Left and Right

The Left-Right Spectrum Is Mostly Meaningless

The political landscape doesn’t fit on a simple map.


Here is one version of the left-right spectrum, as described in 1975 by a former Barry Goldwater speechwriter who had left the conservative movement to break bread with Black Panthers and Wobblies. The far right, Karl Hess wrote in Dear America, was the realm of “monarchy, absolute dictatorships, and other forms of absolutely authoritarian rule,” be they fascist or Stalinist or anything else. The left, conversely, favored “the distribution of power into the maximum number of hands.” And the “farthest left you can go, historically at any rate, is anarchism—the total opposition to any institutionalized power.”

Here is an alternate spectrum, presented four years earlier by two members of the John Birch Society. “Communism is, by definition, total government,” Gary Allen and Larry Abraham declared in None Dare Call It Conspiracy. “If you have total government it makes little difference whether you call it Communism, Fascism, Socialism, Caesarism or Pharaohism.” And if “total government (by any of its pseudonyms) stands on the far Left, then by logic the far Right should represent anarchy, or no government.” On the right side of the spectrum, but not as far right as anarchism, was their preferred system: “a Constitutional Republic with a very limited government.”

As you no doubt noticed, these two maps are basically mirror images. Oh, you’ll find little differences if you probe the details. When Hess discussed late Maoist China, for example, he made refinements that the Birchers might discard, distinguishing the party bureaucracy (“much more to the right”) from the rambunctious countryside (“very far to the left”). But both books defined the spectrum in essentially the same terms. They just couldn’t agree on that minor little matter of which way is left and which is right.

Each of those maps has its quirks. When the Bircher duo put anarchy on the far right, they didn’t merely mean free market anarchists of the Murray Rothbard sort: The only anarchist their book mentioned by name was the old-school anarcho-collectivist Mikhail Bakunin, who most people would call a radical leftist. Hess, meanwhile, conceded that his configuration puts the average liberal Democrat “to the right of many conservatives.” Charming as it is for Goldwater’s ex-speechwriter to conclude that his old boss was to the left of Lyndon Johnson, this idea would be a hard sell to most Americans.


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