The Left/Right Divide: A New Approach

Posted on August 29, 2023 By

by Rachel MacNair

I’ve long had a problem in figuring out what the underlying principle is between distinguishing left-wing and right-wing.

I was told during the Reagan years that right-wingers want less government. But so many who identified as right-wing, and were understood that way in the media, wanted more and stronger military, police, FBI, etc. So that didn’t fit.

I was told that left-wingers want more protections for those who need it. But so many who identified as left-wing and were understood that way in the media made an exception for humans not yet born.

I inquired of several people what they thought the principle behind the difference was. Mainly, people didn’t know.

As a consistent-lifer, I was accounted as both right-wing and left-wing. Our saying was “The dove needs both wings to fly.”

Lines Matter. Or Don’t.

There’s quite a bit of study on the right/left distinction in political psychology, where they’re defined by self-identification. Scientific American recently published a new idea on this point, called Many Differences between Liberals and Conservatives May Boil Down to One Belief. To quote:

Psychologists have long suspected that a few fundamental differences in worldviews might underlie the conservative-liberal rift. Forty years of research has shown that, on average, conservatives see the world as a more dangerous place than liberals do. This one belief seemed to help explain many American conservative stances in policy disagreements, such as support of gun ownership, border enforcement, and increased spending on police and the military – all of which, one can argue, are meant to protect people from a threatening world.

But new research . . . contradicts that long-standing theory. We find instead that the main difference between the left and the right is whether people believe the world is inherently hierarchical. Conservatives, our work shows, tend to believe more strongly than liberals in . . . the view that the universe is a place where the lines between categories or concepts matter. A clearer understanding of that difference could help society better bridge political divides.

These researchers gave surveys to thousands of people. They asked the survey-takers to rate how conservative or liberal they are. They asked all kinds of questions about policy positions. Then they used the kind of statistics that pull out themes (factor analysis).

But belief that the world was dangerous wasn’t as linked to those as some other research had suggested. That makes sense to me. I know plenty who emphasize such things as nuclear risks, environmental degradation and police brutality as showing how dangerous the world is, and understand themselves to be left-wing while doing so. As with the amount of government and the protection of the vulnerable, these things actually vary by issue rather than being an underlying principle.

They found that the primary belief they called “hierarchical” was 20 times more strongly related to people’s self-identified right/left position:

People who score high in hierarchical world belief see the world as full of differences that matter because they usually reflect something real, inherent and significant. Such individuals often separate things of greater value from things of lesser value. You might imagine that to them the world looks full of big, bold black lines. In the opposite view—held by people with lower scores for this belief—differences tend to be seen as superficial and even silly. For those with this perspective, the world is mostly dotted lines or shades of gray.

Fitting in the Consistent Life Ethic

Under this idea (which I’m not endorsing, but playing with) –

Abortion: There’s a strong line at conception – that’s when the life of an individual human begins. Also, there’s a line against killing. Therefore, under this scheme, consistent-lifers have a right-wing position. Saying it’s iffy when the life of a human being begins, or that there are times when killing is ok, would then be left-wing.

Euthanasia: There’s a line at intention, saying that intending death is a form of killing – and again, a line against killing. So opposing euthanasia is right-wing under this definition. However, the people who favor “aid in dying” and oppose involuntary euthanasia will draw a line at the individual’s choice. That would also then be right-wing. Just different lines.

Death Penalty: There’s a line that executions are just plain wrong, period. No exceptions. Total death penalty abolition is therefore right-wing in this scheme. People who think there might be exceptions or that killing might be ok under some circumstances are therefore left-wing in this scheme. This is of course backwards from the positions as understood nowadays. But it could also be seen that there’s a strict line about horrific crimes deserving horrific punishment, requiring deterrence, etc., which would be more right-wing, and that may be how these researchers understand it.

