The Personal and the Political: Reconciling Right and Left Perspectives

I’d like to propose two theses which, together, identify the basic failings of the Left and Right in today’s political landscape: the Left proposes political solutions to what are essentially personal problems, while the Right proposes personal solutions to fundamentally political problems.

Let me explain.

I recently met a young man who grew up working class in a small Canadian town. Intelligent and able, he was the first in his family to get into university. Though dismayed when he learned he had to take out huge student loans in order to afford school, he dreamed of a better life for himself, so went for it. Having grown up in a rural area, he immediately felt out of place in the big city where his university was located. Moreover, in order to afford tuition and rent, he was forced to work a part-time job. He envied his peers, whose parents paid for their school and living expenses, allowing them more time to study. Yet, throughout his first year, he dutifully worked his job, studying in his spare time. In his second year, the sense of being out of place began to really affect him: by this time, he’d made few social connections and was struggling with depression. To cope, he took up binge drinking and occasional cocaine use. This allowed him to get through his classes. By graduation, he had racked up a massive student debt, despite having worked the entire four years. Worse still, he couldn’t find a job in his field, so was forced to accept a job in the service industry—the fact that he could have got this job without a four-year degree was not lost on him, but he felt he had no choice. His parents couldn’t help him financially, nor could they supply him with any professional connections that might advance his career. The first of his family to graduate from university, he couldn’t believe he was now working a job he despised, with little hope of repaying his loans any time soon. Unable to shake the feeling that he was a failure, his alcohol and cocaine consumption rapidly increased from an occasional binge to everyday use. Over the next few years, his life fell apart. He lost his retail job for turning up to work drunk. He turned on his family, blaming his humble beginnings for his woes. And he fell into a pattern of getting physical with his girlfriend when under the influence. He ended up being court-ordered to attend a treatment centre for substance abuse, after being charged with a DUI.

Life narratives contain a degree of complexity that cannot be easily reduced to a single set of morals. But, in many ways, it is stories like these which set our political imaginations alight and trigger our social consciences. Consider how progressives and conservatives, respectively, might listen to a story such as this, and what lessons each would distil.

The Progressive Take

As I have argued elsewhere, progressives and leftists are primarily concerned with the role of social structures (laws, cultural norms, institutions) in individual outcomes. Their social theory leads them to view individuals’ circumstances and decisions as principally determined by macro features of social life, as opposed to, say, personal intentions, and therefore tend to trace micro-level problems to structural causes.

We can identify a number of areas in which social institutions failed this young man. To begin with, his class background conferred a disadvantage regarding educational opportunity. Progressives would rightly view the burdens placed on him (having to take out large student loans and work part-time while in school) as at odds with social justice. (Progressives might also contend that the problems began long before this young man went to university, as the inequality his parents suffered was arguably the result of an unjust economic system). This economic disadvantage only increased the sense of cultural separation he experienced at university. Progressives might also argue that this young man should not be graduating university only to enter a workforce with few opportunities, and none that allow him to repay his loans. They would argue that getting a university education should not condemn a person to a life of debt—as it has for many millennials today , a situation that has rightly been denounced. Progressives might also argue that this young man should have been better supported—both at school and outside it—by various social services, such as mental health and counselling services, and pharmacare. They might also suggest the need for a cultural shift, whereby young men like him don’t feel they have to suffer from depression and addiction in silence. Some might even advocate new ideals of masculinity and blame toxic masculinity for his mistreatment of his girlfriend. Progressives will not all agree on specific policy proposals, but they would agree that this situation calls for substantive structural, legal and cultural change. In short, the progressive take would identify political problems and attendant political solutions.

The Conservative Take

The conservative approach to social issues focuses on empowering individuals in ways that encourage them to take responsibility for their actions and develop character. Their social theory leads them to pay attention to where individuals fail in their decision-making or act irresponsibly.

The young man made a number of poor choices that led to his eventual downfall. He ought not have turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with his problems, as they offered a far from sustainable solution. Conservatives would argue that he should have exhibited more self-control, and found healthier ways to adapt to his circumstances. Another problem from the conservative perspective might be the young man’s unwillingness to humbly accept his employment situation after graduating, or at least to recognize that going off the rails is likely to achieve nothing. Nevertheless, conservatives would probably have much more to say about this young man’s choices upon his descent into self-destruction. They would probably point out that he was foolish to show up to work drunk, demonstrated a lack of gratitude and responsibility in blaming his parents for his troubles, and had no excuse for hitting his girlfriend. My guess is that many conservatives would be glad to see this young man placed in a facility where he will be taught to take responsibility for his past actions and control his emotions (of course, some may wish to see him receive harsher treatment). Thus, rather than pay attention to social structures, conservatives would likely view this young man as in dire need of moral reform. They would probably contend that he requires a healthy dose of humility, gratitude and responsibility, and deserves condemnation for his unruly behaviour. Some might also argue that such values would be best fostered by a voluntary association (perhaps religious in nature), which could act as both a source of moral accountability and of the belonging and community which the young man sorely lacks. The details of the conservative take are bound to differ from person to person, but such a view would likely focus on how this young man failed to make good choices and take responsibility for his actions. In sum, a conservative take would identify personal problems and attendant personal solutions.

