The Nature of Political Left-Right Ideologies, Liberty, and the Human Condition
What we call the political left and right are an outgrowth of liberty and the human condition. Once people are free to express themselves, they will create a left and right (because left and right are a reflection of human nature). This is essentially true for any issue or debate, be it national politics, a local community issue or even a family or other small group issue.
The question then becomes “why is this the case?” That is the metaphysical question we theorize on below.
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties” – Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee 1824
“Men have differed in opinion and been divided into parties by these opinions from the first origin of societies, and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak. The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed through all time. Whether the power of the people or that of the [aristocracy] should prevail were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions, as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms of Whig [liberal] and Tory [conservative] belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.” —Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:279 on politics as a naturally occurring system.
TIP: Liberals and conservatives tend to have different neurological features (at least according to studies). Metaphorically speaking, and speaking to the strategies used to “play to the base” of each U.S. political party: Although both major U.S. parties speak to their base on many intellectual and logical issues, in terms of emotion, both parties use political emotion to “steer the ship” in their direction (to “get votes” so they can “make laws”). Although it can and does change issue to issue, conservatives often play to our “reptile brain” (neocortex), playing off our anger and fear. Meanwhile, while liberals do that to some degree as well, they more-so tend to play to our sympathy and empathy (our “mammal brain;” our hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala). Using gender-normative terms as a metaphor, conservatives speak to the archetypical male aspects of humans, and liberals to the female. This strategy of playing to political emotion, the studies on neurology, and the often arising two parties of history (patricians and plebs, Tories and Whigs, Jacobins and The Ancien Régime, Communists and Fascists, etc) all point to this idea that “the political left and right are naturally occurring” to some degree.
NOTE: In the same vein of this line of theorizing, we can say that politics is also naturally occurring. When one or more people need to “work something out” or divide labor or resources, or begin the process of making decisions that apply to members of a group (even if that group is two people), politics arises as do other social systems like economics. Thus, this page looks at the idea that not only is politics naturally occurring, but the political left and right are too.
Introduction to Left-Right Politics as a Naturally Occurring Social System and Their Relation to the Male and Female Archetypes
Consider, on any single issue a person will either want to conserve or want progress. They will either want liberty or order. They will either want an authoritative solution or not. They will either want an equal solution or a less than equal one. They’ll either want cooperation or competition. They’ll either think emotionally or rationally and either use sense or sensibility. They’ll either favor peace or war. They’ll either think their fellow citizen mostly good, or mostly not… and they will likely support legislation and political figures accordingly.
These fundamental stances on positions are what create that which we call left and right, liberal and conservative, and progressive and conservative (traditional). These fundamental stances also seem to (interestingly) line up with the two fundamental archetypes “male” and “female” (like a yin-yang as a metaphor, not a statement on gender norms).
Thus, this leaves us with the speculative hypothesis “the male / female archetypes speak to the political right and left respectively.”
Here we are saying liberal, left, and democracy (the left-wing ideologies) are more like the classical “female” archetype (favoring compassion over strictness, favoring equality over rugged individualism, etc), and right, conservative, and monarchy (the right-wing ideologies) are more like the male (favoring competition over cooperation, favoring sense over sensibility, etc; see the basics of left-right if you need more clarification on terms).
In other words, we are positing that these natural positions on issues we call the political left and right aren’t a convention at their core, they are naturally occurring social systems from which conventions (like political parties and policies) arise.
This is to say, the political left and right seem to be physis or natural, not purely nomos or normative convention.
They are, in this sense, as close to the heart of politics as an economy or the spoken language. After all, politics itself, economy, and spoken language are all naturally occurring (all arising from the needs of people in social situations, just as naturally as the genetic sexes arise from genetic needs).
Some aspects of politics are conventional and, by extension, aspects of what we call left or right are conventional. The underlying duality is naturally occurring; it is a natural human response to social situations that require cooperation and competition or any type of social organization. This can be true in any social group from two cavemen stumbling upon the same berries, to a family, to a village, or a nation.
