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The Left and the Right in Thinking, Personality, and Politics

by G. William Domhoff

The aim of this essay is to provide a big-picture canvas of the wider meanings of the Left-Right dimension in human thinking and personality. It's a dimension that precedes and transcends politics, but may well explain some of the puzzles about the political Left and Right. I begin by discussing general findings on the cross-cultural differences in the thinking and attitudes of Leftists and Rightists on many different aspects of life. Then I describe how this dimension has manifested itself in language, and how it became part of politics during the French Revolution. Then I show how the left-right dimension manifests itself in personality, and that political preferences do relate to this dimension.

After showing the considerable difference between the political Left and Right in personality and social attitudes, I suggest that they nonetheless share certain essential similarities that are relatively rare in the general population, especially a high degree of moral fervor and moral anger, even while they differ completely on what they are fervent and angry about. My next step is to suggest that this shared moral fervor leads political Leftists and Rightists to have similar condescending attitudes towards their more moderate left-oriented or right-oriented compatriots, those who are merely "liberal" or only moderately "conservative."

I conclude this document with a puzzle. Both Leftists and Rightists end up working in various hierarchical, top-down organizations. That fact seems fairly straightforward and understandable for the Rightists because they believe in hierarchy, as will be shown. But how do Leftists, who are egalitarian in their values, often end up in very hierarchal organizations? It's at this point that we have to look to social psychology and sociology for answers.

The left-right dimension in general thinking

In the 1960s, a psychologist interested in philosophy and ideology, Silvan Tomkins, wrote an essay in which he argued there is a Left-Right dimension in every area of waking thought, from beliefs about mathematics to beliefs about child-rearing practices. Based on his research, Tomkins (1964) concluded that those on the Right end of this continuum first and foremost tended to be rule-oriented. They see rules as external to themselves, and even to people in general. Rules are part of the universe, or ordained by God. In addition, Rightists are often uncomfortable about emotions and tend to deny their feelings. They therefore want emotions under control. They also favor hierarchy, at least in part because they want to keep impulses under control through rules. The best people, those who follow rules and control emotions, should be in charge. Rightists become angry with rule breaking, not with oppressive authority.

Rightists tend to be very individually oriented. They tend not to see groups and social classes. They think that success is a matter of individual effort, overlooking the social support that they and everyone else has had in order to advance in life. This individualistic orientation, along with their respect for hierarchy, makes them into natural supporters of the current power structure, whatever their socioeconomic standing.

On the other hand, according to Tomkins, Leftists are oriented toward human needs and pleasures, not rules, and think that people create rules. They are attracted to new experiences and positive feelings. They are for equality and do not like hierarchy; they are egalitarians who are willing to change the rules if they think that is necessary. In addition, they tend to focus on groups and social networks. This group-oriented stance, along with their emphasis on equality, makes them natural allies of the underdogs, whether this means low-income people or people excluded from the dominant society on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religious preference.

It is this underlying dimension of human thinking and experience that has been rediscovered by cognitive linguist George Lakoff (1996) in his work on "moral politics," in which he comes to similar conclusions about Right and Left thinking based on a metaphoric analysis of what Leftists and Rightists say and write. Lakoff's "Strict Father Morality" model fits with what Tomkins says about the Right, and his "Nurturant Parent Morality" model is consistent with what Tomkins says about the Left.

It also has been found in the excellent work in social psychology by Bob Altemeyer, such as The Authoritarian Specter (Harvard University Press, 1996) and in his free PDF book, The Authoritarians, which can be downloaded from his Web site (with an update on the Tea Party). For a very useful source that provides many summary chapters and a set of references that covers the whole topic, see John T. Jost and Jim Sidanius (Eds.), Political Psychology: Key Readings (Psychology Press, 2004). Even more recent work by Jost and his colleagues on the personality differences between Leftists and Rightists is summarized later in this document.