Conclusion: Matching Like with Like

Progressive and conservative perspectives can both contribute to our social and political imaginations, however we must differentiate between levels of analysis. We need to first identify whether the issue we are dealing with is primarily personal or political in nature. One of the primary problems with both the Left and Right today is that they often endorse solutions drawn from the wrong level of analysis.

Since the 1970s, it has become commonplace among those on the Left to view the personal as political, but blurring the boundary between these concepts is incredibly unhelpful and politically unproductive.

For instance, progressive (political) solutions will do little to address the conservative (personal) problems now facing this young man in rehab. Structural social change will not help this young man overcome his addictions, nor will it help him overcome his resentment towards his family or avoid becoming physical with his girlfriend in future. Conservatives are surely right to say that these goals can only be accomplished if he takes responsibility for himself and works toward maturing as a person. Indeed, progressives often forget that, while systemic change may reduce (perhaps even stamp out) the kinds of problems this young man faces, it will do little for those who presently suffer from them. Thus framing these personal dilemmas as political not only obfuscates the self-work this young man has to engage in, but also denies the important differences between this and the structural and policy changes necessary to prevent a life history like his from being repeated.

Conversely, conservative (personal) solutions will do little to nothing to address the real (political) problems identified by progressives. For instance, the economic injustice he experienced is not addressed by encouraging this young man to take responsibility for himself. Indeed, one of the primary problems with endorsing conservative solutions without attention to progressive diagnoses and prescriptions is that they can occlude the need for the latter. While this young man might do well to humbly accept that he must now do the hard work of repairing the relationships he has abused, we —that is, society and the liberal democratic state—must also accept our collective responsibility for allowing him to slip through the cracks. In other words, while he ought to take responsibility for himself, we ought to take responsibility for reducing arbitrary disadvantages and creating just institutions.

Progressive and conservative approaches are not antithetical to one another, but complementary. We cannot have one without the other. They address two quite distinct levels of analysis — the personal and the political — which account for the two sides of society: the individual and the social. We would be wise to acknowledge that social and political issues almost always encompass both sides, and think more carefully, on a case by case basis, about how to disentangle one from the other. Doing so would create a world where personal problems receive personal solutions, while political problems receive political solutions.

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13 comments

  1. I have worked in educational settings as a participant (student or teacher) or as a semi-observer (note-taker) and I have noticed how the distinct aims of different political camps can bolster one another if only they allow it. Consider these three aims for classroom conduct:

    1. Deference to authority
    2. Respect between individuals
    3. Consideration for marginalized groups

    One could identify these aims as traditional conservative, classical liberal and social-democratic respectively. At a pinch ‘1’ can exist all by itself but can result in a stultifying and overly restrictive atmosphere. ‘2’ can exist by itself but only if the individuals involved already have a mature mindset. And it is very difficult for ‘3’ to exist by itself among minors who tend to be fractious and filled with simplistic notions of how the world works (sometimes bolstered by the prejudiced attitudes of parents). These three things work much better in combination.

    This seems like common sense but I have observed teachers who seem embarrassed by their own authority. They preside over rather lax classes in which only an interest in the subject matter can focus the students. One thing these usually lax teachers respond vigorously to is any hint of prejudice (as they should). But this moment of censure can be summarily dismissed by the students because it is the exception rather than the rule. These teachers are confusing legitimate authority (derived from expertise and the support of an institution) with the spurious notion of innate superiority and therefore rejecting both. If only they would compromise with reality they would find they can further their own aims so much better.

  2. I recall a passage from Heyek’s book, The Road to Serfdom, that the bigger the role of government, the more political every decision becomes. Filling up the gas tank in your car should be one of a number of Saturday morning chores. Yet, depending on what you may choose to drive it can now become a statement–virtue signaling, sticking it in your eye or what ever.

    Might I suggest, better defined boundaries between the individual and social would help. Further, is the subject of appropriate forum. Every moment of the day isn’t another political statement. Or, perhaps a live and let live philosophy. I may shake my head at the individual choices a person may make, but perhaps a philosophical shrug of your shoulders is generally the best reaction.

