The End of Left-Right Politics

The US and several other industrialized nations are seeing a situation where the old political groupings can no longer be described on a left-right axis. Instead the issues have become multi-dimensional and the traditional alliances are flailing around trying to make sense of the changes.

Here are some of the new dimensions.

  1. Secularism vs religion
  2. Ethnic domination vs multi-culturalism
  3. Neo-colonialism vs internationalism
  4. Laissez faire capitalism vs government oversight
  5. Conservation vs growth

To use a recent metaphor, people are picking their dimensions as from a fruit salad. So one can find religious conservationists and secular expansionists as well as the opposite. Alliances are being formed on the basis of one dimension alone. This doesn't translate well to political action.

In the US the two traditional parties are in a state of confusion as they don't know which dimensions to bundle together as a coherent message. Elsewhere the confusion gives rise to a multitude of single dimension political parties. None have a clear mandate and are forced to form coalitions which are similarly unable to develop a coherent philosophy.

Here are some recent examples of the topics which reveal these dimensions.

1. Secularism vs religion. Religious groups (especially in the US and Muslim countries) are seeing their traditional roles as the explainers of the universe challenged by scientific developments. Even the definition of the beginning of life is no longer clear. This has an effect on reproductive health policies, genetic modifications and possible medical consequence. As science assumes a bigger influence, the religious leaders push back by trying to seize political power. The results haven't been pretty. There has arisen a ring of fire, not the one caused by the tectonic plates shifting, but by various groups vying for dominance. This extends throughout the Middle East into Indonesia, the Philippines, many of the former Soviet states and the areas in Africa where states contain more than one significant ethic-religious group.

Even the "enlightened" states in western Europe are at a loss as to how to deal with the push for political power by religious factions. No one would care about head scarves in France if there wasn't an underlying unease that the Muslim part of the population might start to gain political power and promote their ideas outside of their followers.

2. Ethnic domination vs multi-culturalism. The same thing can be seen in the ethnic dimension as in the religious. This is most apparent in a highly multi-cultural society like the US. Ethnic prejudice has long been a theme, but was mostly a minor issue. As long as the political power was in the hand of mainline Protestants the discrimination showed up mostly in employment and public accommodations. Now several new groups are large enough that they are on the verge of seizing regional political control. The most obvious is the Hispanic rise in the Southwest. This is unlike previous regional ethnic power (such as the Irish in Boston) because these new groups contain many people who are visibly different from the traditional view of what a "real American" looks like. There is no question of these people becoming "invisible" as they acculturate as the Irish, German and Italians did 100 years ago. Now it won't be just the 10% of blacks who represent a distinct ethnic group, but the much larger group of Hispanics.

This axis is more than inclusion vs separation, but questions the basic "melting pot" model that the US has had as part of its national creed. Countries which were never exposed to this type of multi-ethnic population such as the Netherlands, parts of Scandinavia and the UK have seen the rise of political groups with an explicit xenophobic foundation.

3. Neo-colonialism vs internationalism. The breakdown of the traditional colonial models during the 20th Century has been replaced by a new neo-colonial arrangement. This has been guided by a number of international bodies which serve to disguise the unequal power of the states involved in trade. This began with the Marshall Plan then evolved into institutions like the WTO, World Bank and the IMF. These pretend to be international but are really mechanisms for the industrialized world to control markets and raw materials from elsewhere. Much of this neo-colonialism is covered by the popular catch phrase of "globalization", but there are other aspects beside trade. Aside from trade there are the issues of political philosophy. Should the industrialized states deal with dictatorships and non-capitalist states as they find them or should they attempt to force them to adopt a more western type of society? Pushing for these changes spills into the prior points of religious and ethnic domination of local societies. Such groups, which have traditionally controlled internal policies, now see their positions threatened by internationalism and secularism.

In the US and much of the EU this shows itself as the battles between the "neo-con" internationalists who want to use force, if necessary, to carry out their goals and those who favor negotiation, accommodation or even isolation.

4. Laissez faire capitalism vs government oversight. The same impulses that control the neo-colonial agenda are seen domestically. Should economies be regulated or unregulated? Is the role of government just one of enforcing property rights or does it have a social role as well? In many cases the appeal to laissez faire has resulted (deliberately or not) in rising social and wealth inequality and the substitution of policies favoring wealth accumulation over those of social concern. In extreme cases (as in the US currently) fundamental investments in infrastructure and health and welfare have been ignored in place of policies favoring financial manipulation. This has led to a small, but increasingly vocal, revival of the populist sentiments that arose in the prior Gilded Age. Even places like the UK, which had a very strong socialist/labor bent in the 20th Century, have seen a new wealthy class emerge and the concerns of organized labor become marginalized.

Differences between economic and political philosophy are more than of just academic interest. History has shown that wide disparities in wealth and in the prospects for the underclass to advance are a good indicator of impending civil disturbance. The overthrow of the oligarchy in the Philippines and several Latin American states are examples that have worked out fairly well, but the suppression of the same forces in most of Africa and the former Soviet states shows that things can just as easily turn out badly. The US hasn't seen riots caused by economic and social despair for several decades, but France has.

5. Conservation vs growth. The rise of economic inequality and the rise of a new wealthy class in India and China has highlight another dimension. This is the one which favors "growth" and ignores the impact on the earth. The alternative point of view has practically no supporters. Even those who understand that overpopulation, economic growth in the developing nations, excessive consumerism and waste in the industrialized countries and the depletion of natural resources require attention, still favor growth. They just preach "smart" growth and mild conservation. No one is ready to admit that the world may be reaching its carrying capacity. When this is exceeded disaster follows. The first choke point seems to be the availability of fresh water. The sustainable consumption level has already been exceed in the American Southwest, parts of Africa and much of China. Heroic efforts of dams and water diversion will only provide a few decades of respite before the problem becomes insoluble.

The use of fossil fuels and the decline in supplies (or the rise in price as demand increases) will also make the growth paradigm fail. The axis of this dimension runs from "preservation of our way of life" at one end to the simplicity movement at the other. Preservation implies support of a strong military sector as shortages in materials means that those that have them will be increasingly unwilling to give them up at unfavorable terms and thus, will have to "persuaded". The conservationists and "smart growth" groups represent a middle ground. They are willing to make some changes in consumption patterns as long as there is no real sacrifice involved. These are the folks who are willing to switch to a hybrid SUV, but not to mass transit. There is also no real support for lowering the consumerist outlook of industrialized societies and downsizing the military effort needed to support it.

The conclusion is that the traditional divisions between left and right are no longer adequate labels. Whether new dominant ideologies will emerge from the present confusion is unclear. What is clear is that the need to fit politicians and their followers into simplistic compartments by the media is breaking down. Such pigeon-holing is also slowing down progress towards fostering new ideas. New ideas imply that the old alignments are not appropriate. .

Moral: The longer outdated models are held on to, the slower necessary change will happen


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Copyright © 2006 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.