The Left and the Right in Thinking,
|light||- - - - - - -||dark|
|curved||- - - - - - -||straight|
|high||- - - - - - -||low|
|female||- - - - - - -||male|
|sacred||- - - - - - -||profane|
|heterosexual||- - - - - - -||homosexual|
|mysterious||- - - - - - -||commonplace|
|unclean||- - - - - - -||clean|
|correct||- - - - - - -||incorrect|
|bad||- - - - - - -||good|
|beautiful||- - - - - - -||ugly|
|limp||- - - - - - -||erect|
|strong||- - - - - - -||weak|
Sure enough, just like the Maori, the older children and college students tended to say that the Left was bad, dark, profane, female, unclean, curved, limp, homosexual, weak, mysterious, low, ugly, and incorrect, while the right was judged as just the opposite -- good, light, sacred, male, clean, straight, erect, heterosexual, strong, commonplace, high, beautiful, and correct. This suggests there is a pan-human meaning to the Left and the Right.
If we look more closely at how we think about leftness, it is not always simply "bad," as in "not good." It is more like the Left is bad in the sense of "tempting." That is, the Left involves impulses that are not a good idea because they upset people and get you in trouble, which is in keeping with Tomkins's claim that expressing or controlling emotions is a key factor in the Left-Right dimension. But it is not just that the Right is good and the Left is "baaad," as in the admiring comment, "he's a baaad cat." The Right is also "up" and the Left is "down," as also seen in the rating of the Right as "high" and the Left as "low." That is, the hierarchical dimension that Tomkins talks about is built into the Left-Right dimension, too, through the basic equation of "good" and "up" and "bad" and "down" in our mental universe. How are you feeling today? "I'm really up, today, thanks." Or, "sorry to say, but I am feeling down today." When we are elated we are "high as a kite," on "cloud nine," or "walking on air." When we are feeling discouraged or depressed, we are "down" or "low," or "in the dumps."
So, it seems that Right and Left really do stand for something in our minds. They stand for proper, right-minded thinking versus playful/sinful/heretical thinking, and hierarchy versus equality, just as Tomkins suggests. To support God, the King, the President, the bosses, or the department chairperson is to be on the Right. To question or rebel against them is to be on the Left.
However, there is one serious problem with what I have said so far, as one of the best personality psychologists of the past 40 years, Robert McCrae, pointed out to me. I've made it sound as if the Right is "better" than the Left, as though they are the truly virtuous ones. He goes on to suggest it might be useful to point out that what I've written applies to the way people think, but not necessarily to the way they act. Yes, rightists believe in rules, but they are not any more likely to follow them, or be orderly and punctual, diligent and hardworking. That's because there are four other basic dimensions to personality in addition to the left-right dimension -- which is called the "openness" dimension within the widely accepted "Five-Factor Model of Personality" that McCrae and his co-workers developed. (It's also called the "Big Five" model, and its five factors can be most easily remembered with the acronym "OCEAN." They are openness, conscientious, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, all of which are pretty much self-explanatory.
As McCrae explained to me, and as work with the Five-Factor Model shows, the right and the left differ on openness, but not necessarily on the other four dimensions (c.f. McCrae, 1996; McCrae & Costa, 1980). For my purposes here, the important difference concerns the conscientiousness dimension: not all rightists are conscientious enough to stick with their rules, any more than leftists or people in the middle are. McRae points out that when we are scandalized by misbehavior by Rightists -- or shrug off misbehavior on the Left -- it's because we sometimes forget that what people believe and what they do are often two very different matters.
With the distinction between openness and conscientiousness in mind, we can now ask whether what I have outlined in this and previous sections (about the Left and the Right in thinking and personality) relates to the actual people who are political Rightists and Leftists in countries like the United States. I now turn to the evidence that it does, starting with a study that a colleague and I did of political Leftists and Rightists using the Tomkins questionnaire.
Tomkins also claimed that the Left-Right dimension appears in politics, and I am now going to present evidence that such is the case.