Tomkins developed a questionnaire to test his ideas on American participants, mostly college students. The questionnaire asked people to endorse one or both of a series of paired statements, such as "Numbers were invented" or "Numbers were discovered." As Tomkins expected, he found that people differed in consistent ways on which statements they endorsed, supporting his hypothesis that there were Right and Left ways of looking at the world over and beyond how people felt about any specific issue. For example, when confronting the statements about numbers being either invented or discovered, Left-oriented thinkers (and keep in mind that we are not yet talking about politics, but a general way of thinking) replied that people invented number, whereas Right-oriented thinkers tended to say they were discovered, i.e., that they exist independently of people. (The issue here is not which is "really" the correct answer, if there is one, but simply what people say off the top of their heads.)

Similarly, Right-oriented thinkers were for strict child rearing in order to tame the unruly emotions in children ("spare the rod and spoil the child"), while Leftist-oriented thinkers saw children as little flowers to be nurtured and supported, that is, allowed to grow more or less "naturally." More generally, when asked whether people are basically "evil" or "good" in terms of human nature, Right-oriented thinkers tended to say "evil" and Left-oriented thinkers tended to say "good." In fact, people's preference on this question about basic human nature best predicts how they will answer many other questions in a "Right" or a "Left" way. So we can say that beliefs about human nature are an anchor point of the general Left-Right dimension.

To show that there is a Left and Right to every question and even every academic discipline, Tomkins noted in his essay that the field of psychology is on the Left side, with engineering and the natural sciences on the Right, and the humanities to the Left of psychology. However, even within a field like psychology, there are Right and Left sides to every issue, with the "hard-nosed" experimentalists and "quantifiers," who study specific narrow psychological processes, on the Right, and the more field-oriented and clinical researchers, who use "qualitative" methods, on the Left.

In closing this section, let me stress that we are talking here about pure types at the ends of a continuum. Everyone believes in controlling impulses at one time or another, not just Right-oriented thinkers, and just about everyone likes to explore and take risks in some situations, not just Left-oriented thinkers. Thus, most people are somewhere in the middle in their overall thinking, and they are sometimes complex blends of the two orientations. Moreover, Tomkins claims that some of the most famous and creative people in Western history, such as the philosopher Kant and the composer Beethoven, are those who are able to synthesize aspects of the Left and Right, thereby appealing to both sides of the continuum. The point for now, though, is that there is a general Left-Right dimension that transcends any particular issue.

Why do we talk about politics in terms of Right and Left?

Why do we speak of the hierarchically oriented stand-patters as "Rightists" and the egalitarian, we-can-do-better, let's-change-things people as "Leftists?" According to the Oxford English Dictionary and conventional wisdom, it's because the conservatives happened to sit on the king's right when they marched into the French National Assembly that was convened in 1789 in the face of the upheavals facing the king and his court. Since the conservatives were on the right, it followed that the upstart bourgeoisie, radical intellectuals, and other insurgents had to sit on the left (see Laponce, 1981, Chapter 3, who analyzed French newspaper accounts from the 1790s to explain how the use of right and left spread across that country and into the rest of the world).

According to this account, the use of Left and the Right to characterize political views is just an historical accident. A precedent was set via something like the flip of a coin, and then it became a custom, and was invested with all kinds of meaning, and things rolled on from there, a small example perhaps of the "path-dependent" nature of history, which basically follows the old adage that one thing leads to another.

But Tomkins and other scholars claim it may not be that simple. As they note, Right and Left have been invested with deep meanings throughout Western history, and indeed, in every other culture we know about as well. The Right is always good and straight and true and up, and the Left tends to be the opposite. For example, the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, have a very complex cosmology that ties many basic dimensions of life to the left and the right, as do many other peoples (e.g., Hertz, 1960; Needham, 1973). In the Bible, the elect sit on the right hand of God.

These associated meanings of Left and Right are also seen in word etymologies, which reveal the "meaning complexes" that embed specific terms (Thass-Tienemann, 1955, 1967). In many Romance languages, for example, the left is related to strange stuff and lesser aspects of life. For example, sinistra, the Latin word for left, is the root for our word "sinister." Gauche, the French word for left, has negative connotations. In Norwegian, the word for right, hoyer, literally means "higher." The Spanish word for right, derecho (derived from Latin directus), also means "upright" or "correct."

