Beyond Left and Right: Compassionate Pragmatism

Edited 7/15/19

Beyond Left and Right: Compassionate Pragmatism
By Wade Lee Hudson

There’s no widely agreed-on definition of “liberalism” and “conservatism.” More specific terms like “egalitarian economics” vs.“free-market fundamentalism, and ”liberal democracy” vs. “authoritarianism. make sense. So do more general terms like “moderates” vs “revolutionaries,” or “pragmatists” vs “purists.” But supporters of one of those terms may agree with the other side on many sprecific issues. They can’t logically be lumped together on one “left-right” spectrum, which is incoherent and serves to divide and conquer. The three pre-Trump legs of the “conservative” Republican Party — fiscal conservatism, cultural conservatism, and militarism — could not logically be placed under the umbrella of “conservatism” on the so-called political spectrum. The “liberal” Democratic Party has had its own internal contradictions. There’s not one spectrum; there’s many.

However, even if the meaning of “liberalism” and “conservatism” were clear, the more rational approach would be to integrate the best of each perspective into a new worldview, such as “compassionate pragmatism.” Traditionally, the “right” has been said to affirm authority, order, hierarchy, duty, tradition, and nationalism. And the “left” has been associated with liberty, equality, solidarity, human rights, progress, and internationalism. But most people believe in all or most of those principles — because each holds value. 

Those on the “left” accept “right” values. Legitimate authority is essential if exercised wisely. Order is needed if it is flexible and reasonable. Democratic hierarchies can be effective. Noble traditions provide a foundation for the future. Strong nations help protect people from powerful corporations and financial interests. 

Those on the “right” accept “left” values. Individual liberty can recognize the rights of others. All people are born with equal rights, should be equal under the law, and should be treated with equal dignity. Healthy families, supportive communities, labor unions, and other forms of solidarity are valuable. Everyone is endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. Progress is desirable. We need an international environment that expands security, prosperity, and human rights throughout the globe.

There’s no dichotomy, or clear dividing line, between “left” and “right” principles. Neither is there any need for one set to defeat the other.

Some say a “left-right” continuum can be defined on economic issues, with a supposedly totally free market on the one end, state ownership of the means of production on the other end, and a social democratic, mixed economy in the middle. But China’s State Capitalism doesn’t fit on that spectrum. Neither do Green proposals for highly decentralized, self-reliant bio-regional economies that feature greatly restricted global trade (because it inherently harms the environment) and worker-owned businesses with capitalistic features. Regardless, even if agreement were reached on an economic “left-right” spectrum, trying to include social and political issues on that spectrum does not work.

Some define the “left-wing” in terms of governmental action to directly reduce economic inequality and provide assistance to the poor, whereas the “right-wing” opposes those measures. But most on the “right” insist they’re concerned about the disadvantaged, but disagree about the best way to assist them. And many on the “left” agree that a welfare state breeds dependency, undermines self-determination, and disempowers a political threat to the established order. Those “leftists” favor instead measures like greatly expanded public-service employment to meet pressing social and environmental needs, which would provide living-wage job opportunities without setting up paternalistic government programs “for” them. So, on this issue there may not be two fundamentally different options.

Again, however, even if you categorize people according to whether or not they, for example, support the expansion of Medicaid, it doesn’t follow that they belong on a single “left-right” spectrum that includes multiple economic, political, and social issues. Inequality is only one of many economic issues. People may support direct aid to the poor and disagree on many of those issues.

Others say “conservatives” want to preserve the present order, whereas “liberals” want to change it. But many of those who are called “conservatives,” being good capitalists, support “creative destruction,” the Internet, and rapid economic growth that leads to oligopolies and monopolies. Many want to undo the 80-year-old welfare state and return power from the federal government to the states. Many support foreign wars and want the United States to act as a global police force. All that hardly constitutes preserving the status quo! And with regard to many issues, especially cultural issues, African-Americans and Latinos are more traditionalists than white “liberals.” Moreover, many “liberals” want to protect many aspects of the established order, such as abortion rights, labor unions, voting rights, environmental regulations, and consumer protections. All that hardly constitutes changing the present order!

