What Science tells us about Right-Wing Vs Left-Wing People

Why our traditional understanding is wrong

Image Courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/6261650491

Even though our politics is almost universally understood to be divided between left-wing and right-wing politics, there is no universal definition to match it. This is my attempt to define and explain the left vs. right digression in a way that is accurate, precise, and useful. Fortunately, scientists with more time, money, and knowledge have already tackled this problem for us.

Why Define it?

There are some people who think that the whole left-right dichotomy is obsolete. That it no longer serves any purpose. Obviously, I disagree. For ages, observers of politics have noticed that (at least in democracies) there is a tendency for people to support a cluster of issues. A Modern example is that those who support banning abortion also tended to support lower taxes as well as support the death penalty. An example from the progressive period is that those who supported direct election of Senators also supported women’s suffrage as well as a federal income tax.

Why do these issues tend to go together? Obviously, this is not a hard and fast rule that if one supports ‘A’ then one must also support ‘B’. But there is a tendency that cannot be ignored. It is that tendency that I will try to answer and define.

If we can uncover how to recognize that tendency that can be very helpful when putting together a political coalition. You can recognize natural allies and natural opponents.

A secondary reason to define these terms precisely is keep others from appropriating the terms for their own interest. Some folks try to redefine it. They put all the people they dislike on one side and all the “good” people, which includes themselves(of course!), on the other. I don’t have patience for that kind self-serving intellectual dishonesty.

How Not to Define It

Before defining what left-wing and right-wing is, I think it’ll be helpful to define what it isn’t.

Right-wing and left-wing are not synonyms for liberal and conservative in the United States. Nor are they synonyms for socialist and capitalist world wide. Some have a bad habit of using them as synonyms. But those things are only manifestations of left-wing and right-wing. In the United States, modern liberalism is left wing, but there are other left wing groups like socialists. Same with conservatism. They are not the only right-wing movement(e.g. Alt-Right, and Libertarians).

Many people, scholars included, describe the difference as “party of movement”(left) vs “party of order”(right). While this serve as a good rule of thumb, it is not precise enough. This definition breaks down the moment there is a left-wing government being challenged by a right-wing movement. An even worse contradiction is what would they call Marxist Russians who want to restore the Soviet Union back to their imagined Communist glory days? Would that be a left-wing movement or far-right “reactionary”?

Finally, neither left-wing nor right-wing should be viewed as insults. So many articles, especially on the Internet — ever the bastion of high-brow debate — try to define these terms just to score political points. For a poor example “right-wing is freedom, left-wing is control”. I’ve seen some define “right-wing” as a mere synonym “authoritarian”. These definitions are biased writings trying to score points in an argument, Or they are gross simplifications.

Rebuffing the Conventional Wisdom

The last thing to dispel is how most people think of left vs. right. What you were probably taught was that politics has a left-right line. And on it from left to right was Communism->Socialism->Liberalism->Conservatism->Fascism. Where you fall on that line depends on the position you take on issues. I have two major problems with this description.

The first is the idea that certain political philosophies are inherently left, right, or middle. At a single moment in time this appears valid. However, when you look at the revolution of ideas it starts to break down. Social democracy is usually considered leftist. But if you add a touch of religion to it, now you have a Christian Democrat who is considered right wing. Anarchist? You’re left-wing. That is unless you’re anarcho-capitalist. Now you’re right wing. Religious Conservative? You’re right wing…. unless you follow the social gospel, now you’re left wing.

The second problem with the conventional wisdom is that your position on issues places you somewhere on the line. There is no coherent explanation of why the grouping are they way they are. People just felt out that certain ideologies were ‘extreme’ and must be at the far end. Others they felt were ‘moderate’ and put them in the middle. Not a very satisfying justification.

This way of thinking evolved into a more complex theory called the Political Compass. Instead of a single line, it uses two lines. This certainly improved the specificity, but it still didn’t explain why a social democrat is more likely to consider communism, but not fascism. It also tries to place you based on your stance on issues. So, though the theory has evolved a little, it still has the same inherent problems as a single line.

The Morality of Leftists and Rightists?

Over the last 20 years, scientists have started studying American conservatives and liberals to see if there was a predictable difference between the two other than varying political views. As it turns out, they discovered that there is. Two researchers on the forefront of this are George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt.

They both discovered that there is an underlying difference in morals between the two groups. They discovered that neither side was immoral, or that one side was more moral than the other, or that they even have different morals. The difference was in which morality was most used.

Let’s take a look at each of their conclusions.

The Haidt Model

Johnathan Haidt’s research into morality led him and his research partner to conclude that all people have 5 basic sets of morals. Here they are with a brief explanation:

Care/harm: This is the idea of kindness, protecting others, and reacting negatively when someone is harmed unfairly.
Fairness/cheating: Make sure that everyone gets what they deserver
Loyalty/betrayal: Loyal to your team, tribe, sports team, College, Faith, etc. Also a desire to attack those who betray the things they should be loyal to.
Authority/subversion: Do you respect authority, or constantly question it and subvert it?
Sanctity/degradation: Can also be called Purity/disgust. This can be thought of as feeling the same type of disgust for eating rotten fruit, but applied to people who degrade themselves or others.

What Haidt and his fellow researcher discovered is that “right-wing” folks tend to use all 5 of these moral values a similar amount of time. However, “left-wing” folks tended to use the first two(Care and Fairness) a whole lot more.

Just for a quick example. This explains why the right would use a phrase like “sanctity of marriage” when arguing against gays getting married. And, it explains why the left would rarely use “sanctity of nature” when arguing against deforestation.

