I have a friend who recently drove for the day to Sacramento to attend a political rally. My friend is no stranger to rallies; in 2016, after Trump’s inauguration she flew all the way to Washington D.C. for the historic women’s march. She knitted herself a pink hat with little ears. She’s been to rallies about the environment, rallies protesting racism, you could say that she’s just a rallying kind of gal.
Being an advocate for natural health, she went to Sacramento, this time to protest the looming possibility of mandatory vaccines. (Of course, this hasn’t been announced yet, and in fact we don’t even have a vaccine at all for COVID-19. But being an enthusiastic rally-er, she went along as a preventative measure.)
To her shock and surprise, she soon found herself standing next to people wearing MAGA hats. Although she thinks of herself as a liberal—permissive and tolerant—I guess everybody has their limits. She was dismayed.
Events like this have been occurring on a daily basis since the arrival of COVID-19. Besides making some people sick or even die, besides confining the rest of us to our homes with reruns of old TV shows, this virus has also managed to shake up the conventional political spectrum.
I’ve been seeing my most liberal friends happily sharing articles from obscure right wing sites with a reputation for misinformation and propaganda.
Equally, we recently saw a slick and poorly researched “documentary” called “Plandemic” gobbled up and disseminated by these same sites. The filmmaker, Mikki Willis, is the new darling of the far right. Ironically, one of his previous films was to support Bernie Sanders.
The political spectrum we are used to is an axis going from left to right. It began in France soon after the revolution. In 1789, at the first National Assembly, delegates who were in favor of the recently deposed monarch, sat on the right of the president, while those in favor of the revolution— “liberté, égalité, fraternité”—sat on the left.
The reason, explained the Baron de Gauville, a monarchist, was: “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.”
This notion of left and right wing, in the way that we now understand it, didn’t spread to England or the United States until the 20th century, about a hundred years ago.
Although we are used to the apparent political choice by now, it requires us to accept some illogical contradictions.
The right wing “value cluster” means to be religious, conservative, and traditionalist. Right wing people generally favor gun rights and strict immigration laws. They favor a nationalist agenda over globalism, and their staunch belief in capitalism leads them to tolerate financial inequality as an inevitable byproduct. Right wing people are tough on crime and support hierarchy as a way to maintain order, while at the same time favoring minimal government regulation.
The left wing, of course, represents pretty much the opposite of all these values. Left wing people tend to be spiritual or atheist rather than traditionally religious, and pro science. They tend to favor gun control, and look forward to the future (progressive), over maintaining what they see as outdated values from the past. Left wing people are “liberal:” they feel everyone should have the right to live and express themselves as they wish. Left wing people identify as anti-racist, against sexual discrimination, and favor a woman’s right to choose. Left wing people tend to favor globalism over nationalism, and are generally staunch advocates for the environment.
We’ve come to expect certain stereotypes about what kinds of people subscribe to these “value clusters.” But clustering values in this way is highly illogical.
For example, right wing people say they’re pro-life, and would like to outlaw abortion. At the same time, they favor guns and the military, which are for killing people. Equally, right wing people favor tradition, and espouse “conservative” values, and yet are usually the first to minimize the importance of conserving the environment. And, perhaps hardest to understand, right wing people favor organized religion, and yet are tough on crime and immigration, pretty much the exact opposite of the creed of forgiveness and tolerance which Jesus taught.
The left wing camp also contains internal contradictions. For example, liberal people espouse tolerance for all points of view, but can be markedly intolerant of political ideas different than their own. Left wing people espouse inclusivity and anti-discrimination, but are also most widely criticized for being elitist. Liberals advocate the right of each individual to determine their own future, but also favor higher taxation and environmental regulation of business.
When it comes to an election in any western country, we are asked to make this choice. You commit to either the left wing or right wing value cluster, even with their inherent contradictions, or you become a moderate, or independent, which is often labelled as wishy-washy and undecided. “Independent” is often viewed not as a political choice, but as an unwillingness to make such a choice.
If we lean to the left or the right, we become liberal or conservative. Lean a little further and we have socialism or monarchy. Lean even further again, and we have Nazism or communism. Lean all the way, and we’ve arrived at fascism on the right, and anarchy on the left.
The extreme in each direction is a loss of personal liberty, which inevitably then inspires the need to rise up against it in rebellion. This is why conspiracy theories like Mikki Willis’ “Plandemic,” appealed to the extreme right wing, although the filmmaker had previously championed left wing values.
Life under the czar in Russia and life under Stalin both involved a loss of personal liberty. Life under Louis XVI or under Napoleon both entailed supplication.
Left alone and to themselves, with social media to fan the flames, people get connected with their more extreme latent views. Social contact tends to moderate all of us. And so we have been able to witness that the more right wing or left wing anyone gets, the more they start to share some common views.
In fact, many political commentators have been quick to point out that the image of a straight line to represent the left-right spectrum is not quite right. It would be better to depict it as a horseshoe.
The need to rise up against an oppressive force, whether real or imaginary is a preoccupation of all political extremes. The arguments we’ve seen on social media, and the new banding together my friend witnessed traveling to Sacramento, don’t fall along conventional political lines. We are seeing a new spectrum emerging.
Maybe instead of talking about left and right, we should talk about north and south. We’ve seen new value clusters emerging and coming into sharp focus over the last two months.
At one end of the new spectrum, is the belief in science and education: trusting well trained journalists and researchers to do their work with diligence and care. This new camp favors cooperation, particularly among those qualified individuals with something real to offer. The new value cluster represents an optimistic view of the future, a world that we can co-create together. It also advocates emotional restraint and discipline.
This new set of values recognizes the false conclusions we come to when we get overzealous or forget to check our facts. This emerging camp places common values and a shared future as more important than the rights of each individual to do what they please. So, wearing a mask, social distancing, and staying at home during the lockdown, inconvenient and financially difficult as it may be, are seen as worthwhile for the common good.
The other new camp emerging is gathering together people from both the political left and right. It is primarily driven by a deep distrust of authority, and the need to overthrow and rebel. It’s more driven by gut instinct and emotion, and dispels fact checkers as probably paid off by corporations.
This new value cluster doesn’t generally overtly denigrate the common good, but rather sings the song of individual freedom as more important. A distrust of corporations spills over into a distrust of science and journalism: “They’re all paid off by big money.”
The contradictions in values that Donald Trump rode into power with in 2016 is much more clearly understood by the new spectrum than the old. Trump does not embody the traditional values of the GOP. Who could have predicted that evangelical Christians would be chanting support for a man on record for boasting about grabbing women’s genitalia and accused by multiple women of paying them hush money for secret sex?
This makes no sense at all in the old political spectrum, but makes perfect sense in the new one. In many ways, Barack Obama was the first powerful, eloquent voice for the new cluster. Notably, during his 2008 inauguration speech, which lasted eighteen minutes, he didn’t use the word “I” or “me,” once. It was all about “we,” and “us.”
The value clusters you may be called upon to choose between in the coming years may not be so much to do with the choice between capitalism and socialism. You may be called to choose between making personal sacrifices for the well being of your great-grandchildren, not yet born, or the right to personal freedom to pursue your personal dreams.