Whether the government should regulate the economy or own public services, allow charter schools, outlaw abortion and marijuana, prohibit legislators from lobbying after they leave office, or allow former felons to vote are issues that have little to do with each other. Multi-issue coalitions form to support the Demoratic and Republican parties. But there’s no underlying principle that justifies lumping positions on those issues into one category and placing adherents on a unidimensional “left-right” continuum. 

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states, “Liberalism is more than one thing. On any close examination, it seems to fracture into a range of related but sometimes competing visions.” Social and political opinions are too numerous and complex to be squeezed into one of two mutually exclusive options. 

In the real world, people may take a “left-wing” stance on one issue and a “right-wing” one on another. Many “left” anarchists are very similar to “right” libertarians. Some feminists “lean in” to conventional capitalism. A wide range of political activists oppose Crony Capitalism. Populism has been “left” and “right.” Some people are “liberal” on social issues and “conservative” on economic issues, or vice versa. Authoritarianism is common with all ideologies. Libertarians are considered “right wing” even though many of them consider themselves “true liberals” and oppose governmental power. Big-government, militarist Republicans are labelled “right wing” as are small-government, anti-militarist Libertarians. The “extreme left” restricts free speech and the “extreme right” restricts the free market. When Republicans support the expansion of government power, commentators still call them “conservative.” Commentators and politicians commonly ignore what the parties are actually doing and still stick them on the spectrum. No wonder so few people agree on what “left-right” terms mean. 

Especially as modern society becomes more fragmented, segmented, and sorted, what we have are countless single issue groups and numerous multi-issue coalitions. Pooling them together on one spectrum is irrational. 

That’s why when pollsters want to label people, they typically force them to choose between two options — rather than ask if they believe in both options. Nor do they ask respondents what they believe and then categorize them accordingly. Rather, they ask people to self-identify on the “left-right” spectrum and then proceed to describe them. 

Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, acknowledges “those labels reveal how confused these terms have become.” He points out that “many people resist and resent attempts to reduce ideology to a single dimension.” And he laments, “Unfortunately, most research on political psychology has used the left-right dimension with American samples, so in many cases that’s all we have to go on.” Nevertheless, he still insists “this one dimension is still quite useful” because “most people can place themselves somewhere along it”— even if they don’t know what it means!


Worse yet, Haidt and other academics try to use psychological traits to place people on the “left-right” spectrum. Their research has developed a “Rigidity of the Right (RR) model.” In “Rethinking the Rigidity of the Right Model (2017),” Ariel Malka, Yphtach Lelkes, and Nissan Holzer sum up this model as claiming 

a constellation of psychological attributes and evocable states — including dogmatism, closed-mindedness, intolerance of ambiguity, preference for order and structure, aversion to novelty and stimulation, valuing of conformity and obedience, and relatively strong concern with threat (and especially uncertainty intolerance and threat sensitivity — leads to a preference for right-wing over left-wing political ideology.

Theodor Adorno fostered this approach in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). His central thesis was “the political, economic, and social convictions of an individual often form a broad and coherent pattern…and this pattern is an expression of deep-lying trends in his personality.” This viewpoint has become conventional academic wisdom about the psychological study of political ideology. These researchers assert “an organic and functional relationship” between psychology and ideology. As one team claimed, “There is a special resonance or match between motives to reduce uncertainty and threat, the two core aspects of right-wing ideology.” But Malka, Lelkes, and Holzer found that this model has been based on poor scientific methods — “less-than-ideal methodological and interpretive practices.”

They write, “[The conservative], as the theory goes, satisfies needs to avoid uncertainty and deal with threat.” But their analysis of the research literature found: “Threat sensitivity indicators have failed to reliably predict economic conservatism.” They say that despite psychology’s “well-established multidimensional structure,” most research on the psychological origins of ideology has relied on a unidimensional categorization of ideology. These accounts of ideology use circular reasoning by assuming what they seek to explain. Researchers “extrapolate their findings backwards to explain the effects of prepolitical orientations on multiple dimensions of ideology and thus on ideological constraint. In our view, this puts the proverbial cart before the horse.”

