Trump supporters gathered at the Washington State Capitol in Olympia, in April 2020. | Photo Credit: The New York Times

Zero-Gravity: How Modern Politics Departs from the Traditional Left-Right Spectrum

These days, it’s easy to feel lost in the unpredictability of global politics. Moreover, modern politics in Western democracies seem to no longer adhere to textbook ideas of political organisation. What’s behind political ideologies in recent years? What fuels the increasing divide between Left and Right? The IAS Gazette investigates how governments can address extreme polarisation and find their political centre of gravity once again.

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The current state of the world seems to have most of us in a tailspin. 

With decisions such as the overturning of Roe v Wade, internal legislative conflict, and increasing public dissatisfaction and mobilisation against governments, the global stage appears fraught with permanent uncertainty. 

Present-day politics have departed from even modern theories of political organisation, the contemporary Left-Right spectrum and participation.

In this piece, I will consider how modern Western politics has changed in recent years due to extreme polarisation, the rise of identity politics and a collective cognition that erodes rational voting. 

By understanding the problem at its roots, governments may overcome these present-day challenges and find a political centre of gravity once more. 

The Left-Right Spectrum According to Theorists

While the origins of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ may trace back to the convenient seating plans of the French Assembly, the interpretations of each side of the spectrum has evolved multiple times throughout history. 

For example, today, the ‘left’ is associated with being progressive, and the ‘right’ with conservatism. The state of flux simply is explained by the spectrum itself being an informal measure of one’s political position. Its convenience and appeal stem from the fact that most voters can identify their relative position along the spectrum, allowing it to be a tool for political analysis and a massively-popularised term in its discourse. 

In theory, political parties organise themselves to capture voters across the spectrum while simultaneously shaping and influencing voters’ preferences through their actions. This symbiotic relationship is one of the hallmarks of political organisation. An ideal painted by textbooks, therefore, would have the rational voter listen, deliberate and advocate for their preferences—which would align on the spectrum with a party campaigning for those preferences.

Over the past decade however, parties in liberal democracies, particularly the United States, have had their parties increasingly polarised on the extreme left and right. According to a study published by the Manifesto Project, the Republican Party leans much farther right than most conservative parties in Europe and North America, including France’s National Rally and Britain’s Independence parties, due to their continual commitment to ‘traditional morality’ and a “national way of life”. 

The Republican party’s position has dragged the United States’ political centre further right, as a result.

The Republican Party vs. its Right-Wing Counterparts. | Photo Credit: The New York Times

Right-wing parties also share a “nativist, working-class populism” and position themselves as defenders of the ‘traditional people’ from globalisation and immigration, according to Thomas Greven, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin. The United States’ situation is even more precarious when one considers they are a two-party system—small, far-right populist parties may be alternatives to the conventional groups in European countries, but in the US, they are the convention.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, lies much closer to median liberal parties, according to an analysis of the same study. Still, they too have shifted further left as of recent years. 

The Democratic and Republican party manifestos relative to the median. | Photo Credit: The New York Times

So what exactly is behind these trends?

Two possible explanations lie with the Left and Right’s ability to mutually fuel polarisation, and the rise of identity politics in democracies. The resultant polarisation and continually contrasting ideologies may be the key to understanding the deep rift in views held by voters on both ends of the spectrum, and its potential dramatic consequences. 

Identity Politics and Collective Cognition

Protestors at an Anti-Brexit march in Central London, in July 2019. | Photo Credit: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Although currently understood to be left-wing behaviour, identity politics also governs much activity on the Right as well—the Trump electoral campaigns and Brexit are two incidences of its tangible manifestations. If you go back even further, one may chance upon Nixon’s Southern Strategy which realigned White, conservative voters to the Republican party.

Identity politics describes when people adopt political positions based on social group membership, usually according to ethnicity, race, sexuality or religion, rather than on strategic policy considerations. The past decade has also seen many members of the middle or working class vote for right-wing parties—a change from when working class preferences were traditionally understood to be championed by parties on the Left. 

As the spectrum becomes increasingly polarised, voters have been increasingly voting based on an emotional connection to right-wing parties rather than a serious consideration of a party’s views relative to their own. Such a departure goes beyond the  differences between textbook ‘strategic’ voting based on supporting the party closest to one’s policy prefrernces, and ‘cleavage’ voting based on emotinal attachments to a party or social group; identity politics may be associated with opening doors to populism, nationalism and xenophobic tendencies on top simply voting along class lines as the cleavage model suggests. 

