Are we witnessing the collapse of the left-right spectrum? That’s a question Damon Linker asks in his latest piece for The Week:
Over the past two years, the ideological spectrum throughout the Western world has begun to break down, with the neoliberal establishment of the former center-left and center-right sharply challenged by a form of anti-establishment (populist) radicalism comprised of forces formerly considered far-left and far-right.
At the very least, this means that the spectrum has shifted into another ideological dimension in which old adversaries suddenly look like allies. So at the establishment end of the new spectrum, neoconservatives (Robert Kagan, Max Boot) come out in support of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and liberals suddenly find that they have quite a lot in common with Mitt Romney and Bill Kristol (like, for instance, a base level of respect for and trust in the federal agencies that make up the intelligence community).
Meanwhile, at the anti-establishment end of the new spectrum, old right-wingers like Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin begin to sense an elective affinity with a far-left subversive like Julian Assange — and left-wing disrupter Glenn Greenwald suddenly finds there’s something to admire in the alt-right fever swamps of Breitbart.
In the U.S., Donald Trump — the lifelong Democrat who ran for and won the White House as a fire-breathing Republican — stands at the head of this new anti-establishment wing of the spectrum, banding together with Hannity, Palin, Assange, and Vladimir Putin in challenging the trustworthiness of the sitting American president and Central Intelligence Agency.
The U.S. has rarely seen major shifts in its political parties and their beliefs, but those shifts have happened. Today seems the most likely time, if any, for such a shift to happen again.
But the question Linker seems to be asking—one many of us are considering—is this: will the parties shift, only to realign and form some new definition of “left” and “right”? Or are we entering a post-party (or at least post-“left” and “right”) era?
Do Party Politics Eviscerate Political Meaning?
Linker seems to lean toward the latter. He writes that “the very terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are beginning to lose their meaning and force in the world.”
The “right” contains a whole medley of individuals whose beliefs may range from the mainstream to the divergent. There are “crunchy cons” and neocons, establishment Republicans and dogged libertarians. Any or all of these folks may call themselves “conservative” or “conservative-leaning.” There are dogged Trump supporters, and vehement “Never Trump” adherents—all labeled “Republican,” or “conservative,” or “right-leaning.”
I am a crunchy con—a localist-leaning, Edmund Burke-loving conservative who enjoys reading Wendell Berry, Russell Kirk, and Wilhelm Röpke. I tend to be more of a noninterventionist, foreign policy-wise. I’m all for a weaker federal government (especially a weaker executive), and for a stronger state and local government. I believe in conserving, in stewardship, in community.
In most cases, this sets me in a camp apart from neocons like Lindsey Graham. I’m not a huge Sarah Palin or Sean Hannity fan. And Donald Trump’s politics seem very far from the Burkean principles I hold dear. So am I still on the “right”? If I am, how well is this label designating and identifying our politics, in reality?
The same could be said of many on the “left.” The term describes a similar medley of contradictory positions and politics. There are progressive-leaning individuals, more classical liberals, and a good assortment of libertarians who might associate themselves with the “left.” Some stood with Hillary, while others were vehemently opposed to her politics. Some liked Bernie Sanders; others disapproved of his socialist positions.
‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ Fit Less Every Day
The point is, the Democratic and Republican parties no longer appeal to a good portion of the American public. Many abstained from voting on Election Day because neither party candidate appealed to them. They were equally disillusioned with “left” and “right.”
As Linker notes, there are some whose votes were influenced by the level of elitism attached to a person’s background and ethos. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton were equally guilty of association with the establishment. Trump and Sanders, despite their radically different policy positions, similarly appealed to voters with their populism.
We’ve also seen a rise in nationalistic versus cosmopolitan tendencies and arguments. The immigration debate often falls along these lines, as do many debates surrounding economic policy.
But there are also many folks who identify with humanitarian or planetary issues they believe important: abortion, economic sustainability, animal rights, human rights crises around the world. Many conservatives have seen the Republican Party desert or ignore one of the issues most important to them and their families: the pro-life issue. For these individuals, a party’s practical platform often matters more than the big-picture philosophies behind it. Many pro-life folks I know would vote for a Democrat in a heartbeat if he or she promised to defund Planned Parenthood.
We Need to Consider the Best Step Forward
So what does this mean, practically, for voters who feel homeless post-2016?
Perhaps we can do some good—and find some bipartisan agreement—by willingly putting labels aside. By having conversations across the aisle, understanding that politics and parties as we currently understand them are shifting and changing.
It’s difficult to know what party realignment (or disintegration) might look like in years to come. But unless the parties as they currently stand begin to shift and change, more and more voters seem likely to walk away from their political representatives. This may not be a bad thing, if it forces us to break the current gridlock in Washington, and bridge some of the disdainful and angry chasms that have plagued our nation of late.
As Linker puts it, this is a “deeply disorienting moment.” But I’m reminded of these words Wendell Berry shared with me in 2015:
I prefer to get along without political labels. They don’t help thought, or my version of thought. Since I’m self-employed and not running for office, I’m free to notice that those political names don’t mean much of anything, and so am free to do without them. I’m free, in short, to be an amateur.
Perhaps those of us who aren’t running for office, who don’t feel satisfied with “left” or “right,” can happily call ourselves amateurs: lovers of family, of community, and of place—without having to throw a “Republican” or “Democrat” on the end of that definition.