differing conceptions of society and social change. They espouse different social theories.

How the Left Understands Society

It should not be surprising to anyone who is familiar with the discipline of sociology to know that the majority of sociologists lean left. Leaving aside the issue of self-selection, I believe this can be explained by examining the understanding of society that sociology endorses. Despite ongoing disagreements among sociologists, it is generally accepted within the discipline that individuals are byproducts of their societies. In other words, individuals do not exist prior to society and culture, but are constituted by them. For sociologists, every habit, thought, desire, ambition, hope, fear and fantasy an individual has can be traced back to the overarching social and cultural structures that characterize her society. In essence, there are no individuals. Even individualism—the idea that society is simply a collection of unique individuals, who have decided to cooperate with one another for mutual advantage—is a byproduct of socialization, of inhabiting a certain kind of society with specific institutions (markets, representative democracy, the rule of law etc.).

So we can see why the Left places more emphasis on social structures and institutions, endorsing more state intervention, and more radical institutional change: given progressives’ understanding of how society works, real social change can only occur at the institutional level. Thinking you can change society by focusing on individuals is like putting a band-aid on an infected wound—at best, it hides the real cause of the injury (thereby making things look fine when in fact they aren’t).

How the Right Understands Society

By contrast, economists generally lean to the right of the political spectrum. This is because they have a quite different understanding of how society works. The discipline of economics generally espouses what is called methodological individualism, which effectively states that social outcomes are, in principle, the byproduct of individual actions, themselves the result of individual intentions. Thus, for economists, society is basically a collection of unique individuals with distinct desires and ambitions, who seek their own self-interest in whatever ways are available to them. Consequently, the discipline of economics teaches its students to place the individual prior to society—the exact opposite of sociology.

This is why economists love to talk about incentives and disincentives; for them, society can only be changed when we provide the right conditions for individuals to pursue their self-interest. Economics reflects, in certain respects, the dominant social theory of the right. (Psychologists are also often methodological individualists, but there are schools of psychological thought—i.e. social psychology—that acknowledge the constitutive role of culture and social structures in shaping individuals). Conservatives tend to be methodological individualists insofar as they view social change as ultimately beginning with the individual, rather than society. In turn, they are deeply suspicious of top-down interventions, generally placing their hopes in associational groups (i.e. churches and civil society) to cultivate the character of citizens. This is why you often hear conservatives speak about the importance of personal responsibility and moral virtue. In this view, good and evil ultimately reside in the human heart, not social structures.

We can see then how different these two social theories are, and just how consequential this is for how their proponents will understand social change. But the consequences extend much further than this. These differing understandings of how society works can actually lead to completely different ideas of what a just society looks like, not to mention what interventions are deemed appropriate to rectify injustices.

Where the Right Is Wrong 

Methodological individualism does not adequately explain our social nature. Our desires and ambitions are, in large part, the products of our society and its culture. A look at history teaches us this. How we, in developed countries in 2018, think about ourselves is not by any means wholly self-developed: it is the byproduct of our unique social situation, engendered by the social institutions that govern our lives. To only pay attention to religious institutions and civil society, while dismissing the power of other institutions and social forces, such as free markets, money, corporations, managerial bureaucracies, wage labour, the rule of law, representative democracy, advertising, popular culture and the internet in shaping how we understand ourselves is to turn a blind eye to reality. If we want to think seriously about addressing issues like inequality, misogyny, racism and climate change, we cannot simply focus on individualistic solutions, such as cultivating empathy, being charitable or even creating incentives and disincentives—without fundamentally changing social structures. Unless the institutions that govern our daily lives are also reformed, any attempts made at the individual (or micro) level are bound to be futile.

Of course, those on the right will object to this strategy because it leads to a violation of individual liberty. Conservatives might argue that to go beyond micro-solutions is to engage in public interventions that risk totalitarianism; part of what conservatives are committed to is less state intervention because they fear giving the state too much power. This objection ignores the many ways in which these institutions and social forces already impinge upon our freedoms on a daily basis. We can’t walk down an urban street without having to take in advertisements endorsing a specific conception of beauty, love, luxury and health, which is probably not our own; there is nothing we can do about it if the corporation we work for decides to up and leave because a foreign country has less stringent labour standards; and our freedom is seriously impinged upon if the only way to attend post-secondary school (ever more necessary to secure a good job) is to go thousands of dollars into debt. Finally, attending to the ways our social circumstances shape us should lead us to recognize just how much of our lives are the result of sheer luck (both good and bad). 

