Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis

The Nonexistent Left and Right

Air Date: February 22, 2023

"The Myth of Left and Right" coauthors Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis discuss political ideology.


Heffner: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, brothers and co-authors of The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America. Verlan Lewis…Hyrum Lewis, welcome to you both.

“The Myth of Left and Right” coauthors Verlan Lewis and Hyrum Lewis discuss political ideology. Verlan Lewis: Thank you.

Hyrum Lewis: Thanks for having us on.

Heffner: Verlan, let me ask you to, to start, what do you mean by the myth of left and right?

V. Lewis: Yeah, so when we talk about the myth of left and right, we’re talking about the false idea that there is one issue in politics and that there are two coherent enduring philosophies or dispositions that divide American politics. The truth of left and right is that these are social groups and that the left-right spectrum is a social construct that was imported into America in the 1920s that we’ve used for the past century, but it’s a false model of our politics and it’s causing confusion, it’s causing dogmatism and it’s causing hostility in our politics. So we argue in the book that, um, it’s a false way of thinking about politics not on that not only misleads Americans, but also harms America.

Heffner: Hyrum. When you think of this myth to expound, there is not the myth of Democrat and Republican. I mean, that’s real in the sense of that’s tangible. We know when we vote, typically there will be one Democrat and one Republican. So you’re not, you’re not saying that that’s not unreal or mythologized, that’s a fact. But what you are saying is possibly that the constituencies of voters who vote for either that Democrat or Republican, that they are not uniformly left or right, that they are, they do not follow, uh, a left path just because they’re a Democrat or a right path just because they’re a Republican. Is that a fair characterization of, of an extension of that mythology?

H. Lewis: Close, but you’re, you’re suggesting that left and right exists independent of what Republican and Democrat are doing. We say there is no coherent left and right because there’s more than one issue in politics. If you’re trying to model politics using a Unidimensional spectrum, you’re gonna be wrong. Cuz there’s more than one issue. There’s abortion, there’s tax cuts, there’s the war in Iraq, there’s gay marriage. These are all different issues. So to say that we can model it using one line is kind of frankly silly. So, you know, you talk about Democrats and Republicans, obviously there’s two political parties. No one’s gonna dispute that. And these are tribal groups. The myth is that then there are these philosophies, a liberal philosophy or progressive philosophy to animate the left and that a conservative philosophy to animate the right and that somehow the, the parties have moved towards these ideologies that these ideologies have captured, uh, the parties. So, so according to the mythology Goldwater, in his campaign, he was a philosophical conservative and conservatives captured the Republican party in 1964 with his, his nomination, and then captured America with Ronald Reagan’s election. This is nonsense. We don’t know how any, how how we can put that any plainer. The reality is that whatever the parties are doing, define the ideologies. What right wing means is simply whatever. The Republicans do noticed that in the fifties it was considered very liberal to believe in free speech, and those who believed in censorship were by definition conservative. Now, fast forward to 2022, we talk about Democrats censorship because, you know, free speech is harmful or a tool of white supremacy or what have you, and we say they’ve moved to the left. This is just silly. There aren’t enduring ideas. There aren’t these, these different positions are not inherently connected by a single underlying issue. So the myth of left and right is that everything the Republicans believed is connected by a philosophy and it’s simply not true. They’re unrelated. They really are.

Heffner: I hear what you’re saying. Let’s distinguish between the elected officeholders who are Republicans and Democrats and the voters who are Republicans and Democrats. You’re saying that it’s a myth or mythologized, both in terms of the electeds and the voters, that no one is really plainly liberal and no one is really plainly conservative. Not the electeds nor the..

H. Lewis: Of course not.

Heffner: The voters.

H. Lewis: Absolutely not . Well, I, because you’re suggesting that conservative

Heffner: I agree with you by the way. I agree with you.

H. Lewis: Yeah.

Heffner: Yeah. Lemme tell you why I agree with you. I agree with you because I think that people’s definition of what it means to be conservative or liberal, um, is wildly askew from one region or one neighborhood to another. Right. I, I may think that it’s conservative, uh, to be a proponent of reproductive health and someone else might think that it’s, it’s liberal to be a proponent of reproductive health. I mean, that’s why I, I found your thesis to be scintillating and, and, and relevant in my own experience, um, which I find to be a multi-platform experience across multiple so-called ideologies. Um, but, but Verlan, let me ask you, um, if we’re gonna ditch this, basically dispose of these classifications on the basis of, you know, you were, you’re pacifistic and therefore that’s progressive and or you opposed the war in Iraq that was progressive. Um, if we’re gonna ditch all this, and not just have a free for all that no one understands anything, what’s the alternative?