However, some work has employed “a multidimensional conceptualization of ideology when seeking to understand the psychological origins of political attitudes.” And unlike the RR model, this “Dual Process Model” found that “needs for security and certainty” (NSC) 

only underlie the cultural dimension, not the egalitarianism-economic dimension, the latter of which emerges from a distinct set of motivational goals. We will argue that...the balance of evidence is consistent with the fundamental contention of this model that NSC does not yield a functional affinity for right-wing economic attitudes….                

After all, as Hibbing et al. (2014) note, “modern polities deal with an amazing array of issues and categories and it is foolhardy to expect a single trait…to account for all political variations….” The balance of evidence runs against the RR Model when it comes to the ideologically central economic domain.

In a related article, Are Cultural and Economic Conservatism Positively Correlated? (2017), Ariel Malka, Yphtach Lelkes and Christopher J. Soto report that although “the right–left dimension is ubiquitous in politics…, it is more common for culturally and economically right-wing attitudes to correlate negatively with each other [emphasis added].” A broad range of “uncertainty intolerance indicators” may point to “cultural conservatism,” but not to “economic conservatism.”

They report:

·        News media messages about politics often describe political matters in right–left ideological terms, indicating which issue stances and values are associated with the right and which are associated with the left. As a consequence of exposure to partisan and ideological cues, politically engaged people display this type of attitude organization…. Populations that are highly active politically probably need to be considered separate from those that are not because “news media messages about politics often describe political matters in right–left ideological terms, indicating which issue stances and values are associated with the right and which are associated with the left.” Consequently, “politically engaged people display [a different type of] attitude organization. 

·        An ideologically mixed bag of attitudes might reflect a personally meaningful pattern of cultural and economic preferences that is not well captured by the right–left dimension.

·        Consistent with this account, Americans who are highly politically engaged are the ones most likely to organize their cultural and economic attitudes along the right–left dimension; those low in political engagement are more likely to adopt a “mixed bag” of attitudes.

·        These results raise further questions about the norm of focusing on unidimensional ideology as a correlate of basic psychological characteristics and states.

·        “Conflicted conservatives” in the United States...are economically left wing but gravitate toward a conservative self-label on the basis of the latter’s cultural connotations.

·        Cultural conservatism has more often been associated with left-wing than with right-wing economic attitudes within nations around the world. Within mass publics, the organization of cultural and economic attitudes along the right–left dimension seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom:

·        “Disgust” factors “might yield left-leaning economic preference” rather than “right”-leaning.

·        “Cultural conservatism” may need to be broken down to address sub-categories, such as “traditional sexual morality.” 

·        The language used by researchers may produce bias; one study tweaked the wording and found that liberals scored as more dogmatic than conservatives. 

·        Political psychologists have focused almost exclusively on right-wing authoritarianism, while neglecting left-wing authoritarianism.

In addition, “No Evidence for Ideological Asymmetry in Dissonance Avoidance” by Timothy P. Collins, Jarret T. Crawford, and Mark J. Brandt challenged 2013 studies by the scholars who  have had a strong influence in the field (at least until recently). The original study “found that conservatives were more likely than liberals to avoid dissonance-arousing situations (viz., writing counter-attitudinal essays in a high-choice situation).” But

a close replication of this original research was unsuccessful, as both liberals and conservatives avoided writing counter-attitudinal essays to similar degrees. We conducted an additional experiment that aimed to conceptually replicate Nam et al. (2013), and to examine whether people whose ideology is threatened might be more likely to avoid dissonance-arousing situations. Again, liberals and conservatives were equally likely to avoid writing counter-attitudinal essays. Threat had no effect on these decisions. A meta-analysis of Nam et al.’s (2013) two studies, the two studies presently reported, and a third supplemental study provide no evidence for asymmetry in dissonance avoidance.