Or take a look at English. People are "out in left field," not right field, when they have a far-out opinion. We give people "left-handed compliments." So the question may be: why did the nobility sit on the king's right in the first place?

Perhaps the left-right, bad-good dichotomy had its origins in the basic dualisms that exist in human thought everywhere, as implied by Tomkins's work. That's a big claim, but it gains support in work by psychologist Charles Osgood and his colleagues (1975) from the 1950s to 1970s. Osgood basically asked people all over the world to make snap judgments on just about anything you can think of -- whether it was colors like "red" and "blue," or concepts like "left" and "right," or specific people like presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy -- using a series of polar opposites, such as soft/hard, up/down, hot/cold, and fast/slow. So, for example, if you were asked to rate a "turtle," you might strongly think it was more "hard" than "soft" and more "slow" than "fast." You also might rate a turtle as somewhat more "down" than "up" because they are close to the ground. You might be hard pressed to decide if a turtle is "hot" or "cold," so you might pick the middle point on the seven-point scale, meaning that it does not strike you as either "hot" or "cold."

On the other hand, if you were asked to rate a "giraffe," you might say it was more "soft" than "hard" because of its smooth skin and colorful fur, and more "fast" than "slow" because it can run plenty fast when it has to. You probably would rate it as more "up" than "down" because of its long neck, and you might say it is more "hot" than "cold" because you figure it is a warm-blooded animal living on the hot plains of Africa.

Osgood called his list of polar adjectives "the semantic differential." Based on very large samples of people from all over the world, and using very rigorous statistical analyses, Osgood established that there are three basic dimensions when people impute meaning. These dimensions hold all over the world and for whatever we rate, whether turtles or giraffes or presidents or cooking pots or colors or pictures. The importance of each of the three dimensions varies from concept to concept, but they are the main factors that inform any intuitive judgment we make:

First, there is the evaluative dimension. Do I like it or not like it, which is soon translated in our thinking into a "good-bad" dimension. The evaluative dimensions includes polar opposites such as good/bad, pretty/ugly, and friendly/unfriendly

Second, there is the activity dimension. Basically, is it active or passive, fast or slow?

Third, there is the potency dimension. Is it strong or weak?

If the Left-Right dimension explained by Tomkins also has any relationship to our thinking about politics, then there should be differences on the semantic differential. So I tested this possibility by giving the semantic differential to college freshman and sophomores who did not know the purpose of the study. Eighty rated only the concept "Right," 78 rated the concept "Left." Then I studied children from the first grade through high school in Napa, California, thanks to an insider connection that got me entrée into dozens of classrooms in a single day, back in the mid-1960s (Domhoff, 1969). The two sheets of paper put before the students looked like what appears below, with either the word Left or Right at the top of the page, followed by instructions to judge where they would place Left and Right on each of the pairs of polar adjectives that we used (e.g., good/bad, male/female, unclean/clean). They had seven blanks they could mark to express the degree to which their idea of Left or Right fit with one or the other side of the continuum, which means they could mark the middle choice ("4") if the word at the top did not remind them of either side.

There was one added twist to this study. I used a set of polar adjectives that were related to "left" and "right" by the Maori of New Zealand to see if we had similar conceptions to what they have. The scale appears below.

light - - - - - - - dark
curved - - - - - - - straight
high - - - - - - - low
female - - - - - - - male
sacred - - - - - - - profane
heterosexual - - - - - - - homosexual
mysterious - - - - - - - commonplace
unclean - - - - - - - clean
correct - - - - - - - incorrect
bad - - - - - - - good
beautiful - - - - - - - ugly
limp - - - - - - - erect
strong - - - - - - - weak

Sure enough, just like the Maori, the older children and college students tended to say that the Left was bad, dark, profane, female, unclean, curved, limp, homosexual, weak, mysterious, low, ugly, and incorrect, while the right was judged as just the opposite -- good, light, sacred, male, clean, straight, erect, heterosexual, strong, commonplace, high, beautiful, and correct. This suggests there is a pan-human meaning to the Left and the Right.