But before I do that, I need to make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to talking about different political orientations in the United States. First, most people in the United States usually think of the Left-Right dimension as the "liberal-conservative" dimension, and rightly so, because it means the same thing at a theoretical level. However, a terminology problem arises because those who are "left of center" divide into two basic types, as do those "right of center." On the Left side, just to the left of the center," we find the "liberals," whereas those to the left of liberals are called "Leftists." In the past, the Leftists usually defined themselves as either "socialists," "communists," or "anarchists." Today they are more likely to self-identify as "progressives" or "anti-capitalists," although there are also those who lean in an anarchistic direction who call themselves "libertarian socialists" to emphasize their respect for individual rights and their wariness of a large government. Meanwhile, just to make things a little more complicated, the term "progressive" has also been adopted by some moderate liberals who don't want to be associated with "The L-Word." On the Right side, just to the right of the center, there are "moderate conservatives" and on their right we find the "ultra-conservatives," with the varying types of ultra-conservatives self-identifying as "New Rightists," "Christian Rightists," and "Neo-conservatives." There's also a very small and unusual group on the right, the "Libertarians," who dislike government but are -- in theory -- in favor of freedom to smoke dope, be gay, etc. They are in some ways a mirror image of anarchists, and they are civil libertarians, but anarchists and libertarians also differ totally in that the anarchists are internationalists and dislike markets, whereas libertarians are more nationalistic and love markets over and beyond just about anything else. In any event, it is the New Rightists, Christian Rightists, Neo-conservatives, and Libertarians that I am calling political Rightists in this essay. All of this can be confusing, so below is a chart that tries to provide an overview.
|Points Along The Left-Right Dimension in American Politics|
|Extreme Left||Moderate Left||Moderate Right||Extreme Right|
It's also important to make clear that the political substance of what is "Left" and what is "Right" can vary from time to time and place to place due to the different histories of different countries. This point is especially critical for understanding the differences between the European Right and the American Right. The European Right mythologizes a past of strong states, complete with kings and their courts, and a hierarchical church. It can see itself submerged in the state, and could therefore move, just 70-80 years ago, to the extreme of fascism.
The American Right, on the other hand, due to the history of the United States, has a myth of a highly individualistic past, with a minimum amount of government. That is, the American Right is based on the tenets of 19th century, Big-L "Liberalism," the philosophy that codifies and justifies a small-government, a "free" market, and anti-union policies and practices. It claims that people are rational self-maximizers. The people who become the wealthiest are assumed to be the smartest and the fittest. The American right therefore shares an elitist orientation with other Rightists, but it doesn't glorify the government.
Meanwhile, the small-L liberals in America, that is, those left of center within the Democratic Party, who want to end racism and sexism and exploitation of ordinary workers, came to the conclusion many decades ago that federal-level government programs were the only way to achieve their goals. The federal government would have to end segregation, women would have to have the right to vote, and workers would have to have the right to unionize to counter the power of big corporations. This need for action at the national level was especially obvious in the case of freedom for African-Americans because the state governments in the racist, segregationist South were clearly not going to change one iota without federal pressures (see Starr, 2007, for a full discussion of how the small-L liberals gradually evolved from the big-L liberals and therefore differ from the present conservatives and Rightists, who stick to the original big-L positions).
However, the American Rightists, given their strong desire to keep things as they are, and their respect for hierarchy, including the hierarchical relationship between whites and blacks and men and women as well as capitalists and workers, often see small-L liberalism as a form of "collectivism." Contrary to Rightist rhetoric, however, small-L liberalism is a relatively slight modification of old-style liberalism and an expansion of democracy to include more than the owners of income-producing properties. In other words -- and this is crucial -- most Americans are either 19th-century liberals or 20th-century liberals in an ideological sense. Contrary to what the Rightists believe, there are few or no socialists or communists. And contrary to the view from the Left, the American Rightists are not fascists. Put another way, the conservatives and liberals use extremist rhetoric when talking about each other. However, because most Americans are one or another variant of Big-L liberalism -- that is, they are neither communists/socialists nor fascists -- they are usually able to compromise their differences without violence. On the other hand, the fact that the two sides can come to demonize each other so completely is a testament to the more fanatical aspects of the human mind.
