Sunday, December 13, 2020

Should people be scared of the political left?

It seems like a lot of my fellow Americans, especially those who lean right in their political ideology, are terrified of SOCIALISM (or whatever they think socialism is) above almost all else. Some are convinced that we're on the verge of plunging into a dismal and oppressive communist dystopia like Stalin's Russia, and that even the most benign liberal policies like funding public schools or healthcare are pushing us down that slippery slope to the gulag. Others don’t go quite that far but are nevertheless convinced that any restraints on big business and the wealthy, or mercy for the sick and the poor, will lead to moral decay and economic collapse. Only ruthless, unfettered capitalism can prevent corrupt lazy losers from taking over and turning us into the next Venezuela, right? SIGH.

It's a testament to the power of propaganda that the GOP has been able to stoke this inordinate terror of the left at the very same time that their own party is engaged in alarming attacks on American democracy itself. I won’t get into all the details of the right’s voter suppression, gerrymandering, purging truth-tellers and protecting liars within government, pushing conspiracy theories about a “stolen” election, encouraging armed insurrection, etc. Let it suffice to say that under Trump, the GOP have come perilously close to achieving an "autocratic transition" - a switch from democracy to dictatorship. Yet, most conservative people still see Trump as a savior and not a threat.

Indeed, it’s ironic that these 70ish million conservative Americans; folks who are earnestly patriotic and scared of losing democratic freedoms, have empowered an authoritarian strongman who closely resembles the freedom-stealing autocrats they revile; the power-mad charlatans who’ve led their countries into dysfunction, disgrace, and worse. Trump’s macho image, his appeals to the grievances of “the common man,” his fiery demagoguery, his scapegoating of foreigners and minorities, his constant lying, his efforts to control the press and suppress the vote, his ostentatious wealth and trophy wives, his nepotism, and even his bizarre hair and style, all PERFECLY fit the mold of a dictator. Cuba’s Castro, Venezuela’s Chavez, North Korea’s Kim, Libya’s Gaddafi, Russia’s Stalin, and even Nazi Germany’s Hitler are cut from the same cloth as Trump. How is this not obvious to those under his spell?

I think the failure of so many to see the obvious has to do with how we have confounded the left-right spectrum with other types of societal variation. (In this context, “confound” means to mix something up with something else; to fail to recognize them as distinct things, like thinking that “hot” and “spicy” are the same thing.) Some other dimensions of societal variation that can get wrongly lumped-in with the right-left spectrum include autocracy-democracy, corruption-integrity, wealth-poverty, and dysfunctionality-functionality. All those things greatly affect the quality of society, and they can vary *independently* of the left-right spectrum. For example you can have a left-leaning society that is autocratic, dysfunctional, and poor, like Venezuela or North Korea, but you can also have a left-leaning society that is democratic, functional, and wealthy, like Norway or New Zealand.

Anyway, when we develop a blinding commitment to a right- or left-wing idealogy, many of the real complexities of the world collapse into an oversimplified, “right is always good, left is always bad” kind of thing. Our tendency to latch onto certain simplified views is a natural response to living in a scarily complicated and often hurtful world. For example, it’s totally understandable that someone who grew up under a left-wing dictator like Castro would associate socialism with corruption, oppression, and poverty, and would be generally averse to the political left. And of course, American politicians on the political right are in no hurry to disabuse Cuban Americans of those negative associations. Unscrupulous people love to take advantage of our oversimplifying tendency. They get us all emotionally riled up about something that genuinely concerns us, but then they hitch our fervor onto a dubious agenda that serves only them. Regardless of whether we’re tricked into the oversimplifying or we do it to ourselves, our confounding of left-right and right-wrong leads to all sorts of trouble, including:

1.     Failing to recognize and address problems like corruption and incompetence when they’re coming from our own side of the left-right spectrum.

2.     Reflexively rejecting anything and everything we associate with the other side of the spectrum, even if it might be beneficial.  

3.     Uncritically accepting lousy people and policies just because they’re under the banner of right or left that we’ve pledged to.  

4.     Thinking, “if right is good, further right must be better,” leading to extremism. (Or the same thing but with left.)

5.     Believing lies or baseless conspiracy theories about the other side because they fit in with our feelings and ideologies.

The way to get out of this “confounding” problem might be to increase awareness of all those other, important societal gradations besides just right-left. I think it would be especially helpful to recognize integrity-corruption and democracy-autocracy as important societal variables separate from the right-left axis. Autocracy and corruption are not endemic to left-wing societies. They can absolutely afflict right-wing societies, too, as folks now suffering from oppression in Turkey, or Saudi Arabia would attest.  

 There’s a kind of X-Y plot called the “political compass,” which has an up-down axis as well as a left-right axis, and which is accompanied by a quiz that places you in one of the four quadrants based on your personal views. On that, typical, political compass, the up-down axis is designated as “liberty-authority,” and it helps distinguish libertarians from classic conservatives, democratic socialists from authoritarian socialists, etc. That helps a little with the “confounding” problem that I’m talking about, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for. I think it would be more useful to make the up-down axis be more clearly a good-bad axis, with something like “functional democracy” at the top and “corrupt dictatorship” at the bottom. Then you could put different countries that we’re familiar with in the different quadrants to better illustrate that both right and left can fall into corrupt dictatorships.

Rough draft diagram-

Final thought: I’ve said that many important aspects of societies, such as integrity-corruption and democracy-autocracy, are independent of the left-right spectrum. An implication of that is that we do not need to be inordinately afraid of moving right or left, as long as we’re watching out for those other aspects of how society can go good or bad. However, I do think there is some danger of going to the EXTREMES of right or left because an extreme philosophy is more likely to get blinded to the other nuances.