V. Lewis: Yeah, the alternative is to do what we did in America for a long time before the left-right spectrum was imported from Russia in the 1920s. So for most of American history, we talked about politics without ever talking about a left or a right, and we can do it just fine. And most countries throughout world history have, uh, managed just fine talking about politics without a left and a right. This is something that emerged in France in the 1780s and spread over the continent, uh, throughout the 19th century and really just came to America in the 1920s. And the more and more it’s taken a hold or foothold in our, in our country, the worse off we’ve been as our contention. So our our alternative is to talk about politics, um, on an issue by issue basis, right? There’s nothing inherently that says if you are pro-life on abortion, you also have to be, um, against military aid Ukraine, or you also have to be against free trade, or you also have to be in favor of tax cuts. Or there’s, there’s no reason that all of these things get connected. They get connected because political parties pull them together, but there’s nothing in nature that forces these issue positions to go together. So we can just talk about issues. And what we find is that there are people that do this. So at the beginning of your question, you talked about the distinction between ordinary people and elites, and we find that’s something really interesting in our research is that there are a lot of people in America who have been socialized into thinking about politics in terms of a left right spectrum. These are the politicians you talk about, uh, people who are with college educations. There’s a lot of other people in America who have not been socialized into thinking about politics in terms of a left and right. And it’s interesting when you go around and ask people and survey them what their issue positions are, you don’t find a consistency in issue positions in terms of what conservatives believe today and what liberals believe today, which of course is always changing, but as it sits right now, until they’ve been socialized into this way of thinking. And so there’s actually a lot of Americans out there right now who are operating without a left-right spectrum. They don’t have a college education, they weren’t taught this, uh, by their college professors, and they’re doing just fine without a left-right spectrum, and we think they’re actually doing better without it. They tend to be less hostile. They tend to be less confused in their way of thinking.

Heffner: Let me ask Hyrum, the, the counterintuitive if, unrealistic, response to your contention, um, you know, the, the idea that we can have a party system absent these philosophies that govern how we characterize people, doesn’t that mean we need the absence of polarization? I mean polarization to cite something that, uh, Verlan said, you know, he said, there’s nothing in our nature that precludes us from disposing of these classifications or grid systems of who’s liberal and who’s conservative. I would agree with that if we are not hyperpolarized, but if polarization exists within a two-party system, don’t you think that that two-party system is going to constantly, uh, perpetuate the, the way of looking at things as liberal or conservative?

H. Lewis: Uh, no, because polarization itself is a function of the myth. I mean, think about it, if you say, as Abraham Lincoln did, by the way he said, we have a Republican party and the Republican party stands for different things. So the two biggest things for Lincoln were he was obviously opposed to slavery. He was also in favor of a protective tariff. Now, what Lincoln didn’t do was say these two things are linked by a philosophy. He, he would say in speeches, I favor this and I favor this. He didn’t say, it’s because I’m conservative, liberal, whatever, this, this vocabulary is foreign to him to his benefit. And by the way, when you look at all the great thinkers throughout history, none of them have thought in terms of a left-right spectrum. Reed, Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, he does not mention liberal conservative simply talks about specific strategies and procedures and goals they want to accomplish. The point being is the reason we have such polarization is because once you start thinking in terms of a left-right spectrum, if you believe that right-wing is inherently good, then why wouldn’t you just take it to the extreme? Or if you believe that being liberal means being on the right side of history, then why wouldn’t you want to be really, really, really on the right side of history and take all of your positions to an extreme? If being center-left is a little bit good because you’re at least on the left side, well there wouldn’t be a little further left even better and a little further left even better. So it, it radicalizes people. The very conceptual model, we compare this conceptual model to the Four Humors theory that was dominant in medicine in the 18th century caused people to kill them. And people said, well, we need an overarching model. We need some kind of simplistic framework. No, you don’t, no bottle, no model is better than a bad model. And this terrible model caused doctors to bleed their patients to death. And the, and the single unit dimensional spectrum is causing us to bleed our republic today to death today. So we just say jettison the whole thing and let’s go granular, just like we were before this abominable, uh, model took over in the 1920s and, and, and there’s no reason we can’t do it. Now. We every other…you say it’ll be a free for all. We have that same free for all. When we get dressed in the morning, nobody says, well, you get confused if you have more than two outfits. We have that free for all when we go to the doctor. We don’t say, oh, you’ll get confused if the doctor has more than two illnesses he can talk about. Absolutely not. And to, and to classify a fractured tibia and lung cancer as both type A illnesses would be silly. Just tell them they have a fractured tibia. Don’t, don’t prescribe somebody chemotherapy with a broken, you know, a broken leg. But that’s essentially what we’re doing in politics.