In this model a “moderate” would be someone who uses Care and Fairness Less than leftists, but more than conservatives. They also may use the other three values: Loyalty, Sanctity, and Authority less than rightists, but less than leftists.

This is a fast and minuscule introduction. If you want to know more about their research, I suggest you check out their website Moral Foundations. Or you can purchase their book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

The George Lakoff Model

Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, is the one that made him famous. However, the one that is of most interest to us is the one he wrote 10 years before Elephant. It’s call Moral Politics: How Liberal and Conservatives Think.

The first interesting thing Lakoff discovered is that, when thinking of politics, use the Metaphor of the nation as a family. They view political leaders as stand-ins for parents or other familial authority figures, and citizens as kind of Children.

The first and most significant thing for the Lakoff model is that Right-Wing and Left-Wing diverge not just in their politics, but how they view the role of a family. (Note: Lakoff is using Liberal and Conservative as stand-ins for Left-Wing and Right Wing)

Deeply embedded in conservative and liberal politics are different models of the family. Conservatism, as we shall see, is based on a Strict Father model, while liberalism is centered around a Nurturant Parent model. These two models of the family give rise to different moral systems and different discourse forms.

The next interesting thing is that both sides conceive of a nation as a metaphor for a family.

The link between family-based morality and politics comes from one of the most common ways we have of conceptualizing what a nation is, namely, as a family. It is the common unconscious, and automatic metaphor of the Nation-as-Family that produces contemporary conservatism from Strict Father morality and contemporary liberalism from Nurturant Parent morality.

So what is this Strict Father and Nurturant Parent mean?

This question is hard to summarize. I’ll highlight the first part of George Lakoff’s description. It is enough to give you the idea of Strict Father Morality

The Strict Father model takes as background the view that life is difficult and that the world is fundamentally dangerous.
<snip>
A traditional nuclear family, with the father having primary responsibility for supporting and protecting the family as well as the authority to set overall family policy. He teaches children right from wrong by setting strict rules for their behavior and enforcing them through punishment.
<snip>
Children must respect and obey their parents, partly for their own safety and partly because by doing so they build character, this is, self-discipline and self-reliance. Love and nurturance are a vital part of family life, but they should never outweigh parental authority, which is itself and expression of love and nurturance — tough love.

Now, here is his Nurturant Parent model.

A family of preferably two parents, but perhaps only one. If two, the parents share household responsibilities.
<snip>
Children develop best through their positive relationships to others, through their contribution to their community, and through the ways in which they realize their potential and find joy in life. Children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others. Support and protection are part of nurturance, and they require strength and courage on the part of parents. The obedience of children comes out of their love and respect for their parents, not out of the fear of punishment.
Open two-way, mutually respectful communication is crucial. If parents’ authority is to be legitimate, they must tell children why their decisions serve the cause of protection and nurturance.

As you can probably already see, once those two different moral models are applied to politics through the “Nation as a Family” metaphor, it causes a lot of clashes between the two groups. Here’s an example of a set of issues that Lakoff describes in Chapter 10:

It is natural for liberals to see the federal government as a strong nurturant parent, responsible for making sure that the basic needs of its citizens are met: food, shelter, education, health care, and opportunities for self-development. A government that lets many of its citizens go hungry, homeless, uneducated, or sick while the majority of its citizens have more, often much more… is an immoral, irresponsible government.
<snip>
Conservatives… to them, social programs amount to coddling people — spoiling them. Instead of having to learn to fend for themselves, people can depend on the public dole. This makes them morally weak, removing the need for self-discipline and will-power. Such moral weakness is a form of immorality.

In this model, Lakoff identifies moderates as people who use both models of the family. In fact, he found that everybody uses both models at different times. The “extremists” just rarely use the other.


What is striking about both the Haidt model and the Lakoff model is that they are pretty accurate when measuring lots of people, and often are used by other scientists and researchers.

You can test the Haidt model by taking a quiz that measures your disgust level. Since left-wing people tend not to have disgust, if you score low, you’ll probably be attracted to Left-Wing movements. Psychologists have run experiments and found that Haidt was right — especially on the disgust trait.

In the case of Lakoff’s model, social scientists use his research to secretly group conservatives and liberals. If running a social experiment about politics, scientists will ask subjects about their thoughts on family and then divide up the groups accordingly. That way the participants don’t become suspicious that the experiment is about politics and behave differently.

Some Answers(finally!)

Which of these two models is more accurate? That, I don’t know. They are both scientists asking the same question, but using two different angles to try and answer it. I would recommend reading both their books and deciding which you like better.

The key takeaway for this is that one’s position on political issues alone does not tell you if they have left or right wing tendencies. One must understand WHY they have come to a certain conclusion.

For instance, A left and right person might (MIGHT!) both oppose amnesty for undocumented workers living in the country. The left winger because it isn’t fair that it might cause wages to sink and hurt other workers. A right winger may want to limit it because they have proved to be ‘undisciplined’ by not waiting like everyone else.

The idea that these two might be similar in their outlooks because of agreement on this one issue is an illusion — A lucky happenstance. Once they move on to other issues, you’ll find that they disagree on more. Because they disagree on their view of family(Lakoff model) or often use different moral foundations (Haidt model).

This understanding can be very useful when trying to build a political movement. Once you understand how to identify left vs right wing tendencies, you can better identify long term friends, and temporary coalitions. All of which I will write about in the future.

Disagree with Haidt’s and Lakoff’s conclusions? Have an example where their theory’s fall apart? Let’s talk about it. I’d love to hear your responses.