If we look more closely at how we think about leftness, it is not always simply "bad," as in "not good." It is more like the Left is bad in the sense of "tempting." That is, the Left involves impulses that are not a good idea because they upset people and get you in trouble, which is in keeping with Tomkins's claim that expressing or controlling emotions is a key factor in the Left-Right dimension. But it is not just that the Right is good and the Left is "baaad," as in the admiring comment, "he's a baaad cat." The Right is also "up" and the Left is "down," as also seen in the rating of the Right as "high" and the Left as "low." That is, the hierarchical dimension that Tomkins talks about is built into the Left-Right dimension, too, through the basic equation of "good" and "up" and "bad" and "down" in our mental universe. How are you feeling today? "I'm really up, today, thanks." Or, "sorry to say, but I am feeling down today." When we are elated we are "high as a kite," on "cloud nine," or "walking on air." When we are feeling discouraged or depressed, we are "down" or "low," or "in the dumps."

So, it seems that Right and Left really do stand for something in our minds. They stand for proper, right-minded thinking versus playful/sinful/heretical thinking, and hierarchy versus equality, just as Tomkins suggests. To support God, the King, the President, the bosses, or the department chairperson is to be on the Right. To question or rebel against them is to be on the Left.

However, there is one serious problem with what I have said so far, as one of the best personality psychologists of the past 40 years, Robert McCrae, pointed out to me. I've made it sound as if the Right is "better" than the Left, as though they are the truly virtuous ones. He goes on to suggest it might be useful to point out that what I've written applies to the way people think, but not necessarily to the way they act. Yes, rightists believe in rules, but they are not any more likely to follow them, or be orderly and punctual, diligent and hardworking. That's because there are four other basic dimensions to personality in addition to the left-right dimension -- which is called the "openness" dimension within the widely accepted "Five-Factor Model of Personality" that McCrae and his co-workers developed. (It's also called the "Big Five" model, and its five factors can be most easily remembered with the acronym "OCEAN." They are openness, conscientious, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, all of which are pretty much self-explanatory.

As McCrae explained to me, and as work with the Five-Factor Model shows, the right and the left differ on openness, but not necessarily on the other four dimensions (c.f. McCrae, 1996; McCrae & Costa, 1980). For my purposes here, the important difference concerns the conscientiousness dimension: not all rightists are conscientious enough to stick with their rules, any more than leftists or people in the middle are. McRae points out that when we are scandalized by misbehavior by Rightists -- or shrug off misbehavior on the Left -- it's because we sometimes forget that what people believe and what they do are often two very different matters.

With the distinction between openness and conscientiousness in mind, we can now ask whether what I have outlined in this and previous sections (about the Left and the Right in thinking and personality) relates to the actual people who are political Rightists and Leftists in countries like the United States. I now turn to the evidence that it does, starting with a study that a colleague and I did of political Leftists and Rightists using the Tomkins questionnaire.

The Left and Right in politics

Tomkins also claimed that the Left-Right dimension appears in politics, and I am now going to present evidence that such is the case.

