Notes Toward A New Political Taxonomy

It has become clear to me over the years that one of the causes of persistent confusion in our political arguments is the interchangeable use of taxonomic terms that, while they may have a natural affinity, are not actually synonyms.

Three terms that tend to get used interchangeably are:


Their counterparts on the other side of the political spectrum are treated similarly:


The shades of difference among the meanings of the words within the triads, however, are not minor. One can very well be extremely right-wing without being a reactionary in any meaningful sense – think of Ayn Rand. One can be extremely left-wing without being a liberal in any meaningful sense – think of Lenin.

I propose, therefore, to accentuate the differences between the words commonly lumped together, to clear up all ambiguities by assigning technical meanings to commonly-used terms, and thereby define a three-dimensional space within which political writers and thinkers could more clearly be pegged.

Herewith my new definitions:

1. Liberal vs. Conservative

The core of the difference between a liberal and a conservative outlook relates to one’s basic assumptions about human capacities. A liberal is someone who is generally impressed with the capacities of an individual, and who therefore wants individuals to be free to develop those capacities. Liberal distrust of authority and belief in the importance of open minds and freedom of inquiry stem from this basic assumption: that individuals can be trusted to know what’s best for themselves, and that the best environment is one that nurtures that capacity in individuals.

A conservative by temperament takes the opposite side in this dispute. Most human beings are naturally afraid of freedom, eager to hand over decisionmaking power to some authority. They frequently do not – cannot – know what is best for them. Most ideas are beyond their natural cognitive capacities, and anyhow people are not so much moved by ideas as by sentiments. Not only are human beings fundamentally selfish, they are frequently perverse. Deference to authority combined with an intense concern for the nature of that authority and its legitimate grounds grows naturally in conservative soil.

Put simply: a liberal outlook trusts individuals and questions authority; a conservative outlook distrusts individuals and defers to authority.

2. Left vs. Right

Issues of the individual versus authority are not fundamental to the left-right axis. Rather, this axis is defined by attitudes towards success.

A left-wing perspective is animated by failure and the consequences thereof. Whether we’re talking about Rawlsian liberals or Christian socialists or orthodox Marxist-Leninists, the ultimate object of concern is the miserable of the earth. Their perspective, their needs, are the beginning and the end of political morality.

A right-wing perspective is opposite to this. How to design a system that adequately rewards success is the essence of the right-wing political project. What constitutes “success” may vary among different kinds of right-wingers – are we talking about having the most impressive genetic endowment? accumulating the most wealth? devising the most impressive technical innovations? it can even be a matter of aesthetics – how do we reward the achievement of euphony and harmony? But these are all kindred spirits in that all are asking how to reward success, so that we get more of it, rather than how to mitigate the consequences of failure (or, in the case of more radical leftists, abolish it altogether).

Put simply: a right-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the winners and their interests, while a left-wing perspective is animated by an affinity for the losers and their interests.

3. Progressive vs. Reactionary

The progressive-reactionary axis revolves around attitudes toward time and history.

The progressive is future-oriented. Things will – or could – be better in the future than they are now. But more than this, history has a direction that can be discerned, and that one must be cognizant of in constructing one’s politics. You don’t have to be a dialectical materialist to be a progressive; the motor of history could be something entirely other than the class struggle – indeed, history doesn’t have to be conceived as a machine with a motor at all for it to have a direction. Whiggish history is progressive; so is history as understood by social darwinists; neither has much in common with Marxist history apart from that fact.

The reactionary, by contrast, is past-oriented. Things will – likely – be worse in the future than they are now, just as they were better in the past. Apparent progress masks the loss of things that were more valuable than the novelties acquired. Moreover, in the deepest sense, the real truth is that there is nothing new under the sun. What may appear novel has really been seen many, many times before. The reactionary resists change simply because it is change, and is therefore unlikely to be good; he is the one standing athwart history yelling “stop!”