Expanding on this, we can say not only what we call the political left and right, but the underlying forces behind liberalism and conservatism, democracy and monarchy, fascism and communism, free-market economics and socialism, and many related politic ideologies and principles that manifest as dualities are, at their core, an advent of naturally occurring aspects of the human condition manifesting as views on economics, politics, and the social structure.
TIP: Marx’s theory that socioeconomic factions (classes based on the factors of production in any historic cycle), the thesis and antithesis, create a synthesis (thereby moving society to the next cycle) works well as a lose metaphor here. If the tension between worker and elite resolves into a new historic cycle, then we should ask ourselves, “how does the natural tension of male and female resolve?” If one fundamental duality has such an effect, shouldn’t other fundamental dualities? Does it resolve in the political sphere by demanding systems republican and democrat? Or does the tension never resolve and instead simply drives any historic cycle (ancient or modern)? Does the will of the stronger of body (male) or heart (female) win out? Or is there more to it?
TIP: The political strategy of the modern parties uses emotion to rally support from its base. Conservatives use fear and anger, negative “male” emotions, liberals use empathy and anger, “female” emotions. As tricky of a tightrope as it is to walk, the male/female metaphor is really useful to consider in left-right politics.
TIP: While labels might have been given by past thinkers, the concepts behind the labels we use aren’t “human convention” they are “naturally occurring.”
The Male and Female as a Metaphor
The easiest way to think of the two basic naturally occurring political positions is that left is like the yin force and right is like the yang force (in the metaphoric sense, with the complexities of non-binary sexuality ignored for a moment for the sake of metaphor; although I do wonder if this is all related to sex hormones in some ways, after-all both sexes share them in different amounts).
Here, in terms of the metaphor, right-wing is the yang-male, driven by yang emotion, thinking, wants, and fears and the left-wing is the yin-female, driven by yin emotion, thinking, wants, and fears. These two equal and opposite archetypes complete each other when they are in a perfect union, and they imbalance each other and cause the pendulum to swing wildly when they are out of balance.
The conflict of Fascist and Communist or Republican and Democrat can be explained this way, at least in metaphor, when they do or don’t find balance between polarizing planks and stances.
By understanding the yin and yang archetypes as metaphors for the fundamental political dichotomies, we can not only see how they are natural; we can create a useful political theory (like our left-right theory, our conservative-liberal theory, or a theory of classical governments).
As one can gather from looking at a Yin Yang, the male and female are longstanding metaphors for the basic qualities of human beings.
Here I don’t mean that they are representative of our diverse 7.2 plus billion in-action, rather I mean that they work as metaphorical synonyms for the forces “at the core” of a naturally occurring duality.
They are the two pigments out of which complex portraits of people are created (so to speak).
- The left tends to err toward liberty, equality, democracy, sensitivity, fairness, empathy, and related emotions.
- And, the right tends to err toward authority, order, monarchy, honor, rationalism, strength and related emotions.
TIP: There is some complication above, for example, a mother may want to protect you and be authoritative in that way, and a father may let you fall and hurt yourself to learn and be liberal in that way. The metaphor still works, as the protector mother is left in terms of compassion but right in terms of authority (social liberalism), and the father is liberal within the bounds of his ruleset. He didn’t say you were free to play dress up; he said you were free to fall down and learn from your mistakes even if it meant danger and pain. You need to think through how a specific term relates to a specific situation. I’ve found in my thinking about the subject that the general male-female split is a good starting point for understanding the natural aspects of the political left-right.
NOTE: Another metaphor that works well, but avoids any accusations of sexism, is the Child and Parent relationship. Logically then, using the family as a metaphor works. The social contract theorists typically use the family as a metaphor for the state. In all cases, we want simple metaphors that work to discuss real complex concepts. In this case, not only does it work as a metaphor; it also speaks to a natural element of human psychology which, biologically speaking, is of course affected by the male and female hormones, and with children, by the maturation or lack thereof of children.
Take a single policy issue, then take a male or female stance on it, and you’ll have yourself the basis of left or right political ideology. Pair a bunch of those planks together, and you’ll have yourself a complex “mixed” ideology fit to form coalitions.
