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Swing Left, Turn Right, and Aim Dead Center: A Look at the Political Spectrum As We Know It

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The spark has ignited a fire which is quickly turning into a blaze.

“Capitalism is immoral,” the first one proclaims. “It keeps the oppressed staying that way and only feeds the coffers of the rich, who care about no one other than themselves.”

With this bold statement, the second nearly loses it, though through strained teeth manages to reply, “Socialism is depraved, and has brought nothing but problems to nations that have tried it. How you can advocate something like this is beyond me!”

“Time!” The moderator yells.

I am fairly sure that this is how the exchange went, give or take a few words. Sitting back and taking in all that had just happened, I mentally congratulated both of my friends for their performance in the debate. Though I obviously agreed more with the latter politically, both had contributed greatly to a spirited discussion, and supported their respective arguments with facts, as opposed to stereotypes or suppositions.

Judging from the statements of these two, you would probably guess that the economic socialist was a leftist, and the anti-socialist a rightist. From my standpoint, you would not be wrong, but consider this; the first was a devout Christian who was vocally opposed to legal abortion, and believed strongly that God had a place in the political process. The second was a Christian as well, but far less fundamentalist-minded about religion in general; supporting, amongst other things, women’s reproductive rights, and never making so much as a comment to me about inserting theology in public policy measures.

The lines are not so clear anymore, are they?

The fact of the matter is that most people are neither completely rightist nor leftist in their political views. Take the congresswoman from a racial minority-majority district who votes for every handout program and pork barrel measure that comes her way. At the same time, she professes moral values to her constituents, deeming these as cornerstones of the community itself. On the other hand is the congressman who is strongly on the side of the free marketeer; so strongly that he favors phasing out personal income taxes in totality. Yet, he thinks that gays, lesbians, and those falling somewhere in-between are essentially second-class citizens, deserving of few rights and eternal damnation in the fabled fiery pit of hell.

Obviously, our hypothetical-but-none-too-far-from-reality-based congresswoman favors fiscal statism, a left-wing proposition if there ever was one, and individual moral order, an unmistakably right-leaning idea. The congressman, meanwhile, who is also realistically hypothetical, avidly supports private sector enterprise, something Barry Goldwater would have cheered, but feels no remorse in forcing his own constructs of social norms on others, an action straight out of Stalin’s playbook. These seeming contradictions on each politician’s behalf might appear as if wholesale hypocrisy is taking place, but this is not the case.

As philosophers ranging from Karl Marx to Ayn Rand have pointed out, all politics are rooted in economic concerns. Seeing as “Left” and “Right” are the two broadest terms possible for describing one’s political school of thought, one could very easily fancy him or herself as being on the right while giving high marks to socially authoritarian schemes, just as he or she could be a self-described lefty and nonetheless uphold traditional morals on the personal level. I have found in my discussions with hardline left- and right-wingers that they unwittingly cross over to the “other side” of the political spectrum in their opinions, especially regarding social issues.

It is deeply ironic, then, that a label revolution of sorts took place across the country during the twentieth century’s Great Depression and continued throughout succeeding decades into the Age of Y2K, where it seems to have actually gained a great deal of steam. Many are now of the opinion that another’s political beliefs can easily and neatly be categorized under, it would seem, some warped extension of Aristotelean logic. Aside from being irrevocably flawed at its onset, this system of interpersonal judgment breeds, exclusively, from my experiences, intellectual contempt, feelings of hatred, and, ultimately, outward displays of bigotry.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • I’ll tend to agree with Baronius, Joseph, but it’ll take me a while to formulate my response.

  • Baronius

    I dunno, Joseph. I’m looking at flaws in the foundation, and you’re telling me that I’ll want to buy the house once I see the upstairs.

  • roger,

    Indeed, everyone has their own emotional traits and patterns. As you noted, our emotional constructs can and do vary greatly as a result of environmental influences. I believe that you and I are actually in agreement for the most part, insofar as we both recognize that emotions are extremely powerful and play a role in the political process. Our main difference, as far as I can tell, lies here; how much is our capacity for reason impacted by personal feelings, and how much functions as a mechanism for efficiently coping with the conditions of the world around us? As we are now leaving the field of political philosophy and entering the realm of psychology, a field in which almost nothing is held as being objectively certain by even the most skilled of clinical professionals, it would seem only normal that our opinions differ here. Frankly, if we were monolithic in our views, that would be a bit strange.


    Being a Realist, I attempt to single out the normative first, so a rational basis for the positive can be found at a later point in time. For instance, if I were somehow dropped into the middle of a war-torn savanna in Africa, I would seek to gain knowledge of how the locals make it through the day to face another. If I attempted to kick back and make myself comfortable, with the plan of eventually finding out how to evade harm’s way, chances are that I would not last for very long.

