Left Right

In response to my post “And To The Republic”, a friend posted this link on my Facebook page.

Presumably it’s intended as a sort of explanation of why America really is “a Republic not a Democracy”.

It was interesting viewing.

On the one hand, it does answer my question about how anyone could possibly have the idea that the USA is “not a democracy”. By their understanding, there’s a real difference between the two.

On the other hand, however, it reads like Tea Party propaganda. A lot. Also, it just brings me back to it being a semantic difference, because I think their interpretation of the political Left and Right scale is wrong.

They have it structured as a scale of governmental control, with dictatorship (they use the word “monarchy”) on the left-hand extreme representing a government that controls everything, and anarchy on the right-hand extreme representing no government at all.

This is a valid scale, but it’s not the one traditionally viewed as Left and Right.

As a centrist, I tend to use a four-point scale charting government control in two directions – economically (the “east-west” axis) and socially (the “north-south” axis), with communism and hyper-capitalism as the eastern and western cardinal points, and hyper-liberalism and fascism being the northern and southern points. Thus, a political group may favour strong social control by government with very little economic control (most conservatives), strong economic control with very little social control (most liberals) or any other combination.

I think this is a more helpful scale than the monochrome scale that this YouTube video attempts to portray, but it isn’t really the traditional Left-Right scale either.

Traditionally, communism and fascism do constitute the extremes of Left and Right, as they do in the very system they claim is wrong because it “does not define terms”. Interesting claim, but not truthful. You have just decided to reinterpret the traditional terms in a way that suits your own political agenda, masking this fact by continuing to use the same terminology everyone is familiar with but meaning something different by it. This isn’t exactly a fair tactic, and I’m calling you on it.

As I am familiar with the traditional terms, the left end of the scale is the Communist/socialist end, characterised by increasingly strong governmental control of the economy and focus on the international class struggle of workers. Liberalism becomes Social Democracy becomes Socialism becomes Communism, the further left you go. The right end of the scale is the conservative/nationalist end, characterised by increasingly strong focus on the traditional social systems of the nation or its main ethnic group and a comparatively loose governmental control of the economy. Conservatism bleeds into Nationalism which becomes outright Fascism at the extreme right end.

By this traditional scale, you really do have Fascism on the far right, not on the far left where they want to put it. This reinterpretation of what political Left and Right mean potentially opens the door to a kind of US neofascism that just doesn’t call itself fascist, and that ought to worry us. We fought wars against that sort of thing. Now fascism is recast as a Left-wing ideology, both allowing us to demonise our political opponents by the use of the label and allowing us to feel like we aren’t becoming dangerously close to Fascism ourselves.

The scale has other problems as well, most notably their characterisation of “democracy” as only meaning “majority rule” and “republic” as only meaning “rule of law”. It becomes evident that this is overly simplistic when we realise that, using only these definitions, either the UK is a republic or the US is an oligarchy.

They strongly imply that modern Britain is an oligarchy by including Churchill’s picture in their display of oligarchies. (At least, it looks like Churchill to me). Though they never actually go ahead and say so out loud, I find this subtle equation of my home country with juntas like Myanmar and Soviet Russia to be deeply offensive.

Hoever, if modern Britain is to be cast as an oligarchy because it is ruled by a government constituted by the majority party, then arguably the US is as well, and always has been. The American situation is a little more complex, but its government is still effectively constituted by whichever party has the majority.

The other alternative is that Britain is defined as a republic, a situation so strange as to be actually humourous. Quite what the Royal Family would make of that I have no idea. Britain is not a republic. We’re a constitutional monarchy, and quite proud of it, thank you.

Rule of law is not something exclusively found in republican (note the small “r”) states, but is an important principle underpinning the idea of democracy. At its root, Magna Carta was one of the first triumphs of the rule of law through its contention that not even sovereign monarchs were above the law.

“Democracy” doesn’t just mean “majority rule”. It can be used to mean majority rule, but its usual functional definition includes, as I said initially, the idea of the people having a say in their government via representation or through direct means. Their lynch-mob example is not democracy, because true democracy requires the rule of law in order to be enacted. You might call it Populism, but this is a different animal. Unreasonably narrowing your definitions in this way amounts to redefining terms to slant the entire picture towards yourself. Even going back to the Greek roots of the word won’t change the fact that this is what you’re doing. Butterflies have nothing to do with flying butter.

Their observation that the word “democracy” appears nowhere in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution is rather reminiscent of the observation that the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. The word might not be there, but the concept certainly is. Plato’s ancient term might have been the one chosen as best fitting the ideals of the Founding Fathers, but it would still seem to me to be unreasonable hair-splitting, not to mention putting words in their mouths, to say that they meant to set the ideas of Democracy and Republic against one another.

All in all, I’m still not seeing enough of a difference to warrant making Republic and Democracy an opposed pair. The two are broader, overlapping categories, partially nested inside one another, distinct but having a lot in common. At least, they are the way I understand and use the terms, and I still think I’m normal in this regard.

The overlapping nature of the terms may be part of the problem. Americans don’t seem to do well with broad lingustic categories or overlapping meanings; witness the (American) distinction between “glider” and “sailplane”. In Britain they’re all gliders, and the term “sailplane” is a meaningless neologism. But to my American father-in-law, “no, no, it’s a sailplane, not a glider, because a glider is just designed to come down, but a sailplane is designed to be able to soar”. Whatever. It’s an unpowered aircraft with wings, therefore it’s a glider. It’s very American to view this sort of semantic quibble as a major point of difference, so maybe I ought to expect the same in politics.

But the right-leaning slant of it all does make me wonder whether these reworked definitions are also used by the political Left. I suspect not, but I’ve been surprised before.

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