I know that some will reject this male-female, yin-yang split as being sexist, but that misses the point.
We can understand this fundamental male-female duality like the Taoists if that helps, or like astrologists, or in terms of left and right. We can even think of the effects of estrogen and testosterone and the complex shades those create along with the social conventions that arise from this.
In other words, we are looking at a fundamental two-choice system that is common to all and can be used as a metaphor. I happen to think that male and female is the most sensical and common, but feel free to transpose the theory onto something less problematic.
Our metaphor is not a statement on the nature of gender and sex, but only a metaphor. The left can be said to be analogous to feminine qualities, and the right to the masculine.
Where the mythologically absolute female is sensitive, caring, passive, and emotion-based favoring equality of the family and the liberty of the children, and the mythologically absolute male is aggressive, individualistic, and reason-based is favoring hierarchy and order in the family, acting more out of duty and honor than compassion.
We can call the Gods Venus and Mars emblematic of these forces, but even the mythology of those Gods paints a more complex picture than we want for our metaphor. We want to be able to place all extremes in two boxes to find a “tempered mean.” We want to create a useful duality-metaphor.
The Aristotelian table below will help illustrate what we mean by that [NOTE: the tempered mean is meant to show correctness, and the left and right are meant to illustrate absolutist positions]:
|SPHERE OF ACTION||MALE – RIGHT||TEMPERED LEFT-RIGHT MEAN||FEMALE – LEFT|
|In-Group / out-Group||Individuals||Respect for Both||Collectives|
|Sense and Sensibility||Logic and Reason (Realism, Sense)||Hume’s Fork||Empathy and Morality (Idealism, Sensibility)|
|Strictness||Order||Principled and lawful||Freedom|
NOTE ON THE ABOVE: This is not a full list, it is an example of virtues at the core of left-right. The idea of using the sexes as a metaphor speaks to the equality of the sexes, but others may be putt off by it. Feel free to swap out the terms with others as noted. Remember real people and real social systems are complex and “mixed,” this basic duality metaphor helps us understand real and complex people and social systems by oversimplifying that complexity for the sake of creating useful models. Our useful model acts as a set of principles that we can check any political information against as a sort of ultimate code for political life. We don’t have to remember much about politics if we have a good model like the one above.
LEFT-RIGHT GOVERNMENTS: In governments, the left is toward Pure Democracy/Anarchy and the right toward Monarchy/Despotism. The balanced position (the just position) then being Aristocracy/Oligarchy, or more specifically, “the Republic” (not “the Republican party,” rather “a mixed-Republic” for which any just party stands). See a theory on the types of governments.
NOTE: Liberty may seem like a “male” quality, but when compared to the way an archetypical King feels about order and hierarchy, from that perspective, we can certainly see how it is “a female quality” (typically symbolized by Athena, Goddess of Liberty or her comparatives).
GIVEN THE ABOVE, WE CAN SAY: The left and right are both different approaches to a set of societal and individual “virtues,” each naturally meant to temper the other, connected in a way as natural and indivisible as electricity and magnetism. The concept is well represented by the symbols held by lady justice (AKA another Athena) “the sword” (which cuts through the fog to reveal the truth) and “the scales” (which must always seek balance). We can call one scale female and the other male, but we should take care to not conflate our metaphor with a stance on the real sexes and genders in practice. It is not a statement on feminism; it is a model for dealing with complex political-social systems and other metaphysical aspects of the human condition.
TIP: For more reading, these points are discussed in our pages on the left and right, globalism and nationalism, communism and fascism, political correctness, the basic political parties, the U.S. two-party system, and liberalism and conservatism; they are also related to our metaphor on the separation of powers).
Summary of the Argument
In summary, humans by their nature come in two types, we can call these types male and female to utilize some common existing symbolism, or we can call these types red and blue and anchor our terms to colors (thus avoiding a conversation about the sexes).
Call them left and right, female and male, liberal and conservative, progressive and conservative, blue and red (or red and blue/white in Europe), or what have you; the idea is the same.