    The fictional characters which I created were borrowed from your example of people seemingly engaging in the political process for non-financial reasons. Though, as far as fictional characters go, I must say that yours were very strongly rooted in reality. A loony activist for women’s reproductive rights is just as dangerous as one standing against them; the point being that both are probably so extreme in the first place because of psychological rather than political problems. Also, the reproductive rights activist over the age of fifty does indeed have a vested interest in the future of the legality of pregnancy termination measures due to the reasons laid out by Steven D. Levitt in ‘Freakonomics’.

    Justice is an immensely important subject, and one which I had originally planned to cover in a later article, which still is the case. Just hold tight, and in time most, if not all of your questions will be answered. If not, then, that’s what these comments threads are for.

  • Well put, Baronius.

  • Baronius

    Joseph – You’re making one of two mistakes here, and I can’t tell which. Either you’re confusing the positive and the normative (that is, politics as you believe it to be and politics as you’d like it to be), or you’re mistaking your idealized politics for the way politics works. Either way, as I said, I don’t think you’re describing reality. You’ve already created fictional characters: the clear thinkers who frame the debate who are solely motivated by economics. Do you think that the Fair Tax guy doesn’t care about justice? Or that the environmentalist doesn’t care about birds, except to the extent to which they impact financial wealth? You say that the pro-lifer is mentally ill: what about the pro-choice activist? More specifically, what about the pro-choice activist who’s over 50? Her prosperity isn’t going to be affected by a change in abortion law.

  • Where we might have a (slight?) disagreement, then, is on the nature of our relationship to justice. I view it as nothing less than commitment, and commitment, no matter how you dress it up, is essentially emotional in make up. And this would cover our (mis)conceptions of justice as well.

    The “convictions and normative standards that have been molded into our subconscious over the course of our lifetimes” you speak of manifest themselves and become distilled in our conception of justice as the focal point — and it’s here that we run into a whole gamut of cultural, regional and individual differences. But my main argument would be that even in most of the cases of what we would normally view as justice misapplied or misconstrued, it is still some sense of justice that drives and account for the individual’s political behavior — even in such extreme? cases as that of a “redneck,” a “racist,” or a “fundamentalist.”

    An underlying point I suppose is that for me, the line between “reason” and “emotion” is not as clear cut as some people might like. At times, I even tend to think of “reason” as something more on the order of a consequence or aftereffect, the emotions being primary — justification is a positive term, rationalization less so.

    “Rationality” ends up being a kind of myth on this view — insofar as it is regarded by some as having independent existence, as it were — and to tell the truth, I’m not really all that uncomfortable with it.

  • roger,

    Regarding the nature and implication of justice, you are correct that, in order for my Realist philosophy to be fully explained, this is a topic that must be addressed at length. It indeed will be in the coming articles; this is only the beginning of a series which will likely last for the better portion of a year.

    As our emotions are the result of, principally, convictions and normative standards that have been molded into our subconscious over the course of our lifetimes, it is only natural that they play a role in political philosophy. However, if allowed to become unbridled, they can easily destroy one’s ability for rational judgment; as a matter of fact, they have the extraordinary capability to obfuscate and dilute our power to perceive the world around us in a sane fashion. This is why, as far as politics are concerned, reason should play the dominant role, with emotion lending a helping hand under strict consideration.

    To expect anything other, to honestly believe that mankind can go about doing virtually any task without having feelings come into play is nothing less than sheer denial of the human condition’s most fundamental aspects. Nonetheless, if we are to allow instincts to trump reason, then our society would dissolve into chaos and disorder. This, needless to say, presents the perfect scenario for the most brutal of dictators imaginable to rise to power, as history has shown us time and again.

  • I’m beginning to see where you’re going with this, Joseph, the paradigm being that politics which springs from the emotional represents an aberration (and disturbance from what, in your view, politics ought to be).

    I really think you should reconsider this paradigm before you fully commit. The kind of person which goes part and parcel with your model is a super-rational agent. It may well be partly realistic, but only by way of exception (and you certainly don’t want to construct your general theory on the exceptional).

    By way of a hint, because I don’t want to hinder your own thinking on the subject, let me suggest that a comprehensive notion of rationality includes the emotional — in fact, it’s contingent on it. By way of another hint, it seems to me you should be working on forging a meaningful distinction as to “negative” and “positive” emotions (as sources of political behavior) if you want to comment further on “bad” and “good” politics. What’s at center is our conception or misconception of justice. It’s in this respect, how we conceive of justice, that we either go right or wrong.