On May 23, 2019, the Heterodox Academy’s Research Director, Sean Stevens, posted “Liberalism and Conservatism, for a Change! Rethinking the Association Between Political Orientation and Relation to Social Change.” He reviewed four recent studies that “suggest that both conservatives and liberals resist and accept societal changes,” depending on the issue and whether they “approve or disapprove of the status quo” on that issue. They conclude:

Overall, our findings provide no evidence for a one‐directional association between political orientation and the tendency to accept or resist change. These findings therefore challenge theoretical and lay assumptions regarding general, context‐independent psychological differences underlying political ideologies….

According to common wisdom, which is supported by extant psychological theorizing, a core feature of political conservatism (vs. liberalism) is the resistance to (vs. acceptance of) societal change…. [But] conservatives are not more fearful of change compared to liberals (nor were liberals systematically more accepting of social change than conservatives)....

These results can be added to a rapidly growing body of literature in political psychology and social psychology which challenges long-standing theories of the psychology underlying conservatism (e.g., Brandt et al. 2014; Conway et al. 2016; Federico & Malka 2018; Malka, Lelkes & Holzer 2018; Malka et al. 2014; Marcus et al. 2019). Most of this prior research has presented a challenge to another aspect of the “rigidity of the right” model — the purported relationship between fear in response to perceived threat and political conservatism.

Life is more complicated than the simplistic “left-right” spectrum suggests. Most commentators overlook that those political psychology researchers merely find probabilities. After asking people to self-identify, they rely on averages that ignore the many exceptions. They find that on average groups with different traits apparently differ with regard to certain beliefs and then generalize without qualifying their conclusions, or restricting and limiting the meaning of their language. They just label. But labels often distort and ossify, and they are self-fulfilling.

Let’s say we define “liberal” as preferring rice and “conservative” as preferring beans. We have two populations: one green; the other purple. We survey them and find that 60% of the green people eat rice 60% of the time and 60% of the purple people eat beans 60% of the time. But rather than say that when they eat they will probably eat rice, or beans, we label the green people “rice-eating liberals” and label the purple people “beans-eating conservatives.” The mainstream media then consistently reports that green people are liberal and purple people are conservative. This reinforces those identities and prompts each tribe to move to areas where more members of their tribe live, which encourages green people to eat more rice and purple people to eat more beans. Meanwhile, fewer people eat a balanced meal. That’s the state of social science and politics today.

In Prius or Pickup?: How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler claim that parents differ with regard to the qualities they believe are more desirable in their children: independence vs. respect for elders, self-reliance vs. obedience, curiosity vs. good manners, and being considerate vs. being well behaved. They concluded that “liberals” prefer the former and live in suburbs and cities, while “conservatives” prefer the latter and live in rural areas. Here, once again, most parents probably value both, but the pollsters forced them to choose. 

Amazon’s “most helpful” customer review, by E. M. Griffith, commented:

Is anyone cookie cutter? Do we all fit into neat little boxes?... Were there any parents who would not choose one trait over another, considering all of them important?... Moderates (mixers) aren’t really in the middle, the authors say, but instead tend toward one direction or another.... Presumably mixers live everywhere; it isn’t made clear.

None of which begins to recognize the complexity of human beings in the U.S. or anywhere else on earth. On my street, in a small town tucked into a rural county, with many cultures, ethnicities, ages and socio-economic ranges, neighbors chat, kids skateboard and ride bikes, and radios play everything from rap to country, mariachi to vintage rock. There are trucks and hybrids, but mostly sedans and SUVs…. The entire book is dedicated to unapologetic “profiling.”


The researchers who challenge the conventional wisdom have accepted the use of the word “conservative” in phrases such as “economically conservative” and “culturally conservative,” which is problematic. But they make a very strong case against placing such opinions on one “left-right” spectrum. 

“Liberals” and “conservatives” should take care not to pathologize each other (as they often do,  even when they say they don’t want to) and avoid easy generalizations. Most “liberal” authors, for example, are condescending toward “conservatives” when they label them “fixed” or “closed” rather than “fluid” or “open.” This provokes resentment. People don’t like being placed in boxes. But ideologues are attached to their abstract labels, though those labels fail to accurately describe particular realities.

