The Differences Between The Left And The Right
September 15, 2020
Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He also holds the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Public Policy. The founding and current editor of National Affairs, he is also a senior editor of The New Atlantis and a contributing editor to National Review.
What follows is a transcript of a discussion where he describes the left and the right temperaments. I found his description very illuminating - and I hate the word "very." I apologize for any thinkos - I used an iPhone app to transcribe the podcast. It did a reasonable job but still required me to do some editing.
After the discussion, I've provided a link to the podcast. Warning - it's two incredibly bright people talking political theory.
One of the ways of thinking about the distinction between left and right, if you want to take the ideological philosophical distinction seriously, is that people on the right start from the premise that human beings are fallen creatures, whether in religious terms literally or simply that we start out imperfect, and need to be formed before we can be free. So that the purpose of our institutions, politics and culture is not so much to liberate us from various forces that are trying to oppress us.
People on the left start with the sense that human beings are born just fine but society is structured in a way that creates power relations that are unjust and that allow the strong to oppress the weak and what we require of our politics instead is a liberation from some of those kinds of power relations. Ultimately people to be liberated in order to be free rather than formed in order to be free.
Both of these premises are true to an extent. A lot of the times our politics is an argument between which of these ways of thinking about the purpose of our institutions is more appropriate for a given situation. It means that often times people on the left view issues as the powerful versus the oppressed and people on the right look at the same issues as consisting of a party of civilization and a party of barbarism. A lot of the disagreements and disputes in our politics are basically one side arguing one question the other side arguing another question and taking the opposition to be making a case for barbarism (the right) and one for oppression (the left) when in fact the premises are very different and the issues could be better understood and maybe the two sides could understand each other better if they saw a bit more of where they each coming from.
I do think that there is such a thing as the right and the left generally speaking in our politics that makes some sense. The right begins from the understanding that there is a lot in our in our society that needs to be protected and guarded and that a lot of the challenge of politics is to protect the good we have. The left begins from the premise there's a lot that needs to be changed and overturned and the purpose of politics is to change and overturn.
I think that even in the Trump era there is still this basic distinction where the right is trying to conserve some things even if sometimes it is to my taste too much of a nostalgic conservation to try to preserve the way of life of the middle of the 20th century rather than institutions and principles and ideals, but it is recognizably the right and it is fighting a recognizable left it is trying to revolutionize our way of life in some meaningful way that.
Trump turns all this over and over and over and over there's no doubt about that Trump is not a conservative in anyway that I could imagine and I am one of those people on the right is very unhappy that Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican party. I think it's a disaster for conservatives but that doesn't mean that there's no such thing as a as a coherent recognizable right and left in American political life.
The most important thing to understand about this moment in our politics, which is a dark moment in our politics, appear to be fighting for their lives and this is a fight that has to be fought moment to moment because if the other side wins then everything is over. That to me as one of the most striking things about the tenor of the contemporary politics. I think it's mistaken. But it is a very palpable sense of panic and alarm and it is a sense of panic and alarm at the other party.
One way to think about what's come unhinged in our political life now is it everybody's fighting very short-term fights because they think that if they lose the immediate struggle then they lose everything. No one is thinking about politics in terms of the day after tomorrow and that's why there's no civility. I think civility begins from the premise that the people who disagree with her still going to be here tomorrow so you're going to have to figure out a way to live with them. It's why we don't do well and thinking about problems that aren't immediate cataclysmic crisis and we have to persuade ourselves of those problems that have to be taken seriously our immediate cataclysmic price is, whether that's the deficit or global climate change. It's why we are not very good at just worrying about things we had to worry about without panicking about them.
There is the sense on the right that feels to the people who feel it very defensive but sounds to the people here than very offense of and I think there are a lot of reasons why we've come to this moment of despair or existential panic in our politics.
I think our political parties have always had these tensions between them although they might be a little sharper nowadays again because of this very confusing factor of Donald Trump. I don't take him to have much of an ideology. Trump confuses any attempt to think about politics at this point but you know we shouldn't let him simply confuse us out of an understanding of the forces that are acting in our political life now which I do think remain recognizably a debate between left and right in which each party.
Something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the way we often conflate two very distinct things when we assign political labels. The first is ideology, which describes our vision of a just society. The second is something less discussed but equally important: temperament. It describes how we approach social problems, how fast we think society can change, and how we understand the constraints upon us.
Yuval Levin is the director of Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, the editor-in-chief of the public policy journal National Affairs, and the author of the upcoming book A Time to Build. Levin is one of the most thoughtful articulators of both conservative temperament and ideology. And, perhaps for that reason, his is one of the most important criticisms of what the conservative movement has become today.
There’s a lot in this conversation, in part because Levin’s book speaks to mine in interesting ways, but among the topics we discuss are:
- The conservative view of human nature
- Why the conservative temperament is increasingly diverging from the conservative movement
- What theories of American politics get wrong about the reality of American life
- The case Levin makes to socialists
- How economic debates are often moral debates in disguise
- Levin’s rebuttal to my book
- The crucial difference between “formative” and “performative” social institutions
- Why the most fundamental problems in American life are cultural, not economic
- Why Levin thinks the New York Times should not allow its journalists to be on Twitter
- Whether we can restore trust in our institutions without changing the incentives and systems that surround them
There’s a lot Levin and I disagree on, but there are few people I learn as much from in disagreement as I learn from him.