Society is not simply a collection of separate individuals. Once individuals begin living together in a community they create institutions, customs and traditions which, over time, actually come to change the individuals themselves (i.e. consumer culture is the byproduct of markets gradually becoming the primary mechanisms by which individuals make sense of value in their lives; it is not the result of individuals willing it into being because they rationally decided it would be great if there were more strip malls).

Good sociological analysis naturally leads us to ask the following question: why should the individual who grows up in, say, a poor family where they faced great disadvantages have to suffer so much more than those who were lucky enough not to? For this is precisely what happens in a meritocracy that assumes individual outcomes are merely the result of individual choices. Acknowledging the arbitrary ways in which benefits and burdens are distributed in society should lead us to hesitate before blaming poor people for making bad choices. Methodological individualism ignores that fact that all choices are made within contexts—contexts that were not chosen. Furthermore, those contexts are ultimately shaped by the structures of society (laws, institutions, norms, etc.). Thus the right must recognize the basic unfairness of a system that rewards and punishes individuals for things over which they had no control. That is, the right must acknowledge the significant role social structures play in determining social outcomes.

Where the Left Is Wrong

The problem with the Left is not so much the fundamental tenets of its social theory, but rather its inability to understand why social theory and structural change are insufficient to realize a just and flourishing society. This point can best be explained by examining the quite unnatural stance sociologists are asked to take towards their own lives. The discipline of sociology teaches its students to view themselves as byproducts of a system that is much larger than them. It teaches them to, in a certain sense, dissociate from their personal attachments and commitments for the sake of social analysis, and to understand these as simply the byproducts of their socialization.

This is really odd. As a person, you likely think of yourself as having certain ideals and attachments that define you, that make you who you are. For instance, you might think of your parents as your heroes, and you may wish to become a singer or a professional athlete. However, as a sociologist, you are required to step back and view these specific commitments of yours as, primarily—to some theorists, wholly—byproducts of your socialization. From this perspective, your admiring your parents is not really your individual choice, nor something they have earned, but rather, in its most reductive form, a byproduct of the culture you live in, which, for socio-historical reasons, prizes the family as a unit. And the fact that you want to be a singer or an athlete is not because something authentic within you calls you to these professions, but rather simply because you live in a culture that prizes self-expression, or athletic prowess. (Admittedly, evolutionary psychology, which is methodologically individualist, asks us to take a similarly disenchanting view of ourselves and our lives. But it locates the engine of social change within ourselves (or our genes), thereby leaving us some sense of agency, however little).

Leftist social theory is good for some things and not others. It is good for diagnosing systemic problems, and for identifying where key mechanisms of change reside. However, it is terrible at helping people lead their daily lives. Of course, social theory was never meant to do this, but the difficulty with much leftist thought is that it hasn’t acknowledged this.

This is why leftist theorists, generally, are much better at diagnosing problems than at solving them. Sociological analysis can weave beautiful and convincing grand theories of the causes of systemic injustice, but when it comes to offering palpable solutions, it remains strangely quiet. Of course, sometimes solutions are proposed, and, when they are, they usually come in the form of proposals to radically alter certain social institutions—in keeping with progressive social theory. The difficulty that arises, however, is in explaining how these proposals might actually be realized. That is, by what mechanisms are these institutional changes to be established?

Many leftists who espouse a sociological understanding of society tend to dismiss micro-level approaches because these apparently only address the symptoms, not the causes, of injustice. But, in a democracy, social institutions only change when individuals, collectively, decide to change them. Laws get passed because individuals put forward a bill, governments change because individuals vote, and issues get public attention because somebody speaks up. Leftists have to explain how individuals could ever endorse their proposals for change, and—unless they give credence to conservative concerns regarding personal responsibility and individual character—I see no coherent way of doing so.

