Had Enough with Left and Right?

by Peter Cannavo
Associate Professor of Government 

Teaching Government 117: Introduction to Political Theory, makes me think about political labels and the standard left-to-right spectrum.  Political theory can be either deathly dull or extremely intimidating for the newbie and I try to bring it alive by connecting it with contemporary political debate.  I also try to introduce my students to a range of political perspectives, including a perspective that most of them have probably never heard of – civic republicanism.

Civic republicanism, which focuses on civic virtue, political engagement, individual economic independence, a strong sense of community, and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, was a prominent perspective in the United States during the Founding and early Republic.  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams were profoundly influenced by the republican tradition, which goes back to Rousseau, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, and Aristotle.  So were later political leaders and public intellectuals like Frederick Douglass.   Two famous Britons, Mary Wollstonecraft, the founder of feminism, and Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, disliked one another, but they both drew on the republican and Aristotelian idea that a healthy political society should cultivate a certain type of character in its citizens.  (The political philosopher Michael Sandel is probably one of the most prominent and articulate proponents of republicanism, particularly in his 1995 book, Democracy’s Discontent.)

What’s interesting is that civic republicanism defies familiar political labels and the standard political spectrum.  Civic republicans are like conservatives in that they favor a strong sense of community and emphasize the importance of private property ownership (because it enables someone to be more empowered as a citizen), but they are like liberals or progressives in that they favor a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, are willing to combine private property rights with government regulation, and can see civic value in the extension of marriage to include same-sex couples.  In fact, some republicans emphasize their common ground with conservatives, while others emphasize common ground with liberals or progressives.  Since republicans have also favored a strong role for local government and local political participation, they even have some commonalties with some libertarians.  Civic republicans, however, are not enthusiastic about an unfettered free market and its disruptive effects on society. One can find in Jefferson’s writings a defense of private property and local government as well as a suspicion of capitalism and a call for progressive taxation.  It perhaps surprises my students that there is a political perspective that can simultaneously support marriage equality and higher taxation on the wealthy and also government support for faith-based charities.

I finish the semester with civic republicanism and also relate it to environmentalism, which shares lot with the republican tradition and similarly defies the standard political spectrum. My environmentalist students may be surprised that their heroes Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold drew heavily on republican themes.  It may surprise them that Burke, the conservative, offered a powerful rationale for sustainability.

I bring all this up to say that our various traditions of political thought are a lot richer than the typical left-right spectrum.  Casting everything in terms of liberal or conservative tends to dumb down our political discourse and, worse, polarize it to the point that every issue involves a zero-sum game in a Manichean struggle between good and evil.  Does your position on hydrofracking mean that you also need to have a certain position on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan?  On my Facebook page, I engage in this very same silliness by identifying my politics as “left,” which reflects many of my positions on economic and social issues, but doesn’t capture my interventionist foreign policy or my more conservative temperament on topics like community and place, or on the issue of reproductive cloning, which may become quite significant in a few decades.  I’m also an environmentalist.  To many people that seems left-wing, but if Burke were alive today, he might tell us that “conservative” and “conservation” are more than etymological cousins.  Professor Robert Paquette recently gave me a list of conservative agrarian writers with environmentalist sympathies.  At the same time, some strands of the left are hostile to green values.  So, I better edit that Facebook page.

Writing in the New York Times recently, University of California philosopher John Perry offered a more complex political metric than the usual left and right.

See http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/21/needed-more-political-dimensions/.  Perry tries to categorize the current crop of Presidential candidates by expanding the standard spectrum with the addition of views on issues like the Bill of Rights and foreign intervention.  His discussion is useful, though it ignores some key issues like the environment or the importance of community and he doesn’t talk about traditions that defy standard categories.

Unfortunately, the Hamilton community has at times fallen into simplistic political polarities.  There have been vitriolic attacks by some alumni (see http://hcagr.squarespace.com/), who caricature the College as a bastion of leftist ideology; at the same time, conservative students have told me of being treated with hostility by some faculty members.  Controversies over Susan Rosenberg, Ward Churchill, and the Alexander Hamilton Institute haven’t helped.  To some people it probably seems inconceivable that one could support the work of both the Days Massolo Center and the AHI.  Yet I have also heard people from both institutions (both of which have profoundly enriched the lives of students on the Hill) show a keen interest in working with the other.  This fall, I had the pleasure of helping guide a discussion, sponsored by the Days Massolo Center and the Publius Society (which includes many students involved with AHI), involving students with highly diverse views on the Occupy movement.  At times it was a tense discussion and perhaps nobody’s mind was changed, but, thanks in part to both Days Massolo Director Amit Taneja and the students connected with both organizations, the dialogue was completely civil and revealed some more nuanced positions.  I pointed out that both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party draw on the republican tradition’s distrust of centralized power, whether economic or political.

Events like this might lead us to see political perspectives and ideologies in more complex and nuanced ways, get past the polarization, and also realize that we might have some profound points of agreement with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

  1. Ted Eismeier said:

    Peter, thanks for your thoughtful post. The civic discourse you propose would be more likely if our official co-curricular programming weren’t so monotonous and predictable. Absent the AHI, the intellectual fare at Hamilton would be very minor variations on a theme of cultural leftism. Best regards, Ted

  2. hb said:

    “Unfortunately, the Hamilton community has at times fallen into simplistic political polarities. There have been vitriolic attacks by some alumni (see http://hcagr.squarespace.com/), who caricature the College as a bastion of leftist ideology; at the same time, conservative students have told me of being treated with hostility by some faculty members.”

    1) hcagr welcomes, and has from inception, corrections of any error in fact
    2) hcagr does not manufacture Hamilton’s history. it does not compel Hamilton or its faculty to behave in any particular way. we do on occasion report items that would not otherwise be brought to the attention of alumni who are interested and concerned about the school. some characterize the reporting of events or facts, and some facts that parties at interest would prefer not be reported, as vitriolic. many alumni find such reporting of interest because they would not otherwise know.
    3) read the second sentence of the excerpt above again

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