Heffner: Well, what do you mean by…

V. Lewis: Quickly on this question of, of polarization. I do think it’s interesting cuz there is political science literature that talks about polarization. We say this is actually a false way of thinking about politics. There is something real called affective polarization that political scientists call it. We would just say change the term to hostility or anger. It is true that we have increasing anger and hostility between our two major political groups in society. Um, but what those two groups stand for is always changing from year to year. And so there’s really no fixed polls that the two groups can polarize towards because there is no unidimensional spectrum. I mean, just to, to give some examples. Um, so once upon a time, it used to be that conservatives believed in free trade. So is it the case that the Republican party is way more in favor of free trade than it used to be, and that’s why it’s extreme right wing? No, the data says just the opposite. Right? It was once the case that Republicans called for, um, cutting entitlement spending. Is it the case that during the Trump era Republicans have moved way toward the extreme of trying to cut entitlement spending drastically? No. The evidence is just the opposite. Hyrum gave an example of the Democratic Party, you know, once upon a time it was considered liberal to be in favor of free speech. Is it the case that the Democrats have moved to the extreme left and now they’re super in favor of free speech? No, just, just the opposite. So the very meanings of left and right change over time. So of course you can’t have polarization over time when the very meanings of the polls of left and right are always changing.

Heffner: Right. Well, there, there’s nothing that captures the essence of what you’re, what you’re articulating in my mind, more than former President Obama’s 2004 keynote address in in saying, you know, we have, there are, there are, we have gay friends in red states and we go to soccer games and little league in, in blue states. Um, that is the, the essence of, um, this this idea of of, of a shared experience of multiple points of view and not having a one size, uh, or one color fits all, uh, blue, red, um, I mean, to your point on the TV long time ago, you know, was the Democrats who were red and the Republicans blue. I mean, that’s basically what you’re saying. In other words, when Walter Cronkite was doing it way back when, um, the, the, and then somehow for some reason sort of the arbitrariness of your 1920s importation, uh, argument, the, the Democrats became blue on, on the TV grids and the Republicans were red. Okay, fair enough. But Hyrum said something about starting to confront this on a, on a granular level. Uh, to my mind, the only way actualizing what you’re all saying is, uh, because it makes a lot of sense, um, isn’t through scholarship, it’s through candidates who say, call me whatever you want to call me. I don’t call myself conservative. I don’t call myself liberal, libertarian, capitalist. I call myself whatever. So if, if I’m thinking granularly, I’m thinking of candidates from school board to Senate who run for office with that motto, in essence, is the only way actually right. To fix the problem. Hyum.

H. Lewis: Well, yeah, but that would require change in the parties, right? Because currently party incentives are because the parties are captured by the myth of left and right. The parties believe no, we need purists, we need people who are pure conservatives. They have this myth that there’s a philosophy behind what their party believes. So they won’t allow any dissent because the party is enthralled to this idea that they stand for a principle. If we just got the parties to realize, look, your party stands for a bunch of stuff, none of it related. And, and so it’s okay to be dissenting from that and we need a wider tent, of course. But currently the parties have an incentive to, uh, to run candidates that they believe are ideologically pure under the idea that ideologies can be pure. We’re saying that’s impossible because ideologies themselves are not philosophical. The myth of left and right is that you start with a philosophy, think yourself to a whole bunch of issues and then join the tribe that happens to agree with you. The reality is that you start with the tribe because of friends, peer groups, family, uh, maybe one issue feel strongly about you anchor into the tribe, then you adopt all of its positions and then you invent a story to show how all of these positions are are, are philosophically coherent. So getting this message out would, would help. Yeah.

Heffner: But what do you mean by granular in, in actually adopting or actualizing the thesis of your book in real life? Like what do you mean by granular change or prescriptions?

H. Lewis: Sure. What we mean is that obviously you have to vote for a bundle because we, we have a representative of government. So when you’re voting for Republicans or Democrats, they’re gonna stand for a lot of things. But we say when you’re thinking about politics, you don’t have to think in bundles. You can think in terms of, you know what, abortion, I think women ought have the right to choose taxes. I’d like them to be a little lower. That’s not inconsistent. The myth of left and right says it is the myth of left and right says that somehow you are betraying some deep philosophy. So granularity simply means taking issues one by one instead of buying issues as packages.