  3. Ok, good dichotomy here, which I will use for my sociology classes (that I teach). But I still don’t see how the conservative position, by its very nature, can offer real solutions for society: Which is all that we can talk about. At most, the ideal of personal responsibility can be offered as a big part of the mental health programs that fall, according to the author, on the liberal Progressive side. As a Gestalt therapist in training, I am trained to emphasize this in my therapy with my clients: to use our therapy as a means of examining where they are guilty of what Sartre called “bad faith,” what Fritz Perls called a “creative adjustment,” adopted in childhood in the face of bad parenting, that doesn’t work anymore.
    But what do the conservatives have to offer in terms of encouraging personal responsibility? Rolling back the welfare state: without offering a full employment program? Instead of trying to rehabilitate criminals: killing them or locking them away in prisons, where they can learn even more sophisticated skills to commit crimes, because they have now become stigmatized effectively from taking a job that might ennoble them?
    The only game in town is really still, C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination”: making ourselves aware of how our personal troubles are due to social problems, and addressing those problems with collective solutions. And personally, becoming aware that there is more that one can do for oneself than what has become habitual to this point in time. But the latter is not a social solution. Conservatives don’t offer them. They merely defend capitalism from any meaningful reform.

    1. “the ideal of personal responsibility can be offered as a big part of the mental health programs”

      Marvelous, so even personal responsibility can only come via a social program.

    2. The article says that conservatives might suggest voluntary associations (possibly religious) as the answer to individual isolation. To my mind, however, this solution transcends ideology. I would hope his campus had been large enough to support various student clubs. Sports, hobbies and interests cut across distinctions like urban and rural and this could have helped immensely. University administrations can provide a framework in which club formation is fostered, an collectivist response. Of course, the individual must then decide to join clubs for this to work…

  4. When I was 17, I took exams and I had a difficult choice – to interrupt exams and choose another easier university or take a chance (I did poorly the first of a series of exams and the risk of not going anywhere was great).
    My mother asked me: “Maybe you will choose a more reliable option?”
    Without any pathos, I did not know what it was, I answered: “Mom, this is my way, and whatever it is, I want to go it till the end.” A bit presumptuous, isn’t it? At least, I think so now.
    Mom looked at me very carefully and said nothing.

    It’s a true story.

    Therefore, I do not like «Progressives»…

  5. I live as much as possible outside the dichotomy of Left and Right. Basically I try to live my best life by living between Function and Dysfunction (obviously leaning more toward the Functional side of the spectrum). Looking at life this way cleans up the ideological and political bull-crap in my life. When viewing life through this lens, I see the much of contemporary left-wing ideology is totally dysfunctional. There is no coherence to it apart from what the author correctly states as the Left wanting to politicize the personal. The Right has its problems too, but thankfully lacks the moral sermonizing that the Left loves to engage in so I can tolerate it more.

    The current political climate does nothing except lay blame for personal failures at the feet of others. It’s just an excuse for people to hate others and feel self-righteous about it.

    Once you break life down into Function and Dysfunction, everything becomes a lot simpler. Since I’ve done this I’ve developed a healthy ‘f*ck this’ attitude to society’s dramas and can work quietly on advancing myself.

    1. “but thankfully lacks the moral sermonizing”

      You honestly do not notice the constant moral sermonizing from the ‘religious’ right?
      A bit hard of hearing in the right ear, perhaps?

      1. Not just the religious right. Plenty of conservatives convinced that poverty, or indeed any lack of opportunity can only be explained by a moral failing of the individual, and more than happy to point out what those moral failings apparently are.
        Obviously it’s not only a preserve of the right, but to argue it basically a preserve of the left suggests a life lived under a rock where the only sound which seeps in the chuntering of SJ Twitter.

        1. “Plenty of conservatives convinced that poverty, or indeed any lack of opportunity can only be explained by a moral failing of the individual.” I disagree, I would say that the failings are a result of an inadequate educational system at home and at the schools.

      2. @John Raykowski: we’re at a strange crossroads in history where the evangelical right are now more freedom and fun-loving than the mainstream left.

  6. While this exposes some ideological differences, the disease is in the Social Media confines. There is a sort of distillation of ideology, where it barely existed 20 years ago. Go along to get along if you will. I have seen several people adapt and cultivate ideals, purely based on their peer groups on social media. Throw in a healthy dose of “Look at Me Narcissism,” and we have a recipe for disaster. In fact, the US government has adopted the role of the Narcissistic Parent. Often these parents play the children against each other and some go as far as Munchhausen by Proxy to garner attention for themselves.

    It all goes a little deeper than just this…Search “20 signs of Narcissism,” or “Narcissistic Parent.” You can thank me later. :))

  7. Just one fundamental problem the young man encountered was, “I am going to university to become a brain surgeon, but it is inconsequential that there are no opportunities out there for brain surgeons!!”

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