The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America
By Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis.
Oxford University Press, 2023.
Hardcover, 168 pages, $99.
Reviewed by Lee Trepanier.
In school, media, and politics, we are taught that people see the world ideologically. The left-wing worldview is a preference for greater government intervention in the economy, social permissiveness, and an internationalist foreign policy, while the right-wing perspective is a preference for free markets, traditional values, and a realist view of global politics. But, according to Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis in their book, The Myth of Left and Right, this is wrong. The notion that there is a constellation of fixed ideas around which people coalesce—the “essentialist” school of ideology—does not reflect the reality in which people live. Rather, ideologies are “socially constructed, historically contingent, context-dependent, and constantly in flux.” While the Left and the Right in American politics are real and distinct, they are formed around concepts that are themselves “fictions.”
This is a bold declaration, to say the least. Nevertheless, Verlan Lewis, a professor of constitutional studies at Utah Valley University, and Hyrum Lewis, an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University-Idaho, are up to the task to make a powerful case for their claim. Adopting a social theory in which “issues correlate because they are bound by a unifying tribe,” Lewis and Lewis argue that because of socialization people adopt the positions of a tribe first and “only then invent a story that ties all those positions together.” In other words, rather than people being attracted to a set of ideas and then coalescing into a political organization, Lewis and Lewis contend that people become a tribe first and then create an ideology to justify themselves. As they put it, “nearly all of the incessant talk about ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘progressive,” ‘left wing,’ and ‘right wing’ is a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.” It is the American myth of the left and right.
Lewis and Lewis point out that social science supports their contention that social theory, not essentialism, undergirds their account of ideology. For example, G. L. Cohen conducted a study where he had students read a generous welfare proposal but informed some students it was endorsed by the Democratic Party and others the Republican Party. What he discovered was that “for both liberal and conservative participants, the effect of reference group information overrode that of policy content.” If Republicans supported a generous welfare program, then conservatives would support it; and if Democrats endorsed a harsh welfare policy, then liberals would stand behind it.
In foreign affairs, we have seen this when Democratic presidents took America into war, and then liberals supported an interventionist foreign policy—Wilson in World War I, Roosevelt in World War II, and Truman in Korea. When a Republican sent the American military overseas, such as during George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, then conservatives supported an interventionist foreign policy.
In politics, we see this with the Republican Party which moved in a small-government direction under Barry Goldwater, which essentialists called a move to the right. However, when the Republican Party under George W. Bush and Donald Trump expanded government, essentialists also called this a move to the right. Clearly both can’t be right. If essentialists were honest with themselves, they would say, “Tell me what the Republican Party is doing, and I will define them as ‘the right’ and then conclude that the Republican Party has moved to the right.” While this may be rhetorically appealing, it is analytically dishonest.
If ideology is a myth, then who is responsible for it? Lewis and Lewis look towards academics, journalists, and public intellectuals who are responsible for spreading the myth of left and right in American popular culture for the past century. This myth is reinforced by academics whose work unreflectively accepts the essentialist premise of ideology, such as when they describe a certain group as left-wing or a particular individual as right-wing.
The persistence of the essentialist position of ideology is due to a number of factors that Lewis and Lewis cite, such as a heuristic way to understand the world (or what they call “simplicity”). Another reason why the essentialist view of ideology continues to exist is because it is a form of “disguised tribalism.” Ideology allows us to hide the fact that we are really a tribal people and gives us permission to cast blame on, or scapegoat, the other tribe for all of the country’s problems.
One wonders whether today we are post-ideological in our tribal arrangements with the advent of identity politics. Admittedly, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other forms of identity politics tend to skew left, but they do not necessarily have to. More importantly, these groups do not claim any ideological affiliation in their rhetoric. It is simply, as Joshua Mitchell has written, a tribal appeal.
A final factor that Lewis and Lewis reference for the persistence of essentialist ideology is party incentives. When Trump changed the Republican Party’s positions on fiscal, foreign, and trade policy, Republicans had to convince themselves that they were not “blindly following their party leader but following eternal conservative principles.” In each instance, Republicans invented stories to justify these changes. Parties have an incentive to use the essentialist myth to justify a changing of policy positions in order to maintain power. While, as Lewis and Lewis observe, “[t]his is bad for public interest,” it is “great for party interest.”
The consequences of adhering to the essentialist myth of ideology is a lack of intellectual humility, which makes people more dogmatic and extremist, and a confusion about what politics actually represent if Left and Right can no longer be analytically distinct. But even worse are the moral and political consequences where the other ideological party is demonized because their fixed ideas are morally corrupt. It precludes any form of conversation or compromise in politics. Politics is a Manichean contest between good and evil.
To escape this condition, Lewis and Lewis first ask us to recognize that the essentialist position is a myth and then encourage us to go “granular” in our political encounters where we see people as people—multi-dimensional, contradictory, and non-tribal. To do so requires us to change the way we speak and with whom we associate, hopingly finding “healthier” tribes that are pragmatic rather than essentialist in their worldviews. Such a change could lead to “adversarial collaboration” in which different people recognize what they share in common and work together to achieve those goals in spite of other specific differences and disagreements they may have with one another.
The Myth of Left and Right is a quirky but much needed book for today’s conversation about how to push past our differences, disagreements, and political polarization. It is scholarly but accessible and something easily read in an afternoon. While it is short, its impact hopefully will be longer, for our country demands such a book in a time when words like “left” and “right” are not only accusatory labels we paste onto people but, as Lewis and Lewis have shown, essentially meaningless.
Lee Trepanier is Chair and Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is an author of numerous books and is the editor of the Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film. His Twitter handle is @lee_trepanier.
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