Heffner: Right, right. And, and Verlan, when I say granular, I’m thinking of again, how we get to the point where what you’re saying is not a common-sense abstract notion, but a common-sense actualized reality. And so what I’m saying is I don’t believe that our young people today are being socialized in a way that is: Let’s not characterize our support for, uh, war or, uh, our opposition to war or our support for, uh, entitlement programs or, uh, our rejection of, of infrastructure package as conservative or liberal. I don’t think our young people are being socialized that way today. I think that whether you’re in public school or private school or religious school, I think that that that our young people are being socialized in this is liberal and this is conservative.

V. Lewis: Yeah, it’s really interesting. So, you know, there’s political scientists who do, um, survey data. For example, the American National Election study will go out and ask a random sample of Americans and they will ask them, do you identify as liberal or conservative or something else? And about a third of Americans identify as liberal. About a third of Americans identify as conservative. And so we see that as a problem. About two-thirds of Americans, a solid majority of the country thinks of themselves as on the left or on the right when left-right doesn’t even exist. Right. So they’re believing in a fairytale. Now of course there’s useful fairytales or harmless ones, but there’s also harmful ones. Right. So, um, my four year old believes in Santa Claus. That’s fine. Uh, my four-year-old also believes in the boogeyman. Well, it’s keeps her from going to sleep at night. That’s a problem. We’re saying the left right spectrum is a harmful myth and it’s being perpetuated, uh, um, to the detriment of our country.

Heffner: I know you’re saying that, but I’m, I’m asking how. We stopped doing that in a very practical sense because Okay, you said the candidates are not gonna be incentivized, not you, your brother, said that the candidates are not gonna be incentivized to, you know, take that kind of maverick attitude. Well, I think some are, and maybe increasingly so, with the crosspollination of viewpoints, um, the increasing diversity maybe, uh, there’s a new generation that’s gonna increase diversity of conviction in both parties. It’s possible. But my, so it’s, it’s ultimately up to the voters to get those, uh, robocalls or those, uh, you know, text messages saying, are you liberal or conservative? And say, I’m neither. And stop asking me whether I’m one or the other because I am a tapestry. Um, so I, I suppose at a very micro level that’s a solution: The citizen to say, stop pigeonholing me. I’m neither, uh, or this is the way I think about it. So, um, Hyam, tell me what you think, but I am a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Um, because I, I do think that there are measurable ways to say that one might be more conservative or liberal. I’m not ready to reject the idea that we can classify people that way. Um, but I am ready to say that your idea of liberal is not my idea of liberal.

H. Lewis: Well, I mean, the bad news is that this is an elite phenomenon, um, that elites more than regular people are willing to buy into the myth of left and right. That’s the bad news.. Cause elites obviously have the most power, but it’s also the good news, right? Because it means it wouldn’t take convincing a whole lot of people of the myth in order to get the myth repudiated the same way that, you know, the myth that the Four Humors, the balance of the few four humors kept the body and help that could go very quickly because it hadn’t percolated down. I mean, you just had to get the medical establishment not to believe in it. So if we could get thought leaders like yourself, if we could get our colleagues in political science to stop thinking in terms of left and right and start talking about actual issues that could create a cascading effect if we could see this harmful delusion go away within 10 years.

Heffner: In the, in the few minutes we have left, I want to give you each a chance to weigh in on the laboratory of democracy in Utah where this is relevant for an increasing independent streak. And in, in a past election cycle in 22, where the Democrats declined to offer a Senate candidate, instead Evan McMullin ran as an independent. Um, and to the extent that someone, uh, had this kind of bravado or, um, this attitude articulated about independence, McMullin attempted to do that. Um, don’t pigeonhole me left, right, but you, you were working in a state, it’s a state that’s more li sorry, please. That’s more Democratic leaning than Florida now. Um, maybe more…

H. Lewis: You mean Republican?

Heffner: Well, I, I hear people saying that you, Utah is more, well, I was gonna say more liberal than Florida. I mean, but I didn’t want to accept the premise. Right. Um, I have heard multiple commentators, so correct me if I’m wrong, you each have about a minute or so to just talk through the McMullen experiment because I think that it, it l it gives credibility to your idea that this is something that can be actualized on a national political stage. Let’s start with, uh, Verlan and then go to Hyum…