    What of course complicates matters is the fact that a great many consequences/aftereffects of our political decisions spring from economic considerations. Bear in mind, however, the kinds of agents who are actively involved in political decision-making at that level; here, you find yourself talking almost of “stately politics,” i.e., of politics on behalf of the State.

    Indeed, it is in this area that I believe you’re making a significant contribution, because you’re alerting us to a very complex field of forces and the constant friction, how they interact, often reinforcing one another but, at other times, and more frequently, stand at odds, producing all kinds of unexpected vectors.

    But to cut to the chase, I don’t think you can hope to arrive at any intelligent analysis of politics and political behavior without taking account of the concept of justice, and how we relate to it, serving as the mainspring.

  • Baronius,

    Roger already pointed this out, but for the sake of discussion, I will reiterate the obvious; I do not boil every human emotion and motivation down to dollars and cents. When a man becomes romantically infatuated with a woman he finds to be beautiful, for example, there is no cash incentive present. As a matter of fact, he is putting himself in a position to have whatever chump change happening to be in his pocket stolen away during a moment of weakness; a moment of placing gut instinct over his mental capacity for reason.

    Nonetheless, in politics, the clear thinkers who covertly frame the debate are concerned with but one thing; profit in the financial sense. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean that they are corrupt, or even unethical. For instance, the Republican strategist trying to promote the idea of a Fair Tax is doing so because he believes that the more money he and his neighbors keep for their own purposes, the better off their community will be. The Democratic strategist attempting to spread the word about global warming, meanwhile, is so committed to his cause because he is of the opinion that one day our environment will be destroyed, leaving most of humanity destitute.

    As you can see, I have highlighted two totally separate entities here; personal and political philosophy. Personal philosophy sometimes, but not always, concerns finances, while, at the quintessential base level, political always does due to the very reason that individuals become involved in each for totally different reasons; the former to nourish their soul, and the latter to secure it.



  • @18

    He’s not doing that, since a good part of political behavior is accountable by recourse to human psychology, he admitted that much.

  • Baronius

    Not really, Joseph. You’ll note that some of my examples pointed to both sides of an issue (such as the role of the US military). Just because a person disagrees with you on the appropriate role of the military doesn’t mean that he’s overcompensating for some pathetic personal problem. In fact, by saying that those who disagree with you are being emotional rather than logical, you’re recognizing that some people do choose their political positions on non-economic grounds.

    By the way, I wasn’t accusing you of using a cover story to mask your agenda. “Cover story” may have been a bad way of expressing the idea. I think that, for example, the person who opposes the death penalty for moral and financial reasons in all likelihood would oppose it simply for moral reasons, even if the financial aspect of it were resolved. It’s normal to compile a list of every argument in support of your particular position on an issue, even if (especially if?) you’re already persuaded by one of those arguments.

    Also, let me point out that I’m a big fan of talking about the economic consequences of policies. I’ve blathered about tax policy, for example, so much on BC that it makes me sick. But I also think that if you reduce everything to economics, you’re making the Marxian mistake of ignoring a big chunk of human behavior, and the intellectual structure you build will have an unnecessarily small foundation.

  • Indeed, a pragmatic stance and view of politics — political economy was the right term no longer in use.

    One could surely argue that the present stalemate in American politics is made possible only in virtue of deep-seated, almost irreconcilable rifts which the demagogues from both sides of the aisle can well exploit – rifts which themselves may well be traced to deep psychological problems. Those problems, however, are, to an extent of course, also rooted in aspects of the American culture.

  • Dr Dreadful,

    In my opinion, the fact that fiscal arguments are frequently used as a basis for socially-and-defense-oriented subjects proves better than anything else possibly could that, when all is said and done, finances trump all in politics.


    There is no cover story here, I assure you. If anything, the non-fiscal aspects of political issues serve as covers. As for decency-deprived zealots marching around yielding unspeakably obscene photographs outside of abortion clinics, self-appointed civil libertarians deriding comprehensive national security programs on emotional rather than factual grounds, and stoners just being stoners, all of these choose to engage in their respective destructive behaviors due to deep psychological problems. The fact that all three of your examples entail individuals who are much less interested in the political process than they are in attempting to compensate for personal shortcomings is a testament to how many disturbed people there are in modern society, not how money influences political issues.

  • Baronius

    10 – If you want to figure out how to win 51% of the vote, then yes, you have to cobble together votes at the margin. But if you’re analyzing national politics, as this article is attempting to do, then you’ve got to look at the major voting blocs. I don’t think that Joseph Cotto is interested in the world of attack ads and get-out-the-vote campaigns as much as the underlying world of political philosophy.