But before I do that, I need to make sure we are all on the same page when it comes to talking about different political orientations in the United States. First, most people in the United States usually think of the Left-Right dimension as the "liberal-conservative" dimension, and rightly so, because it means the same thing at a theoretical level. However, a terminology problem arises because those who are "left of center" divide into two basic types, as do those "right of center." On the Left side, just to the left of the center," we find the "liberals," whereas those to the left of liberals are called "Leftists." In the past, the Leftists usually defined themselves as either "socialists," "communists," or "anarchists." Today they are more likely to self-identify as "progressives" or "anti-capitalists," although there are also those who lean in an anarchistic direction who call themselves "libertarian socialists" to emphasize their respect for individual rights and their wariness of a large government. Meanwhile, just to make things a little more complicated, the term "progressive" has also been adopted by some moderate liberals who don't want to be associated with "The L-Word." On the Right side, just to the right of the center, there are "moderate conservatives" and on their right we find the "ultra-conservatives," with the varying types of ultra-conservatives self-identifying as "New Rightists," "Christian Rightists," and "Neo-conservatives." There's also a very small and unusual group on the right, the "Libertarians," who dislike government but are -- in theory -- in favor of freedom to smoke dope, be gay, etc. They are in some ways a mirror image of anarchists, and they are civil libertarians, but anarchists and libertarians also differ totally in that the anarchists are internationalists and dislike markets, whereas libertarians are more nationalistic and love markets over and beyond just about anything else. In any event, it is the New Rightists, Christian Rightists, Neo-conservatives, and Libertarians that I am calling political Rightists in this essay. All of this can be confusing, so below is a chart that tries to provide an overview.

Points Along The Left-Right Dimension in American Politics
Extreme LeftModerate LeftModerate RightExtreme Right
Generic nameLeftistsLiberalsConservativesRightists
  Religious Right
New Right
Political partySocialist

It's also important to make clear that the political substance of what is "Left" and what is "Right" can vary from time to time and place to place due to the different histories of different countries. This point is especially critical for understanding the differences between the European Right and the American Right. The European Right mythologizes a past of strong states, complete with kings and their courts, and a hierarchical church. It can see itself submerged in the state, and could therefore move, just 70-80 years ago, to the extreme of fascism.

The American Right, on the other hand, due to the history of the United States, has a myth of a highly individualistic past, with a minimum amount of government. That is, the American Right is based on the tenets of 19th century, Big-L "Liberalism," the philosophy that codifies and justifies a small-government, a "free" market, and anti-union policies and practices. It claims that people are rational self-maximizers. The people who become the wealthiest are assumed to be the smartest and the fittest. The American right therefore shares an elitist orientation with other Rightists, but it doesn't glorify the government.

Meanwhile, the small-L liberals in America, that is, those left of center within the Democratic Party, who want to end racism and sexism and exploitation of ordinary workers, came to the conclusion many decades ago that federal-level government programs were the only way to achieve their goals. The federal government would have to end segregation, women would have to have the right to vote, and workers would have to have the right to unionize to counter the power of big corporations. This need for action at the national level was especially obvious in the case of freedom for African-Americans because the state governments in the racist, segregationist South were clearly not going to change one iota without federal pressures (see Starr, 2007, for a full discussion of how the small-L liberals gradually evolved from the big-L liberals and therefore differ from the present conservatives and Rightists, who stick to the original big-L positions).

However, the American Rightists, given their strong desire to keep things as they are, and their respect for hierarchy, including the hierarchical relationship between whites and blacks and men and women as well as capitalists and workers, often see small-L liberalism as a form of "collectivism." Contrary to Rightist rhetoric, however, small-L liberalism is a relatively slight modification of old-style liberalism and an expansion of democracy to include more than the owners of income-producing properties. In other words -- and this is crucial -- most Americans are either 19th-century liberals or 20th-century liberals in an ideological sense. Contrary to what the Rightists believe, there are few or no socialists or communists. And contrary to the view from the Left, the American Rightists are not fascists. Put another way, the conservatives and liberals use extremist rhetoric when talking about each other. However, because most Americans are one or another variant of Big-L liberalism -- that is, they are neither communists/socialists nor fascists -- they are usually able to compromise their differences without violence. On the other hand, the fact that the two sides can come to demonize each other so completely is a testament to the more fanatical aspects of the human mind.

