The old Left versus Right view of politics is on its last legs, but what to replace it with? Liberty versus Authority? Progress versus Tradition? Open versus Closed?
Thomas Chatterton Williams, the American journalist and cultural critic, has a new proposal:
Williams is an anti-woke liberal, so I can see why he’d want to distinguish himself both from the woke Left and the populist Right. His proposed “binary” not only achieves that, but it also pulls off the trick of grouping the extremists together. It’s a new take on the old horseshoe theory of politics in which the political spectrum isn’t a straight line, but bent round so that two extremes nearly touch one another.
But for all the similarities between swivel-eyed ideologues of whatever stripe, I don’t think we’ll ever see the political spectrum redefined in the way Williams would like.
Politics is always and everywhere defined by identities — it is never a contest between those who embrace and those who reject identity as a general ideological concept. For most people identity isn’t a matter of ideology at all, but more about feelings of belonging and solidarity. The specific divide varies with time and place. For instance, it might be class-based or generational or geographical, but whatever the distinction, any ideological labels are of secondary importance. Indeed, you might see a group of voters switch from a party on one side of the ideological spectrum to a party on the other if they feel that would better reflect their identity. The result of the 2019 UK general election is a prime example of that.
Another reason why we won’t see politics reorganised around universalist and identitarian poles is that these two positions aren’t quite so opposed as they might seem. Obviously, there’s a fundamental divide between those who recognise the full humanity of every person and those who don’t, but within the envelope of decency — one has to recognise that we naturally identify more closely with our own family than other families and with our own nation more than other nations. There are many precious things that are universally true of all human beings and the need for special connections is one of them.
Obviously, our loyalties to those with whom we most identity can be twisted into something hideous, but then so can universalism. A society where no one has any special loyalties except to society as a whole would be deeply dystopian. Indeed, it would resemble Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where “everyone belongs to everyone else”.
So, if there really is a political spectrum between identity and the universal, then put me down as middle-of-the-road.