    13/14 – I think you’re confusing things here. The fact is that no one’s persuaded to oppose the death penalty because of the costs of execution. No one marches around an abortion clinic with a poster of a decapitated fetus because he’s worried about welfare programs.

    You can always create an economic cover story in order to promote your agenda items. Some people who support a strong military will oppose Obamacare because of its costs; some people who support health care reform will oppose American imperialism because of its costs; but let’s be honest, both groups have other motivations. Let me tell you another little secret: ever listen to a stoner talk about the benefits of hemp as a natural fiber? He doesn’t really care about the benefits of hemp as a natural fiber.

    Now, sometimes people are persuaded on primarily non-economic issues by economic arguments. There are some people who look at marijuana legalization as a possible revenue stream. And there may be someone, I guess, who changed his mind about the death penalty when he heard how much it costs. But most people who support the death penalty will favor fewer appeals and quicker executions to save the $ involved. Most people aren’t persuaded on the basis of solely economic arguments.

  • Good points, Joseph. I’d add that when these ostensibly non-economic issues are debated, financial arguments are often used in an effort to change the opponent’s mind: for example, we’ve all heard the claim that executing someone for murder is more expensive than keeping them in prison for life (or vice versa).

    And (here in California at least) at election time when we get the packet of information about the various measures that are on the ballot, there’s always a “Fiscal Impact” section that analyzes the cost of enacting (or not enacting) whatever the hairbrained idea is.

  • To, pretty much, everybody,

    Any given individual’s or group’s concerns about another individual or group are rooted in economics at a base level. Seemingly thoroughbred social issues such as same-sex marriage and women’s reproductive rights, as well as national security matters like illegal immigration, all have fiscal underpinnings.

    In the case of same-sex marriage, traditionalists fear that such a thing would destabilize the societal norm of Jack and Jill tying the knot, getting decent jobs, and having children of their own. To those against same-sex marriage, the destruction of opposite-sex-only marriage laws serves as the first step down a path of, ultimately, widespread financial ruin. Due to same-sex marriage not having been around for many generations, it is difficult to tell if this theory will play out, but I will most certainly be keeping my eyes open.

    As far as those opposed to women’s reproductive rights are concerned, the choice of a female not to carry her pregnancy to full term is depriving a developing entity from living a full, productive life, and at some point making positive contributions to humanity. This is in spite of the fact that a great deal of the fetuses and embryos in question would have been born into generational poverty and more than likely added to many of our nation’s ongoing social problems, as was comprehensively covered by Steven D. Levitt in ‘Freakonomics’, but persons against reproductive choice tend to negate this.

    FInally, with regards to illegal immigration, there can be no question that illegal aliens take jobs which were formerly held by either American citizens or legal residents. This is why Cesar Chavez was a strong opponent of illegals; he saw that his fellow union members’ employment opportunities were being sucked down the proverbial drain, and soon enough the same thing would take place across the rest of the United States, which it undeniably has. So, while mainstream anti-illegal immigration rallies and groups might seem to have their anger rooted in racial bigotry and nothing else, this simply is not the case by any means.

    I hope that I was able to clear up some of my views on economics and politics here. They both sure are weighty subject matters.

  • @10

    Dreadful has a point, of course, in that such blocs don’t usually determine elections; but given little or no progress on the road to economic recovery and high probability that Obama is not going to draw as well among the young (because of OWS, for example), the election of a conservative in 2012 is no longer a remote possibility.

  • There’s some truth to Baronius’s claim. It is arguable that large segments of American population are moved more so by non-economic issues than by economic ones — one reason being, some of these people have never really been doing that well economically, they’re used to their lot, so the present level of hardship isn’t really new to them. Indeed, the immigration issue (as unfolding in the state of Alabama, e.g.) provides a significant counterexample. And it would be a mistake to suppose it’s an issue that, unlike that of abortion, is proprietary to a fanatical fringe but rather, is deeply-rooted in the American psyche and constitutes a large part of the conservative base.

  • Baronius, certainly there are blocs that concentrate on non-economic issues, but since such voters feel strongly about their particular areas of interest they tend not to change their minds. These are not, therefore, the people who decide elections.

    That would be the small sliver of the electoral pie known as swing voters, and there’s plenty of evidence, such as the study cited in this article, to show that these folks always make up their minds based on who they perceive is most likely to cause more numbers to appear to the left of the decimal point in their bank balances.

    I suppose you could object that many of this group vote based on simple loathing of the incumbent, but that dislike almost without exception arises from dissatisfaction with how the poor sap has handled the economy.