This highlights a serious problem with much leftist discourse today: it displays a deep inconsistency as regards questions of personal responsibility and moral virtue. In light of their social theory, contemporary progressives are quick to deem problems systemic or structural in nature, meaning that they have their roots in institutions or social norms that transcend individuals. But, at the same time, their visions of a just society presuppose a high degree of personal responsibility and virtue. For instance, the #MeToo Movement has shed light on what many progressives agree is a systemic problem of toxic masculinity, which has seeped into many corners of Western culture. But the mere fact that this problem is systemic has not stopped progressives from denouncing all those who have been influenced or shaped by it. This has produced some interesting doublespeak: in one breath, progressives call the problem structural, while, in another, they launch criticisms which give the impression that the perpetrators acted without social influence.

It is perfectly legitimate to endorse a structural view of toxic masculinity while at the same time holding people accountable for their actions. But, in doing so, one has made a concession to the conservative preoccupation with personal responsibility; one has stepped over the ideological barricade and acknowledged what is of value on the other side. And this is as it should be.

A Just and Healthy Society Needs Responsible and Virtuous Citizens

None of this is to suggest that virtue is sufficient to rectify injustice, or that individuals of good character are all we need to live in a just society. But a just society cannot exist without responsible and virtuous individuals. For, as G. A. Cohen observed, it is not difficult to imagine a society in which the laws reflect absolute justice—perfect equality enshrined in each and every law, and embodied in the institutions as well—whilst individuals hold attitudes that lead to unjust outcomes. At the end of the day, we decide whether or not we are going to cling to our prejudices or let them go, and we decide whether or not to let our fear lead us to discriminate rather than grow in self-knowledge and compassion. This is what the left can learn from the right.

Why We Should Listen To Each Other

I fear the potentially grave consequences of irredeemable political polarization. Although liberal democracies can survive—indeed, arguably thrive on—ideological heterodoxy, this is only true if the dissenting parties are willing to recognize their shared humanity. Once one group becomes wholly evil in the other’s eyes, democratic institutions lose legitimacy, as all compromises are perceived as criminal. In turn, peaceful co-existence becomes impossible. It is crucial that the left and right seek to understand each other’s respective views of the world, if only so they do not assume the worst of each other. Undoubtedly, malicious intentions motivate some on both sides of the political aisle, but to assume a priori that your ideological adversaries are motivated by selfishness, resentment or prejudice is to close oneself off to anything of value they might have to say.

The kinds of political polarization we are seeing today have been detrimental to us all. Too often we assume our opponents have nothing to teach us, and we have thereby remained deaf to their wisdom. I don’t believe we all need to agree. Political polarization can be useful, provided it encourages us to critically reflect upon our own assumptions, and produce persuasive and powerful counterarguments. It is therefore time we began listening to one another, if only to strengthen our own arguments.

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5 comments

  1. not the best article your views on how to address whats wrong about them you give unfair labels about them adding lazy tags to them. I can fairly judge views on both sides both sides but this so confusing to me , maybe with 2 people working on this it would make it beter ;]

  2. The fundamental problem is that the Left has ostracized the Right, considering it the stigmatized Other. An outstanding essay that puts its finger directly on this problem and explains it very well:

    http://archive.is/QRJ6m

    Haidt finds that conservatives tend to be curious about what liberals think and why, while liberals see conservatives as inferior “other,” inherently incapable of thought. Why do you need to consider the needs of people the media makes it easy to dismiss as Nazis or dirty foreign spies?

  3. This is actually a very sweet and reductionist understanding of the left/right split, but the author does not address the red-eyed foaming-at-the-mouth overwhelming rage that fuels the hatred industry in American politics. Where does this hatred come from, the hatred that leads college students to scream and curse at speakers and administrators, that brings white supremacists and antisemites to attack and murder? This placid rational analysis misses the real threat.

  4. So, from the get-go I see your article as fatally flawed because you have not accurately characterized “the right”, “the left”, nor the disciplines of sociology and economics.

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