As soon as people are free to express these types, write about them, sway their fellow citizens with their rhetoric, and to band into groups to support these ideologies… they will.
When one ideology dominates, or something is out of balance, we can expect a natural reaction in a natural attempt to try to rebalance the scales.
For lack of a better term, in politics, we often call these types left and right. They are as natural as our humanity.
In the United States they manifest as Democrats and Republicans. In the American Revolution we called them Loyalists and Patriots.
In the October Revolution, Bolsheviks and Whites, in the French Revolution, Jacobins and the Regime, in the era of the fall of the Roman Republic, Patricians, Plebeians, Optimates, and Populares. Or in any era, they had unique names there as well.
By any name, they are the same thing, a natural advent of the human condition expressing itself whenever able. Occurring naturally, creating tension naturally, resolving naturally into the next cycle like a well written musical phrase looping ad nauseam.
From the Naturally Occurring Systems Comes Conventions
This isn’t to say that everything a political person, political party, or policy that arises from the natural left-right is itself natural, it is only to say the underlying force that creates a basic two-way split is at its core natural.
On top of those natural systems, humans have built conventions, for example, the Constitution is a convention meant to ensure and balance the natural left-right and natural rights and liberties of a free people (it is wise, because it recognizes human nature and creates a republican democracy to temper it).
Nature didn’t make the U.S. political system, Madison and the founders did. It may reflect nature, but it is a convention.
With this in mind, one has to wonder, can we look to conventions to see if we can spot sticking points and solutions?
If the natural dichotomy is unavoidable and requires itself to be tempered, perhaps our conventions (our technologies) hold the key. Said simply, we should be able to use conventions to temper complex natural systems by considered them via simple metaphysical models like left-right and male-female. Not to shove some idealist commune down everyone else throat, but to bring good ideas to the table with an ingrained sense of equality and duty felt toward the other team. As knowing left is to right what female is to male rules out the idea of destroying the other team, and sort of forces our reason to conclude that working together is the only rational choice if we want to be effective.
Consider: The basics of economics is naturally occurring, but specific economic systems are a convention. Marx charged that industrial capitalism was a convention, but it wouldn’t be too hard to show that aspects of both capitalism and socialism are natural and others are a convention, and that neither solution is fully right as an absolute (although that is its own discussion).
Consider: When we create a convention based on our frame of reference from within our own ideological bubble, without “checking” it against other frames, we risk creating a system that works for some but not all. For example, if a pure right-wing thinker created a system from all the right-wing principles it would likely be alienating to the left-wing. Or metaphorically, if the mother rules the household with an iron fist, it will likely alienate the father, and vice versa. Temperance, balance, justice, fairness, moderation, whatever we call that first principle of balancing forces is a natural key to balancing the natural dichotomies and creating better social systems as conventions (on paper, as a metaphor at least, systems in action are notably complex that require complex mixed solutions).
Thomas Jefferson on Political Parties
Ultimately, this concept is always going to have one toe in metaphysics, but with that in mind, my best proof is that Thomas Jefferson held the same general belief I expressed above.
Thus, perhaps the concept is best expressed by Thomas Jefferson when he says (source):
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.” –Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73
NOTE: Jefferson is saying that in a liberal environment (not a completely despotic state), “on any political issue,” two groups will arise. One will favor a big group and one a small group. This is the naturally occurring political left-right arising, and this will go on to form the basis of political parties. We can represent this all as Monarchy/Aristocracy vs. Democracy, or father vs. child, or man vs. woman, or King vs. Peasant, or few vs. many, or reason vs. empathy. Some express things more accurately than others and to Jefferson (in terms of the political): Aristocrats and Democrats are the true one expressing the essence of all.