Now we are ready for studies that try to relate styles of thinking and personality to political preferences. Such studies have a long history that dates back to the late 1930s in the United States, with the best and most rigorous of these studies having been done since the 1990s by political psychologists whom I will discuss shortly. However, I want to start with a study from the 1960s that used the Tomkins Left-Right questionnaire to study members of actual Leftist and Rightist political groups. It's a study I did with my colleague Henry Minton at California State University at Los Angeles in the autumn of 1964, just before the presidential election between liberal Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson and ultra-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. We were able to give the Tomkins questionnaire and several personality tests -- to be discussed in a moment -- to five groups:

  1. Members of the W.E.B. DuBois Club, the youth group of the American Communist Party at the time.
  2. Members of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the main Trotskyist party in the United States.
  3. Members of the Young Democrats, a group which contained all shades of Democratic opinion, but with a decidedly liberal tinge.
  4. Members of the Young Republicans, almost exclusively pro-Goldwater ultra-conservatives.
  5. Members of a class in introductory psychology. Since psychology was a required liberal arts course at Cal State LA at the time, this sample is very likely representative of the college population, which is relevant because all of the Young Democrats and Young Republicans were students at Cal State LA, as were a small number of the Communists and Trotskyists.

In addition to the Tomkins questionnaire, we collected basic demographic information on the participants that isn't essential here because everyone back then was standard-issue young white college students, along with something that is important for my current purposes, a self-rating on a 7-point liberalism-conservatism dimension. We also gave the Internationalism-Nationalism Scale, which is known to correlate with conservatism.

It's also important to note that we did not use the two or three Tomkins statements that relate at all to politics -- the ones about the nature of government and the best way to deal with criminals. In other words, we made the Tomkins questionnaire apolitical in that it focuses on statements about human nature, numbers, child rearing, and a few other non-political issues.

Here's what we found. First, on the liberalism-conservatism self-rating scale, all but one of the Communists and Trotskyists gave themselves the strongest possible liberalism rating, a "1," with one person giving himself a "2." All of the Young Democrats gave themselves a "2," "3," or "4," which clearly differentiates them from the Leftists. And all but two of the Young Republicans gave themselves the most extreme conservative ratings, a "6" or a "7;" the remaining two rated themselves as "3" and "5." So the self-ratings completely differentiate the various groups, with the exception of the Young Republican who gave himself a "3"; he turned out to have been raised in a liberal family.

The second analysis consisted of a correlational matrix that included the liberal-conservative self-rating, along with the international/chauvanistic nationalism scale, the Tomkins questionnaire, and the Jackson-Minton Adjective Checklist. This analysis first of all showed that the participants' subjective self-ratings correlated very highly, r= .78, with the internationalism-nationalism scale, with the conservatives on the highly nationalistic, super-patriotic side, a finding that has been reported in virtually every study that has been done of Leftists and Rightists in the past 60 years. That means we are on solid ground when we turn to the Tomkins results.

The Total Left Scores, that is, the total number of Left-oriented statements that the person endorsed, correlated .46 with liberal self rating and .35 with internationalism, which is a solid result in the world of personality studies, and the Total Right Scores correlated .51 with the self rating and .65 with nationalism, which is an even more impressive result.

Although those are good correlations by the standards of personality studies, it's a fair question to ask why they aren't even higher. One important reason is that some of the self-identified Leftists and Young Republicans had not yet found their "natural" home on the Left-Right continuum. That is, we know from the biographies and autobiographies of many political figures that they start out at one place and end up at another. In particular, there are many dramatic examples of young Leftists who move to the Right. Many of the famous Neo-Conservatives of the 1970s through the 1990s started out as Socialists or Trotskyists in the 1950s and 1960s, for example. There is also a little movement from the Right to the center, and even to mild liberalism; Hillary Clinton would be a good case in point. Based on her upbringing, she was for Goldwater in 1964, but by the time she had finished college and law school she was a liberal. (More generally, there is a modest correlation between parental and offspring politics as people are growing up, but other factors enter into political orientation after age 18 or 19 -- including what the new generation as a whole is experiencing -- e.g., "the Sixties," "the Eighties," "The Great Recession.") So young adults often differ from their parents in political orientation, and siblings often differ from each other, too, for that matter. There's also social class and peer-group influences and situational factors like where you work.