  • Baronius

    No, Clavos and Dread, that’s not T, at least not T enough to be stated categorically. Sure, these days there are more people voting on economics, but that’s because we’re decelerating our military efforts, crime is down, and there have been no major terrorist incidents in a while. But even so, we’re still not looking at an economics-only presidential campaign.

    I can name half a dozen non-economic issues that motivate a sizable voting bloc, and a half a dozen more that are on the edge between economic and non-economic (like immigration).

  • Clavos

    …elections are won and lost on what the electorate thinks is best for its pockets, not on who thinks who should be allowed to bang whom.


  • Arch Conservative

    an absolute ism by any name is a recipe for certain disaster

  • I would say that the theme of this article was that issues such as abortion and gay rights have nothing to do with economic thinking, and that our most strongly-held positions aren’t economic at all.

    That may be so, Baronius, but elections are won and lost on what the electorate thinks is best for its pockets, not on who thinks who should be allowed to bang whom.

  • the causes and effects of globalism cannot be ignored or denied.

    Indeed. One traditional way that governments have been able to influence economies is through external trade. But as the economy goes global, it’s getting to the point where there’s no-one external to trade with.

    It will be interesting to see how this completely new phenomenon pans out.

  • Baronius

    Eh. Not awfully impressive. Still, this was the first BC article in a couple of weeks that might spark an interesting discussion.

    Who says that all politics are based on economics? The left (if you want to use that term) is concerned about civil rights, care of others, and peace. The right (again, the term is imprecise) is concerned about societal morals, individual freedoms, and the spread of democracy. Both sides have people who support free trade as moral and oppose free trade as immoral, not thinking about the issue in terms of economics at all.

    In fact, I would say that the theme of this article was that issues such as abortion and gay rights have nothing to do with economic thinking, and that our most strongly-held positions aren’t economic at all.

  • jason,

    That is one of the best analyses of the political spectrum in real time which I have ever read on this website. A truly remarkable job on your part.

    Dr Dreadful,

    You and an old literature instructor of mine would get along fantastically. One day, after a long lecture on Romanticism, she and I had a discussion on the nature of economics and how it relates to society as a whole. As I found out, she was also a financial historian, and was taught that one day political subdivisions would become all but irrelevant due to the rise of global free trade. I personally doubt that this will happen within any of our lifetimes, but several hundred years from now it just might. I am not at all sure that this is for the better, needless to say, but the causes and effects of globalism cannot be ignored or denied.

  • Jason’s last point is a good one, and it raises an interesting question. Joseph, you bring up the old maxim that “all politics are rooted in economic concerns” (or as a more recent thinker famously pointed out “It’s the economy, stupid”), which is broadly true. As much as politicians and their constituents may rattle sabres, rail against social injustice, trumpet tough law and order policies and the like, when it comes to the crunch what the vast majority of people want from a government is just help to become financially better off.

    In most of the modern world, we have The Market in place, ostensibly to help us achieve that goal. This market, being for the most part “free”, has evolved to a point where anything a government does has minimal to no effect. If an economy is going into recession, there’s going to be a recession, whether a president hurls stimulus money at it or not. Conversely, a boom period generally has bugger all to do with government policies, however much that government may (sorry… will) take the credit.

    So powerful has the market become, indeed, that it’s hard to see how a dictator coming to power in a modern western capitalist state would even survive for long. Totalitarian governments by definition can’t allow a genuinely free market, but our hypothetical despot’s interference would meet such stiff resistance from the market that he’d just end up looking silly and irrelevant.

    It is, therefore, interesting that politicians and the people continue to delude themselves that they can control the economy, when at best they can merely influence it a little bit and most of the time they just pretend to.

  • jason

    The problem as I see it is that people need to define their terms. What is socialism and what is capitalism? Most of the people I have asked cannot answer. I have done a lot of reading on the subject. The following is a very short summary.
    Duing medieval Europe the king sat in his throne room. On his right sat the representatives of the aristocracy and the church. On his left sat the representatives of the craft guilds, trade guilds and labor unions. In this socialist monarchy we see the left and the right.
    The primary function of government is to organize society for war. King Phillip of France decided that the government should run all of society. This was modern Europe’s first totalitarian socialist government.
    The capitalists were born from the success of the guilds. People became prosperous and had money to put aside to save from their excess productivity. This new capital was invested over time to create greater wealth. They eventually became richer than the monarcy.
    Communism is the removal of the right. If the right is dispossesed then the government consists of the left. A congress made up of the representatives of the unions is called a soviet.
    The thing that most people are actually against is totalitarianism.