Now we are ready for studies that try to relate styles of thinking and personality to political preferences. Such studies have a long history that dates back to the late 1930s in the United States, with the best and most rigorous of these studies having been done since the 1990s by political psychologists whom I will discuss shortly. However, I want to start with a study from the 1960s that used the Tomkins Left-Right questionnaire to study members of actual Leftist and Rightist political groups. It's a study I did with my colleague Henry Minton at California State University at Los Angeles in the autumn of 1964, just before the presidential election between liberal Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson and ultra-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. We were able to give the Tomkins questionnaire and several personality tests -- to be discussed in a moment -- to five groups:
In addition to the Tomkins questionnaire, we collected basic demographic information on the participants that isn't essential here because everyone back then was standard-issue young white college students, along with something that is important for my current purposes, a self-rating on a 7-point liberalism-conservatism dimension. We also gave the Internationalism-Nationalism Scale, which is known to correlate with conservatism.
It's also important to note that we did not use the two or three Tomkins statements that relate at all to politics -- the ones about the nature of government and the best way to deal with criminals. In other words, we made the Tomkins questionnaire apolitical in that it focuses on statements about human nature, numbers, child rearing, and a few other non-political issues.
Here's what we found. First, on the liberalism-conservatism self-rating scale, all but one of the Communists and Trotskyists gave themselves the strongest possible liberalism rating, a "1," with one person giving himself a "2." All of the Young Democrats gave themselves a "2," "3," or "4," which clearly differentiates them from the Leftists. And all but two of the Young Republicans gave themselves the most extreme conservative ratings, a "6" or a "7;" the remaining two rated themselves as "3" and "5." So the self-ratings completely differentiate the various groups, with the exception of the Young Republican who gave himself a "3"; he turned out to have been raised in a liberal family.
The second analysis consisted of a correlational matrix that included the liberal-conservative self-rating, along with the international/chauvanistic nationalism scale, the Tomkins questionnaire, and the Jackson-Minton Adjective Checklist. This analysis first of all showed that the participants' subjective self-ratings correlated very highly, r= .78, with the internationalism-nationalism scale, with the conservatives on the highly nationalistic, super-patriotic side, a finding that has been reported in virtually every study that has been done of Leftists and Rightists in the past 60 years. That means we are on solid ground when we turn to the Tomkins results.
The Total Left Scores, that is, the total number of Left-oriented statements that the person endorsed, correlated .46 with liberal self rating and .35 with internationalism, which is a solid result in the world of personality studies, and the Total Right Scores correlated .51 with the self rating and .65 with nationalism, which is an even more impressive result.
Although those are good correlations by the standards of personality studies, it's a fair question to ask why they aren't even higher. One important reason is that some of the self-identified Leftists and Young Republicans had not yet found their "natural" home on the Left-Right continuum. That is, we know from the biographies and autobiographies of many political figures that they start out at one place and end up at another. In particular, there are many dramatic examples of young Leftists who move to the Right. Many of the famous Neo-Conservatives of the 1970s through the 1990s started out as Socialists or Trotskyists in the 1950s and 1960s, for example. There is also a little movement from the Right to the center, and even to mild liberalism; Hillary Clinton would be a good case in point. Based on her upbringing, she was for Goldwater in 1964, but by the time she had finished college and law school she was a liberal. (More generally, there is a modest correlation between parental and offspring politics as people are growing up, but other factors enter into political orientation after age 18 or 19 -- including what the new generation as a whole is experiencing -- e.g., "the Sixties," "the Eighties," "The Great Recession.") So young adults often differ from their parents in political orientation, and siblings often differ from each other, too, for that matter. There's also social class and peer-group influences and situational factors like where you work.