War: Pacifists, by definition, draw the line and say no war, period. Hence, right-wing. Advocates of just war theory have clear lines, too – clear definitions, and in European-derived cultures, the criteria set out by Augustine. Those who fudge on those criteria, which includes just about all wars that actually happen, would then be more left-wing under this lines-matter method of ascertaining right/left differences.

Racism: When I was a girl in the 1960s, racists were understood to be right-wingers by definition. Dividing races into clear categories is also right-wing according to this scheme; left-wingers tend to see more blurred lines and see them as irrelevant. Unless, of course, they’re currently into identity politics and affirmative action, where the fine distinctions become very important. That would then be right-wing, only opposite: seeing various races positively rather than negatively. Of course, nowadays, being told a person is a right-winger isn’t enough to tell you the person isn’t Black, and Black right-wingers generally resent the suggestion of being racist.

Poverty: Right wing could include lines about the deserving poor and the undeserving poor, or lines about taxpayers not being charged for assistance, or charities being the organizations that should be the ones helping. But really, quite a few right-wingers live in poverty themselves. Poverty itself has a clear governmental definition based on income, and I fit that definition for several years while still doing international travel – it wasn’t really a good definition for ascertaining real deprivation. Lines are a lot harder to draw on this issue. But then, as the researchers said, not everything is lines.


One way to see the reason the CLE is both left- and right-wing is that we differ on making divisions – including the divisions on left and right. We support more policies understood to be left wing when that’s healthier, prevents harm, or provides economic justice. We tend to blur the line between right and left, which in this approach’s understanding is a very left-wing thing to do.

But we do have the clear line of not killing human beings. People who want to kill blur the boundaries, and rationalize.

I think, all in all, I don’t have any more of a handle on what the difference in principle between right-wing and left-wing is than I did before.



For more of our posts on right-wing/left-wing differences, see: 

The Death Penalty and Abortion: The Conservative/Liberal Straitjacket 

A Tale of Two Cruises



  1. Julia Smucker says:

    This doesn’t ultimately make sense of the way issues are popularly aligned with ideologies in modern politics, but the “clear lines” criterion does shed some light on why Anabaptists (the background from which I most fundamentally approach the consistent life ethic) don’t fit the prevailing political taxonomy. The more conservative an Anabaptist community is, the more staunchly and categorically they will oppose war, and the more likely they are to apply this principle of nonviolence strongly, consistently and absolutely to any other life-and-death issues.

    I have occasionally flabbergasted people outside of those circles by telling them that for Anabaptists, pacifism is conservative. But this shouldn’t be surprising if considered as simply a matter of drawing a clear line against killing human beings.

  2. Hierarchy and strong lines may be signs of something else: essentialism.

    I think that conservatives view the world more or less as Plato did, with each entity partially reflecting some true form. Progressives, on the other hand, think that forms (essences) exist only in our minds. Thus conservatives believe in truth while progressives tend not to believe in truth but rather only in sincerity or honesty about one’s views.

    I personally think that each side is partly right. Concepts are necessary for human communication. And so a kind of essentialism is a prerequisite for discourse, as is a fidelity to truth. That is, human beings need concepts and need to be faithful to them, and that’s hard to do if you think they are just made up.

    On the other hand, anyone who knows a number of different languages knows that many concepts could be formulated quite differently from the way they have come down to us. So there is a tension here. Our concepts do need to logically cohere with each other and to be faithful to the world that they are depicting, but it is a mistake to think that our particular depiction of the world is the only possibly correct and workable one.

    • Elena Muller Garcia says:

      I don’t consider myself to be from the left or from the right. When I said this to a dear teacher whom I had not seen in decades, she told me: “Then you are conservative.” (Prior to my statement she had told me that she was liberal.) That was about twelve years ago, and I have to say it hurt that she would classify me as conservative, especially coming from a person whom I have always admired. I have continued to hold on to my conviction: I am neither left nor right, liberal nor conservative. In some issues I stand with the right, on some others with the left. Thanks for exploring this issue. I consider myself politically homeless. In the Consistent Life Blog I feel I have found a home.

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