V. Lewis: Here. Yeah, I mean, I, so I work at Utah Valley University and we, I work at a center for Constitutional studies. There’s a lot of people in Utah, in Utah Valley who care about the United States Constitution and who think the Constitution is important, and a lot of these people have identified as Republicans or conservatives, uh, in the past. But of course as evidence for the false way of thinking about left and right, we can just point to what the Republican Party and conservatives have been up to over the past six years under the influence of Donald Trump trying to undermine constitutional principles like the rule of law, like popular sovereignty, like individual rights, like the separation of powers like federalism, on and on and on. And so it’s a, an interesting conundrum where there’s people who say, well, I care about the constitution, but my political tribe is now undermining all these things that I’ve said in the past that I care about. And so I think that helps explain something like the Evan McMullin phenomenon. He ran in 2016, I think as a national conservative in the, in the presidential campaign, right? And then in 2020, uh, two ran here in Utah for the governorship as an independent. But I think the problem with people like, um, McMullin and Jeff Flake from Arizona had a similar problem. They didn’t like what the Republican party was turning into. They didn’t like what conservatism was turning into, but the problem was that they thought there was a conservatism. And so people like Jeff Flake, he writes this book called The Conscience of a Conservative, and he says, well, Trump’s not a true conservative.

Heffner: Got it. Uh, got it.

V. Lewis: But of course, there is no true conservatism. It’s, it’s a social construct whose public meaning is determined by whatever Republicans are up to right now. So if Republicans love Donald Trump and nominate him for the presidency, then he gets to define what conservatism is, and conservatism is turned into something that is unconstitutional, that goes against restraints on government power and against the Constitution. And so he, he’s fighting a losing battle. He’s trying to say, well, you know, I don’t like this new version of conservatism, but there is no one true version. It’s not like the very Goldwater version is the true version of conservatism. Right. And Trump’s is the apostate. I mean, Goldwater’s conservatism was very different from the 1930s conservatism, which was very different from the 1980s conservatism, which is very different from today’s Trump conservatism. So it’s always evolving. And so rather than saying, oh, we gotta have the true conservative, let’s just talk about what’s constitutional and unconstitutional.

Heffner: Uh, your, your brother Verlan just gave you a minute to close, so, alright, sorry. So…no, no worries. But, but yes. Um, if you, but let me ask it this way. Did people who follow the McMullin race, are they coming to see the light of your and your brother’s idea that we need not call something conservative or liberal and that maybe that inhibits the chances for the Democrats to be competitive in the future in Utah?

H. Lewis: Yeah, they are, but indirectly, I don’t think it’s because they’ve been reading our columns or watching our interviews or reading our book or anything. I think it’s simply because they saw and we’re both big fans of Utah voters. I think they’re very sensible. I think they saw that what Trump represents is not what they believed in. Now a lot of people, and this is, this is common, they changed their principles to fit the tribe rather than vice versa. The Utahns didn’t. So again, we just disagree with the vocabulary. You were tempted to say they’re moving left, but wait a minute, they wouldn’t see it that way. It’s not like they used to believe in the Constitution and oh, they’re moving left away from it. They’re simply as the Republican party, abandons, constitutionalism, they’re abandoning the Republican party. That’s not a left.
Heffner: Well, lemme put it this way. Would you both concur that Florida over the course of the last four years became more Trumpian or Trumpist than Utah? I mean, I think you’re allowed to, to use that term, to characterize someone who sides with Trump whether what they say is, uh, conservative or liberal according to traditional definitions. Um, again, you don’t accept that premise, but do you accept the premise that Utah, uh, is less Trumpian or Trumpist than Florida?

H. Lewis: I’d agree with that.

V. Lewis: Yeah. And I mean, if you look at the, the data, you know, to Hyrum’s point, unfortunately what happens is because people believe in this myth, they will change their principles to go along with their political group and claim that they’re being consistent. So it used to be that conservatives thought that character was really important in elected officials and liberals did not. And now they’ve switched places on that, right? It used to be that conservatives were more worried about Russia as a geopolitical foe, and liberals were not as concerned about that. And now they switched on that because there’s nothing inherent in these positions. It’s just unfortunately, um, social evolution. But people delude themselves into thinking that there’s some philosophy that justifies these changes.

Heffner: You, you guys are creative and you’re bending the realm of, of the present and a constructive way. Uh, Brothers Lewis, Verlan and Hyum, co-authors of The Myth of Left and Right. So glad I could have you both on today. Thank you for your time, gentlemen.

H. Lewis: It’s our pleasure. Thank you.

V. Lewis: Thanks Alexander.

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