There is one very interesting study of liberals and conservatives from the 1960s that is consistent with the Tomkins dimension. It is a by-product of a follow-up study of University of Minnesota students who had taken a battery of vocational interest tests in the late 1930's in an attempt to predict their future career interests. When they were studied via questionnaires and interviews 25 years later, they provided new information on their interests and attitudes, including their political orientation. So, as one small part of the data analysis, the participants were divided into liberals and conservatives (Rossmann & Campbell, 1965). And they differed in their interests, hobbies, and occupations in ways we would expect from the Tomkins dimension.
And as I noted earlier, there is a large amount of new information on Leftists and Rightists that has been collected since the 1990s. In fact, it is in general better information because it uses tests that are far more rigorous than the now-abandoned Tomkins scale and adds new ideas and insights to the picture. Most of these new findings are summarized in a synthesis by political psychologists John T. Jost and David M. Amodio (2012), who did many of the original studies themselves. They also put the new studies within their historical context, including three references to the work by Tomkins.
The studies carried out or summarized by Jost and Amodio amply confirm that Leftists are more open than Rightists. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies in 12 different countries, they also show that factors such as death anxiety, dogmatism, intolerance for ambiguity, and need for order were positively correlated with conservatism and negatively correlated with liberalism, whereas openness to new experience, cognitive complexity, and tolerance of uncertainly were all positively correlated with liberalism and negatively correlated with conservatism (Jost & Amodio, 2012, p. 57). Moreover, the new work goes beyond Tomkins in demonstrating that it is not just "emotion" in general that Rightists fear more than Leftists. In particular, they are more likely to react to uncertainty and ambiguity by feeling threatened and anxious, which may lead to their negative attitude toward new experiences and their dogmatism.
By this point, many readers may be wondering just what percentage of people are Rightists or Leftists in their political orientation, or more generally, what does the distribution of people along the general right-left political spectrum look like. That's a difficult question to answer very precisely for the United States because the largest and most reliable studies tend to ask only whether people consider themselves "liberals," "moderates," or "conservatives." About 25% of voters said they were liberals in exit polls after the 2012 presidential elections, compared to 35% who said they were conservatives, and 40% who said they were moderates, with questions about party identification clouding the picture because 11% of liberals said they voted for the Republican presidential candidate and 17% on conservatives said they voted for President Barack Obama (Edison Research, 2012).
Of course, the differences in values and personality between political Leftists and Rightists are not the whole story. For example, there is ample evidence of extremely authoritarian Leftist political parties in the United States. In particular, there are various Marxist-Leninist parties that say they practice "democratic centralism," meaning that everyone has an equal chance to speak and participate, but they then agree to follow what the majority decides. What invariably happens in these groups is that they come to be run by an inner circle, the "central committee," which is in turn usually dominated by one strong leader. Some of the accounts of these groups are harrowing; there is evidence of self-righteous manipulation of the members and a willingness to use violence (Ellis, 1998; Lalich, 2004).
Although the Right and Left have major differences that make it almost impossible for them to agree on anything, they also have certain -- if not immediately apparent -- similarities as well. In fact, they are remarkably similar for how different they are. Since these similarities are of a type that tends to make them blind to any other view, these similarities further reinforce the dichotomy between them: that is, the similarities I am about to discuss make for more differences.
First, they share the same high degree of moral outrage and anger. This strong moral outrage makes them into absolutists. They become True Believers in their cause, with no doubts whatsoever. They see everyone else as sell-outs and trimmers. This includes many people who share their sympathies, but not their fanaticism. This disdain for less fanatical friends who share their general beliefs also reveals to us what the tamer versions of Rightists and Leftists, that is, conservatives and liberals, have in common: they are more pragmatic, tentative, and experimental in their beliefs. As might be expected, then, and as everyday observation makes apparent, there is often tension between moderate conservatives and Rightists on the Right side of the divide and between liberals and Leftists on the other side.