“Both of our political parties, at least the honest portion of them, agree conscientiously in the same object: the public good; but they differ essentially in what they deem the means of promoting that good. One side believes it best done by one composition of the governing powers, the other by a different one. One fears most the ignorance of the people; the other the selfishness of rulers independent of them. Which is right, time and experience will prove. We think that one side of this experiment has been long enough tried and proved not to promote the good of the many, and that the other has not been fairly and sufficiently tried. Our opponents think the reverse. With whichever opinion the body of the nation concurs, that must prevail.” –Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1804. ME 11:52
“Men have differed in opinion and been divided into parties by these opinions from the first origin of societies, and in all governments where they have been permitted freely to think and to speak. The same political parties which now agitate the U.S. have existed through all time. Whether the power of the people or that of the [aristocracy] should prevail were questions which kept the states of Greece and Rome in eternal convulsions, as they now schismatize every people whose minds and mouths are not shut up by the gag of a despot. And in fact the terms of Whig and Tory belong to natural as well as to civil history. They denote the temper and constitution of mind of different individuals.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:279
“The division into Whig and Tory is founded in the nature of man; the weakly and nerveless, the rich and the corrupt, seeing more safety and accessibility in a strong executive; the healthy, firm, and virtuous, feeling confidence in their physical and moral resources, and willing to part with only so much power as is necessary for their good government; and, therefore, to retain the rest in the hands of the many, the division will substantially be into Whig and Tory.” –Thomas Jefferson to Joel Barlow, 1802. ME 10:310
“The parties of Whig and Tory are those of nature. They exist in all countries, whether called by these names or by those of Aristocrats and Democrats, Cote Droite and Cote Gauche, Ultras and Radicals, Serviles and Liberals. The sickly, weakly, timid man fears the people, and is a Tory by nature. The healthy, strong and bold cherishes them, and is formed a Whig by nature.” –Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:492
“Nature has made some men monarchists and tories by their constitution, and some, of course, there always will be.” –Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 1817. ME 15:135
“The common division of Whig and Tory… is the most salutary of all divisions and ought, therefore, to be fostered instead of being amalgamated; for take away this, and some more dangerous principle of division will take its place.” –Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1825. ME 16:96
“I consider the party division of Whig and Tory the most wholesome which can exist in any government, and well worthy of being nourished, to keep out those of a more dangerous character.” –Thomas Jefferson to William T. Barry, 1822. ME 15:388
“To me… it appears that there have been differences of opinion and party differences, from the first establishment of government to the present day, and on the same question which now divides our own country; that these will continue through all future time; that every one takes his side in favor of the many, or of the few, according to his constitution, and the circumstances in which he is placed… that as we judge between the Claudii and the Gracchi, the Wentworths and the Hampdens of past ages, so of those among us whose names may happen to be remembered for awhile, the next generations will judge favorably or unfavorably according to the complexion of individual minds and the side they shall themselves have taken; that nothing new can be added to what has been said by others and will be said in every age in support of the conflicting opinions on government; and that wisdom and duty dictate an humble resignation to the verdict of our future peers.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1813. ME 13:283
“Wherever there are men, there will be parties; and wherever there are free men they will make themselves heard. Those of firm health and spirits are unwilling to cede more of their liberty than is necessary to preserve order; those of feeble constitutions will wish to see one strong arm able to protect them from the many. These are the Whigs and Tories of nature. These mutual jealousies produce mutual security; and while the laws shall be obeyed, all will be safe. He alone is your enemy who disobeys them.” –Thomas Jefferson: Misc. Notes, 1801? FE 8:1
“The Tories are for strengthening the Executive and General Government; the Whigs cherish the representative branch and the rights reserved by the States as the bulwark against consolidation, which must immediately generate monarchy.” –Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1823. ME 15:493
“I had always expected that when the republicans should have put down all things under their feet, they would schismatize among themselves. I always expected, too, that whatever names the parties might bear, the real division would be into moderate and ardent republicanism. In this division there is no great evil — not even if the minority obtain the ascendency by the accession of federal votes to their candidate; because this gives us one shade only, instead of another, of republicanism. It is to be considered as apostasy only when they purchase the votes of federalists, with a participation in honor and power.” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1807. ME 11:265
“The duty of an upright administration is to pursue its course steadily, to know nothing of these family dissensions, and to cherish the good principles of both parties.” –Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1805. ME 11:71
All the above quotes are from a collection found on famguardian.org (a site with great Jefferson quotes) and can be found individually in Jefferson’s letters.