What distinguishes the politics and goals of the Left and the Right? Is it just a matter of differing opinions about important issues, or is there some principle at work that would make the difference more fundamental? I’d like to attempt to make a distinction between these political wings, one which I believe should be acceptable to both sides. It will not encompass the whole story, and there are certainly exceptions to the general rule, but the following distinction brings to light an aspect of contemporary politics, especially in the US, that is at work in many of our conflicts but which is often misunderstood.
Here’s the distinction:
Whereas the Left is committed, by principle, to the creation and maintenance of a free and just political space in which all members of a society contribute to the common good–i.e., something like democratic participation–the Right has no such commitment but, rather, sees such a space as a potential means toward some other non-political end, often religious or economic.
What is the principle on which the commitment of the Left is based? It is this:
that the human being is essentially and not accidentally a political being (apart from whatever else it may be also), and thus human freedom entails political freedom.
In my experience, this distinction and this principle are uncontroversial, and both sides would agree that something similar is at work in their politics. Yet, on face value it might seem like I’m making the absurd claim that only the Left is interested in political freedom at all. Doesn’t the Right believe in freedom too? Isn’t it in fact the Right that more often talks about freedoms, while the Left goes on about justice? This is where the confusion lies. The distinction being made is not that only the Left cares about freedom, but that the Left is committed principally to political freedom, based on their view of human nature as essentially political. That the human is essentially political just means that it is a necessary end and good for it to belong to a community and a polis.
It is true that on the surface, judging by certain rhetorical tendencies, it appears that the Right is the champion of freedom and the Left of an agenda to impinge on freedom in order to dole out what it sees as “justice” in various contexts. And this is exactly what the Right accuses the Left of, prioritizing insular agendas over “freedoms”. But the reality is quite the opposite. As it goes in politics, rhetoric taken at face value can be deceptive, and we must further look to actions to find the meaning of ideas in the political sphere. What, then, does the Left mean by “justice” and the Right by “freedom”?
For the Right, freedom is not political. Freedom is the freedom of an individual to tell the society what to do on issues that are otherwise of no public import. It is the domination by the particular over the universal. If the commons and the common good–even the very planet on which human life is sustained!–must be sacrificed, then so be it. And this all follows from the view of human nature as essentially religious, self-interested, sexual, hungry, artistic, etc., but never essentially political. On the other hand, what the Left means by “justice” is just a restatement of the above principle, namely, that actual human freedom entails political freedom. Freedom in the private sphere must correspond to freedom in the public, not because the public serves as defense of the private, but because when it is the human political being that is at stake, freedom is meaningless without its public institution. It’s that simple. Apply the distinction to any major issue.
Recent events have given us a clear example. Whereas the Right is willing to let the institutions of free and democratic society deteriorate in order to institute certain insular agendas which more properly belong to private life, the Left would look beyond certain particular beliefs and opinions of private life in order to defend the free and just political space that it is by principle committed to. Whereas the Right complained for eight years about perceived overreaches of the government into their lives even while they continued to enjoy all their freedoms and practice all their beliefs, the Left immediately rose up when real political freedom was at stake, e.g., when the rights of all people to equal participation in the polis was under threat. Finally, whereas this new Right in the US would happily look to a few authoritarian figures in whom power could be concentrated, relinquishing their own human political freedom to them, for the purpose of instituting certain insular religious or economic interests, the Left on the other hand looks to a leader that will promote the flourishing of human freedom through political participation, whatever may be the issue at stake. This is why the leader on the Left must at least make attempts to promote things like transparency of government and democratic participation, because the principle demands transparency and equal participation for political freedom to be real. And this is why the leader on the Right can disparage transparency, even mock the idea of open communication between leader and citizens (a free press), and his supporters will applaud while chanting “freedom!”.
This is not to say that there aren’t lying authoritarians on the Left also. It’s just an attempt to distinguish a principle which separates Left and Right politics in general and can explain why apparently freedom-loving citizens on the Right could get behind a leader and a program that manifestly demolishes democratic institutions that uphold political freedom. The care of such institutions is not essential but accidental to their view of self and world.
If for a second the Right were to begin to believe that the human being, in its very nature and not just accidentally as a means to institute religious or economic beliefs, is political and needs to sustain a free polis for the sake of its own freedom, it would at once see that what it calls freedom is actually unfreedom, that justice means true political (i.e., universal) freedom, and that an attack on the common good is a blow to the human spirit.