Society teaches people to identify with a “left” tribe or a “right” tribe. The mainstream media, politicians, pundits, and most thought leaders insist on placing people and positions on the “left-right” spectrum. These ideologies provide identity, purpose, a sense of community. They give lives meaning, justify actions after the fact, and reinforce the innate tendency to scapegoat. People on each side assume they are heroes and feel superior to the “enemy” they must defeat. We become judgmental and hateful. When we disagree, we just throw labels and stop thinking and don’t try to understand the other. On the surface, we are divided. 

Like rabid sports fans, dogmatic “liberals” and “conservatives” are determined to defeat the other side and demonize them as “enemies.” Cable news and online media outlets make money by inflaming conflict and dramatizing political warfare. Politicians get elected with negative, divisive campaigning. All of this serves to create confusion, foster frustration, divide and conquer, and reinforce our social system (which is based on encouraging people to climb social ladders and look down on and dominate those below in zero-sum competitions).

Damon Linker suggests a pragmatic direction in The Week’sThe End of the Political Spectrum.” That piece presents:

The victory of Donald Trump in 2016, like the outcome of the Brexit vote before it...showed the Western political world that more radical political change — change that breaks sharply from part of the prevailing centrist consensus — is possible....

Maybe we need to abandon the inherited left-center-right ideological schema altogether. Maybe the more salient cleavage in our politics is the one that divides those who remain broadly happy with how things have been going from those who do not, those who've been winning from those who've been losing, those who benefit from those who don't, those who've been in charge and running the show from those who've been placed permanently in the role of spectators…. 

In a world defined by this dispute — a fissure separating top from bottom far more than left from right — there would be room to fashion a new center, one no longer defined by its proximity to or distance from the formerly fixed left-right ideological alternatives. Instead, the middle would be defined by wherever a new consensus in public opinion emerges, along with whatever mixture of policies and ideal visions of the country's future end up galvanizing that consensus.

Whatever the outcome of this process, and however long it takes, the old way of conceiving of the alternatives is finished. The old center is dying, along with the old right and left. Long live the new center, whatever it may be.

His use of the phrase “the new center” implies an acceptance of the “left-right” spectrum. But otherwise the thrust of his piece is well-taken. Abstract tribal divisions undermine the potential for united action. People focus on defeating the “enemy,” though most of us agree on what we really want: security, comfort, and the opportunity to improve our lot. When asked about specific issues, strong majorities agree on many, if not most, issues.

Donald Trump is an abomination and the Republican Party is hopeless. Democrats desperately need to take back the White House and control Congress. Elizabeth Warren’s proposals for restructuring the economy are sensible. Racism is a major problem. African-Americans should be compensated because the government recently facilitated the theft of their land in the South and denied their ability to buy good housing in the North. The United States should help establish economic and physical security in Central America, which would reduce migration from those countries, and enact comprehensive immigration reform in this country. The right to abortion must be protected. The government should subsidize renewable energy. But the leadership of the Republican Party is dominated by power-hungry ideologues who primarily want to win elections. 

But unless the Democratic Party dedicates itself to serious community organizing to advance its platform year-round (rather than merely work on electing candidates), we will need one or more multi-issue, democratic grassroots organizations to persuade Congress to respect the (compassionate) will of the people. Those grassroots forces could include many rank-and-file Republicans. 

But these forces need not be “leftist.” The problem is not “conservatism” and the solution is not “liberalism.” But what is a sensible alternative worldview? And how can it be labelled? Those are difficult questions. At the moment, it seems to me, the best frame is a “compassionate pragmatism,” as articulated in “Cultivating Compassionate Communities.” 

“Majoritarian movements” could affirm a statement of basic values, such as the “Americans for Humanity” declaration, and focus on concrete compassionate proposals that are supported by a supermajority of the electorate, including majorities of the Republican rank-and-file. Trump has taken over the Republican Party, but many Republican voters are more sensible. 

These movements could nurture caring communities throughout society, democratize our institutions, and mobilize supermajorities to persuade Washington to enact new policies to improve living conditions for everyone (while respecting minority rights and avoiding a tyranny of the majority) — a “purple alliance” that builds a “purple movement.”