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.