In today`s world, the battles for the control of state institutions are organized around two primary visions that are defined, broadly speaking, as “right” and “left”. In developed countries like United States and Western Europe, the terms right and left are commonly used to describe political ideas, postures, attitudes and preferences. Their use is so ubiquitous that one can anticipate, almost unmistakably, how each political sector will react to the issues of the moment. The contending ideologies, however, are pluralistic in the sense that they incorporate a multiplicity of sensibilities, interests, organizations, hierarchies of values and levels of radicalism. It is an error to think that they are monolithic political sectors, even when they group within single political parties. In Spain, for example, all right-wing sectors, from the most moderate to the most rigidly ideological, including the heirs of Franco`s regime, are part of the Popular Party (PP).
In view of their heterogeneity, “adjectives” are usually added to mark the difference between variations such as: extreme right, religious right, traditional right, among others. We hear of a new and old left, a revolutionary left, a moderate left, a liberal left, etc. Other terms that work on their own are placed automatically in one of the two larger fields: conservatives and liberal, reactionaries and socialists, authoritarians and progressives, fascists and liberals, etc.
It is natural, therefore, that the configuration of poitical parties follows this “ideological” antinomy. In the United States, to mention a case, the Democratic Party leans toward the left and the Republican to the right. These two parties work for electoral purposes around temporary formal and informal alliances that vary according to strategic circumstances. In other countries, the left is generally incorporated into social democratic parties, while the right joins the Christian democrat parties.
The dichotomy between right and left is so universal in today`s world that the moderates who insist on being placed between them are labeled center or centrist; that is, they are placed in an intermediate place between the two contending sides. This moderate sector operates as center-right when it leans more towards the conservative-authoritarian side, and as center-left when it sympathizes with the progressive-liberal postures. In Mexico, for example, there are three main parties: the left (Democratic Revolution Party or PRD), one that represents the right (National Action Party or PAN), and the political center (the Revolutionary Institutional Party or PRI).
In spite of the enormous diversity of interests and sensibilities of the sectors that constitute each field, they do share a common mentality, that eventually differenciate the right from the left. In ordinary political dialogue, reinforced by media habits, it is common to refer to these broad fields as ideologies. Such denomination presumes that they respond to theoretical and ethical constructions with particular world visions. But in fact they are more mentalities than philosophical doctrines. It is evident that ideas, while the product of thought, creative imagination, and the coherent application of a critical sensibility, support particular historical interpretations and theoretical formulations. But, unfortunately, these do not occupy a preponderant place in modem politics. The polarity between right and left responds rather to the mentalities that correspond to human and political perceptions and identities. These mentalities, while they are part of the world of life (lebenswelt) and are perpetuated in a non critical way by the socialization process (including media and electoral languages), are nevertheless unaware of the hidden structures that conform social realities and define the limits of popular beliefs.
This said, it is also true that both the right and left have benefited from complex ideas, visions and theoretical schemes, although frequently they are reduced to simplistic expressions by the media-electoral process, with the primary purpose of validating party identities. In the electoral battles that constitute the primary arena of power struggles within democratic systems, the practice of public debate usually sticks to the dominant mentalities in each side by means of simple propositions and loyalty to particular ideologies or parties.
An American jurist once said that pornography was difficult to define but easy to detect. Something similar happens with the mentalities of the political left and right: it is difficult to provide a complete and coherent definition, but it`s easy to recognize their daily expressions. The most common way of distinguishing them is observing their reactions when faced with the contentious public issues of the moment. If a questionnaire is prepared about current issues in each country, almost all citizens will be able to distinguish between a rightist and a leftist according to their answers.
Neither the left nor the right is defined by specific political programs because these are, as a rule, answers to particular junctures of time and space in continuous transformation. To look for answers in the programmatic battles of political sectors, therefore, leads to confusion and incoherence. We should, instead, center our attention on the general notions that support programmatic answers. In other words, maybe the most appropriate way to summarize the fundamental difference between the left and the right today is not so much by means of the postures assumed when faced with particular public issues, but by identifying the principles, values, and visions that define each field.
Left-wing: In general, the left-wing promotes the expansion of political rights, equality, secular, social organization, the decentralization of power, equal representation under the law, the daily participation of citizens and civil society in the issues of state and the use of dialogue and compromise to solve conflicts. The distrust of power and the belief in the human being`s creative ability to transform his circumstances in a free political environment are at the base of the left-wing mentality.
Right-wing: On the other hand, the right-wing tends to encourage order and stability around the concept of authority. The propensity of human beings to social indiscipline and chaos requires the presence of a functional authority on all levels: in family, in social institutions, and mainly in the state; hence its preference for centralized governments. The right-wing is also prone to trust traditional social stratification, to value privilege over equality in the distribution of economic and political power, to distrust change because of its risk component, and to rely on the use of force more than on the performance of political and juridical autonomous institutions. In formal terms, the right perceives politics as a permanent battle between enemies, internal and external, that forces the legal system to incorporate practices of exception on a daily basis.
The specific manifestations of these two mentalities are multiple, complex and, occasionally, contradictory. For example, in Adam Smith`s time, at the end of the 18th century, the interference of the state in the economy was in line with mercantilist reactionary practices, while the alternative of free trade was considered liberal and modern. Later on, however, in view of the consequences of social depredation by private capital during the Industrial Revolution, the leftist, humanist, liberal thought ended up believing that the goverment intervention in the economy was the only way of controlling the excesses of the market economy. The right-wing went on to claim an autonomous space for free commerce which the state should respect and endorse.
The matter is also complicated when faced with cultural issues. It is easy to recognize the respective mentalities when the topic is censorship. Nevertheless, that is not the case when the issue of the social function of art is invoked.
The important thing, without forgetting the amount of contradictions and incoherencies, is to keep in mind that even if we reject absolute binary structures, the dichotomy between right and left is a political reality of our times that we cannot escape, but rather must incorporate in the daily world of politics. It is not a reduction to mythical categories, but a useful way of directing political action.
Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Centro de Investigación y Política Pública
Author: Proyectos FPH
Published: January 22, 2008.
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