The mechanisms of identity politics are mainly psychological. American political economist Francis Fukuyama highlights Right-wing supporters’ fear and feeling “invisible” in one’s society in particular. He suggests that the concept of identity revolves around self-esteem, and anything that threatens one’s esteem and ‘undervalues’ them leads to feelings of resentment and anger. 

In a political context, the Left’s increasing shift towards representing minority interests, protecting individual liberties, and adopting pro-immigration stances threaten the existing status of middle-class members. The resultant fear currently fuels America’s damaging ‘Us vs Them’ mentality. Here, Fukuyama points out that much of Trump’s voter base consisted of working-class, predominantly White voters who were disgruntled by the Democratic Party’s consideration of minorities, and White working women that felt they no longer addressed their concerns adequately—or as the Internet has taken to calling them—‘Karens’.

Republican Trump supporters at an anti-immigration protest in 2018. | Photo Credit: Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images

As The Economist wrote, “The resentful citizens fearing loss of middle-class status point an accusatory finger upward to the elites, to whom they are invisible, but also downward toward the poor, whom they feel are undeserving and being unfairly favoured.”

This mentality ties into the idea that political parties’ increasing polarisation are mutually-reinforcing. That is, the further Left progressive parties go, the more reactionary and reinforced right-wing ideology becomes. 

In the most serious cases, one may liken the situation to the ‘cumulative extremism’ described by political scientist Roger Eatwell in the early 2000s, where geographic proximity between clashing social groups in Northern Ireland and parts of Britain resulted in escalating reactions as they responded to the prejudice and actions of each other. While Eatwell’s analysis may be limited in scope, it can be used to understand why right-wing voters and politicians seem to have seemingly opposite reactions to parties on the Left. 

As these ideologies grow, voters tap into a collective cognition—a group based identity that, especially when helmed by populist leaders, bypasses rational voting for resolute calls for nationalism and the protection of their personal interests from the Left. 

The resurgence of identity politics may thus serve as an explanation for the seemingly bizarre opinions of right-wing voters, and or even their often inflammatory statements.

“A lot of liberal commentators look down on people like me,” a Republican voter from Louisiana said. “We can’t say the N-word. We wouldn’t want to; it’s demeaning. So why do liberal commentators feel so free to use the R-word [redneck]?”

Finding the Centre of Gravity

Left and Right polarisation. | Photo Credit: Cagle Cartoons

While understanding the Left and Right in terms of ideology is insightful, we still need a viable solution to the widening divergence between them. 

Fukuyama suggests that parties would be able to recapture audiences if they produced economic policies that are broadly beneficial. 

While at first his solution seems meagre to be able to overcome identity politics, his argument is bolstered when one considers that economic status can be closely related to identity, such as in the aforementioned case of the American middle-class.

He also advocates for a ‘creedal’ identity based on shared values which can be adopted across cleavages instead of purely biological factors like ethnicity. 

Still, voters also need to revert to a more nuanced understanding of the political process through educating themselves and being aware of their tendencies to vote based on social membership. 

Ultimately, however, none of those changes would be possible without parties finding their political centre once again. Parties on the Left can do so by building platforms that do not appear to cater to minority interests only, while those on the Right should consider adopting more moderate policies.

A nod to this idea in the United States may be signified by the election of Joe Biden as a more ‘moderate liberal’ presidential candidate, as well as the 2021 bipartisan Infrastructure Deal which—although admittedly slashed much of Biden’s proposed climate proposals—provides opportunities to meet decarbonisation goals and boost electric vehicle usage. 

Moreover, the symbiotic nature of political organisation renders it impractical for voters to shift their spectral position significantly without their parties doing so first.

A centrist position is often argued to be politically useless; parties in the middle with broader appeal may struggle to implement change, and may adopt an unconvincing set of policies if they are based purely on positional centrism relative to other parties. On the other hand, they may be able to ground policies proposed by the Left and Right. 

This does not mean parties on both sides need to become Centrist parties, rather their pragmatic tactics may be necessary if polarised governments are to resume beneficial discourse and policy-making that does not inherently damage the status of another. 

Parties need to rediscover their centre of gravity—and in doing so, reclaim a healthy, functional democracy.

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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