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M Forward on The Left and Right "Wings"

Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma has characterized Governor Hobbs’ budget proposal as a “left wing wish list”. But how appropriate is this 1-D thinking these days? And are politicians like Mark Finchem or Wendy Rogers really right-wing, or are they something else?

As noted in this article, the terms “left wing” and “right wing” have had a variety of meanings. They often veer far from the original French Revolutionary terms that referred to seating based on differing views of the King’s role. I originally thought of these phrases in economic terms, based on who should own the means of production. “Left” has often meant a greater focus on societal needs and “right” meant “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” (just try doing that). In practice, the policies posed by the “right” have tended to aggregate more power for those who already have it, especially the wealthy. That being said, countries like Communist China and the former Soviet Union have paid tribute to “left wing” philosophies while actually centralizing power for a particular kind of elite. The terms have certainly not been carefully used.

But at this point in our country, “left” and “right” are particularly inadequate to describe our internal schisms. The Republican Party now has a base that has largely abandoned rational thinking and the scientific method. That may sound extreme, but I think it is justified. What else can you say about a party whose most popular and powerful leaders not only disregard the best current public health information, but they also demonize those who are trying to save our lives! They promulgate views that don’t just misinform, but even lead to loss of life.

I don’t think “left” or “right” describes such abandonment of reason very well.

In economic terms, I believe that there are legitimate arguments to be had about the role of government in our lives. We can disagree about particular government regulations. We should have reasoned debate about the nature of our government itself. Powers that we grant to each level of government should be considered and vigorously debated, and it’s fine that there are drastically different views. It’s even legitimate, in my view, to debate rights, particularly when they conflict with other rights. Some think owning powerful weapons is a central right, but this often infringes on the right of others to live.

All of these issues deserve public debate. But the wholesale abandonment of reason is not a position that is deserving of any prior interpretation of “left” or “right.

Some analysts have proposed a two-dimensional categorization, where one axis represents economic views, while the other axis shows a person’s perspective on individual liberty. This is better than the simplistic left-right, but still doesn’t seem to adequately reflect our current political reality.

How about rational vs irrational?

We don’t have to claim knowledge of the inner workings of politicians’ minds in order to notice this division. Whether a public person is motivated by political expediency, by personal worldview, or by both, if they insist the sky is green despite all the evidence to the contrary, they are promoting the irrational side of our dialog. They are outside of the bounds of our legitimate debate on public vs private, on liberty vs constraints, and generally on the best approach to societal problems (e.g., water for our state’s needs).

It's not typically the case that political arguments are won by emphasizing logical flaws in your opponents’ case, or in spouting facts. As Lakoff has argued, most mental activity is not fundamentally rational, and political persuasion requires attention to voters’ world view and values. Nonetheless, it is important for us to support policies that are more likely to improve our lives.

But today, our most apparent divide may be between those who participate in the rational debate vs. those who promote fiction as reality. The latter persist in attacking voter fraud that does not exist, promote conspiracy theories, and obstruct moving forward on the major challenges of our time, both in our state and nationally. That is a critical distinction. Left vs right? Important, if inconsistently defined; but right now, the starkest competition is between in or out: in a debate about how to handle our challenges, or out of it. And right now, particularly in Arizona, many of the elected representatives of one major party are definitely out of it.

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