Now, as should be obvious, there’s a reason why we use the triads interchangeably: because they are mutually reinforcing. But by accentuating the differences among the terms, I’m hoping to define a space that would make it easier to situate any given individual, and understand why ostensible allies might wind up disagreeing – and ostensible opponents agreeing – when the defining questions of a given moment get scrambled.

You might ask: how is my scheme different from the political compass? First and foremost, the political compass is far too idealistic. Do people really range between those who think the economy shouldn’t be regulated and those who think the economy should be centrally managed, with a spectrum in between? I think those kinds of intellectual commitments come later. I think my scheme – do you side with winners or with losers? – is much closer to the heart. Second, and relatedly, the political compass is far too narrowly bound to our current political disputes. It therefore makes it very difficult to see affinities across time and space to situations where the issue landscape was very different, even if a very similar array of different temperaments contended. Finally, I think the orientation toward history is a very important dimension for people’s political allegiances – indeed, sometimes the dominant one. If Christopher Lasch or Alasdair MacIntyre weren’t reactionaries, they wouldn’t be anything at all.

To start placing people in my defined space, let’s take a fellow like Andrew Sullivan. I’d call him basically a liberal, right-wing progressive. He calls himself a conservative, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that he’s deferential to authority nor that he’s skeptical of individuals’ capacities. And that’s consistent across his career; these things were true when he was cheering on Margaret Thatcher and they are true today when he’s cheering on Barack Obama. But he’s also basically right-wing; he is generally more animated by the need to reward success than by the need to ameliorate the consequences of failure. His “move to the left” over time represents a change in emphasis on his part and a response to a change in the political landscape – where once he considered himself a member of a right-wing coalition of liberals and conservatives against the left, he now sees himself as a member of a liberal coalition of left- and right-wingers against conservative reactionaries. (Oh, I’m sorry – he’s of no party or clique. Never mind.)

Your typical libertarian – Julian Sanchez, Will Wilkinson, etc. – is also a liberal, right-wing progressive, the exceptions being the few but hardy traditionalist libertarians – like Ron Paul himself – who are liberal, right-wing reactionaries. A guy like Daniel Larison, who gets on well with traditionalist libertarians, is no liberal, but he’s also not so right wing, in both cases, I think, because he is first and foremost a Christian.

Matt Yglesias is a liberal and a progressive, through and through, but he’s not much of a left-winger – which is one reason he gets so much grief in comments from the left. Ross Douthat is deeply conservative, but he’s not particularly right-wing – which is one reason his book got so much grief from Rush Limbaugh and his minions. And his collaborator, Reihan Salam, is somewhat less conservative, but mainly is wildly progressive, while Douthat is mildly reactionary.

Sometimes people’s idols aren’t who the idolizers think. I’d venture to say most libertarians have some admiration for Ayn Rand, and think she’s one of them – a liberal, right-wing progressive. Ayn Rand was a cartoonishly extreme right-winger in the sense that I am using the term – her ideology isn’t much more than the worship of the “bitch god,” success. She was also progressive, like most libertarians – much more interested in the future than the past. But it’s not at all clear to me that she, unlike many of her admirers, was actually a liberal in the sense of trusting the individual and distrusting authority. It’s a very limited group of individuals in her intellectual world who can actually be entrusted with freedom. That’s a conservative vision, whether she’d have admitted it or not.

Andrew Sullivan, the liberal right-wing progressive, idolizes George Orwell. But Orwell was such an odd duck because he was a liberal, left-wing reactionary. He was passionate about the individual and deeply distrustful of authority, but the animating political question for him was what was to be done about the wretched condition of the working class – he was, all his life, a socialist. And he was also a reactionary – “he loved the past, hated the present, and dreaded the future” is I believe the apt description. His hatred of Communism had at as much to do with his reactionary sentiments as with his liberal ones – which is how he could be embraced by conservative right-wingers with whom he would have agreed about nothing else.

Anyway, one could go on forever like this, and, if you like the schema, I encourage you to do so.