Culture

The Deep Roots of Left vs. Right

And how to get both wings to fly together.

Photo Credit: TheaDesign / Shutterstock

What organizes people into sustained political factions like left vs. right? Supposedly our opposing answers to some fundamental question, but what is that question?

Gender is a natural distinction, though not as decisively delineated as we once thought. Still, there are males and females, gays and straights in nature. Are there lefts and rights in nature, and if so, is the distinction between them reflected accurately in our current categorization of people as being on the left or right?

A term can persist though it’s meaning changes. For instance, “I love you,” repeated consistently in a relationship while its meaning morphs from “you’re sexy” to “you’re cozy,” or from “I’m feeling a swell of emotion,” to “I’m committed to staying with you.”

“I’m left wing,” or “I’m right wing,” morphs too, reflecting changing coalitions and interests. Today, left and right have come to mean factions that would like the other faction out of the way. They’re not a yin and yang that need each other. They’re warring kingdoms competing for exclusive dominion over the same space, and then competing over which kingdom is to blame for starting the warring.

Not a bad time to get back to fundamentals. Maybe we can find a way that while advocating for our wing’s position on any particular issues, the two wings could remember that they depend on each other to fly.

What then is the true and fundamental, natural, co-dependent yin and yang of political life?

At core, it’s tight vs. loose, constraint vs. freedom. Conservative vs. liberal vaguely represents this distinction, conservative implying constraint, liberal implying freedom.

Can one do without the other? Not really. Sure, we all want freedom but most of us recognize that one person’s freedom can easily become another person’s constraint. On a dance floor, one guy flailing freely constrains other people into smaller spaces. We experience constraint, or social order as security. What we really want is security and freedom in the right mix, and unless we’re sociopaths or narcissists we recognize that we need to balance our security and freedom with other people’s security and freedom.

This distinction has deep biological roots. Life evolves through a combination of conservation or heredity—traits constrained to stay the same over generations—and liberty or freedom to vary from generation to generation. Life progresses by trial and error. Error is judged against the constraints necessary to sustaining life. The diverse trials are free variations, some of which cross the line, too freed to survive.

Though people think of evolution as an active selection process it isn’t one. The business end of evolution is the biological individual, the organism or self, striving to survive. It’s what must maintain a sustainable balance between conserving or constraining and unconstrained freedom. We see it in a necessary condition for life, the protective but selectively permeable membrane that holds an organism together. Your skin for example, with its pores and orifices. The skin contains, constrains, and protects you, but the pores and orifices allow for free interaction with your environment. Even the simplest living being depends on constraint and freedom, or selective interaction.

That’s the paradox of individuality. To be a self-contained self you have to be open. To be a living individual you can’t just endure within an airtight shell. You need energy and material throughput. No man is an island, or rather humans like all living individuals are constrained islands that selectively import and export. You want the freedom to eat what you want, but not just anything. You want constraints that keep toxins far from your mouth and pores.

In our personal lives, we experience the tension between constraint and freedom. Our quest for personal liberty is not a quest to fall apart unconstrained but for the liberty to choose our own constraints. We want the autonomy by which we can choose how to discipline our own lives, choosing what’s on our own to-do lists, but also what to constrain off our to-do lists. To be deliberate about anything, we de-liberate ourselves, protecting against distractions.

We find that same distinction in our social lives. We want freedom of association, not because we want to interact with everyone but for selective interaction, freedom to set our own constraints. We want the autonomy to choose our friends and choose the people we keep at bay, freedom of association but also freedom of dissociation, the ability to walk away or protect ourselves from those we think will be toxic influences.

Politics has always been a tense negotiation over constraint vs. freedom, a safety net to keep each of us together and trampoline to bounce each of us as high as our life freely permits. We are willing to sacrifice some autonomy or freedom for some safety even though it constrains us.

Think of the difference between being married or single, salaried or freelance. There’s a tradeoff. Married or salaried status provides greater security at the expense of some freedom. You don’t get to choose what you do with your days and evenings but you do have a reliable source of support. Conversely, single or freelance, you get freedom at the expense of some lost security. You can choose where you’re spend your time but with less to fall back on.

The tension is built right into the name of our nation. “United states” is an oxymoron. Which are we, a “union,” a constraining marriage for better or worse, or loose and free individual states? Both, of course, and in tension, at multiple hierarchical scales from individuals to families, neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, the whole country and the whole world.

There’s little hope that we could ever reorganize the parties to represent cleanly this distinction, for example, the left always advocating for freedom and the right always advocating for constraint. If we could, maybe they would recognize how much they depend upon each other, or maybe they would just bicker as they currently do as though their hyperbolic half-answers were the whole answer.

Still, getting back to basics can help us get beyond just such half-truth hyperbole. Lots of political actors these days talk as though they’re arguing from first principles, as though the answer is indeed always freedom or always constraint.

Libertarians pretend that more freedom always solves everything. Social conservatives argue as though constraint solves everything. They don’t mean it. Libertarians don’t seem to care much about other people’s freedom, just their own. They’re like the flailing dancer crowding everyone into the corners of the dance floor with their self-infatuated “dance of personal freedom for all.”

And social conservatives aren’t really all about constraint. They want the freedom to never have to be constrained by the presence of other people’s values. In the end they're both authoritarian. They have the winning formula, whatever it is. Their way trumps all other ways.

Remembering that what we’re all really negotiating—the right balance of constraint and freedom, security and liberty—may make us more receptive to negotiation, and smarter negotiators too, not taken in by hyperbolic half-truths about the one true way. 

Jeremy Sherman is a decision theorist studying how life deals with dilemmas from the origins of life to everyday and political life. 

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