On the Right, the tension is due to the fact that the moderate conservatives are willing to accept the current situation on most issues, whereas Rightists are not. Rightists in the Republican Party often contemptuously call moderate conservatives "RINOs," which means "Republican in Name Only," and therefore fair game for attack because they are weak-kneed compromisers and backsliders. For example, most American conservatives do not want to go back to black-white segregation or to the subjugation of women, even though most conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s opposed the extension of equality, fairness, and opportunity to women and African-Americans (including famous libertarians of the 1950s through the 1990s such as William F. Buckley). Present-day conservatives have accepted those changes; they figure that's the way things are, but things should change no further (and people like Buckley came to accept the changes and even regret some of their past views).
However, those on the far Right have not accepted most of these changes. They talk about the 1950s as a golden era, even though there were far fewer ultra-conservatives than there are now, and even though it was a time of racial segregation and almost complete male dominance. The thought that there have been changes in the tried and true ways completely upsets them. Indeed, they claim that the problems of today are due to the changes since the 1950s. There has been "moral degeneration," something that Rightists have been saying throughout Western history. They have once again created a self-serving myth about the past.
Similarly, there is tension between liberals and Leftists over many issues. Liberals want small gradual improvements, but political Leftists want major changes right now. When various types of Leftists have to define what they share in common, they are sure of one thing -- they are not mere liberals. Put another way, Leftists often define themselves as "not-liberals."
The moral outrage of True Believers of the Right and Left leads them to share a second similarity: they see everything as rushing to a huge crisis. They share the feeling that things have become intolerable and can't go on any longer. This sense of crisis is defined as growing immorality and degeneracy on the Right and as intolerable inequality, corruption, and injustice on the Left. However, at the same time, both Right and Left have hope because they believe that things are going to come out all right, that is, the way they want them to.
These feelings of impending doom followed by a new dawn lead the political Right and Left to share the same underlying theory of how history unfolds and how it will end. For both extremes, it is a story of an original paradise that is lost due to one or another mistake or sin, followed by a growing crisis that leads to an apocalypse, which then leads to a regaining of paradise. That is, both Right and Left begin with the idea that human beings once lived in positive, non-conflictual social groups that were, sadly, disturbed by one factor or another, which has led to the current crisis that is soon to reach an apocalyptic climax. This huge climax -- this Armageddon, this revolution, this upheaval -- will be followed by a new positive state of being. It will incorporate some positive aspects of what developed after the primordial human society was left behind.
Where Right and Left differ is in the substance of the matter. Reflecting the differences along the Right-Left dimension, what varies is the nature of the original human social setting, the cause of the problems that developed, and the nature of the resolution. This is best seen by looking at Christianity, which is the underlying theory of many on the far Right, and Marxism, which is the underlying theory of many on the far Left.
|Original state||Primitive Communism||Garden of Eden|
|Problem||Division of labor, private ownership||Sin|
|Conflict||Class conflict||Good vs. Evil|
|Result||Socialism/Communism||Heaven on Earth/Rapture|
Although the two theories of history have very similar structures, their substance is completely different. The Rightist theory is far more individualistic and psychological. The Leftist theory is almost completely group or class oriented, and hence sociological. These differences far overshadow the similarities and drive the two extremes even further apart.
Third, the two extremes share the same story about how the current society is structured. However, they draw very different conclusions about who the good guys and the bad guys are in this shared scenario. The common story line goes like this:
But these similarities in moral fervor and in the narrative structure of the Left and Right's views of history do not fully explain how Leftists often end up in very rigid parties and perhaps eventually willing to call for revolutionary violence or engage in physical attacks on property and/or persons. A larger theory is therefore needed. The starting point for that theory can be found in group dynamics and organizational theory. That is, based on work in social psychology and sociology, it is possible to explain how extreme political groups on the Right and the Left can share many similarities even though the substance of their concerns is very different.
In concluding this wide-ranging essay, I realize that it is only one dimension of the work that needs to be done by political psychologists, political sociologists, and other social scientists to integrate the psychological, social psychological, and sociological levels that will be needed to understand these complex and sensitive issues. Richard Ellis (The Dark Side of the Left) and Janja Lalich (Bounded Choice) provide two starting points on how Leftist groups become hierarchical and sometimes violent.
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