There is one very interesting study of liberals and conservatives from the 1960s that is consistent with the Tomkins dimension. It is a by-product of a follow-up study of University of Minnesota students who had taken a battery of vocational interest tests in the late 1930's in an attempt to predict their future career interests. When they were studied via questionnaires and interviews 25 years later, they provided new information on their interests and attitudes, including their political orientation. So, as one small part of the data analysis, the participants were divided into liberals and conservatives (Rossmann & Campbell, 1965). And they differed in their interests, hobbies, and occupations in ways we would expect from the Tomkins dimension.

And as I noted earlier, there is a large amount of new information on Leftists and Rightists that has been collected since the 1990s. In fact, it is in general better information because it uses tests that are far more rigorous than the now-abandoned Tomkins scale and adds new ideas and insights to the picture. Most of these new findings are summarized in a synthesis by political psychologists John T. Jost and David M. Amodio (2012), who did many of the original studies themselves. They also put the new studies within their historical context, including three references to the work by Tomkins.

The studies carried out or summarized by Jost and Amodio amply confirm that Leftists are more open than Rightists. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies in 12 different countries, they also show that factors such as death anxiety, dogmatism, intolerance for ambiguity, and need for order were positively correlated with conservatism and negatively correlated with liberalism, whereas openness to new experience, cognitive complexity, and tolerance of uncertainly were all positively correlated with liberalism and negatively correlated with conservatism (Jost & Amodio, 2012, p. 57). Moreover, the new work goes beyond Tomkins in demonstrating that it is not just "emotion" in general that Rightists fear more than Leftists. In particular, they are more likely to react to uncertainty and ambiguity by feeling threatened and anxious, which may lead to their negative attitude toward new experiences and their dogmatism.

By this point, many readers may be wondering just what percentage of people are Rightists or Leftists in their political orientation, or more generally, what does the distribution of people along the general right-left political spectrum look like. That's a difficult question to answer very precisely for the United States because the largest and most reliable studies tend to ask only whether people consider themselves "liberals," "moderates," or "conservatives." About 25% of voters said they were liberals in exit polls after the 2012 presidential elections, compared to 35% who said they were conservatives, and 40% who said they were moderates, with questions about party identification clouding the picture because 11% of liberals said they voted for the Republican presidential candidate and 17% on conservatives said they voted for President Barack Obama (Edison Research, 2012).

Of course, the differences in values and personality between political Leftists and Rightists are not the whole story. For example, there is ample evidence of extremely authoritarian Leftist political parties in the United States. In particular, there are various Marxist-Leninist parties that say they practice "democratic centralism," meaning that everyone has an equal chance to speak and participate, but they then agree to follow what the majority decides. What invariably happens in these groups is that they come to be run by an inner circle, the "central committee," which is in turn usually dominated by one strong leader. Some of the accounts of these groups are harrowing; there is evidence of self-righteous manipulation of the members and a willingness to use violence (Ellis, 1998; Lalich, 2004).

Similarities between those on the political Right and Left

Although the Right and Left have major differences that make it almost impossible for them to agree on anything, they also have certain -- if not immediately apparent -- similarities as well. In fact, they are remarkably similar for how different they are. Since these similarities are of a type that tends to make them blind to any other view, these similarities further reinforce the dichotomy between them: that is, the similarities I am about to discuss make for more differences.

First, they share the same high degree of moral outrage and anger. This strong moral outrage makes them into absolutists. They become True Believers in their cause, with no doubts whatsoever. They see everyone else as sell-outs and trimmers. This includes many people who share their sympathies, but not their fanaticism. This disdain for less fanatical friends who share their general beliefs also reveals to us what the tamer versions of Rightists and Leftists, that is, conservatives and liberals, have in common: they are more pragmatic, tentative, and experimental in their beliefs. As might be expected, then, and as everyday observation makes apparent, there is often tension between moderate conservatives and Rightists on the Right side of the divide and between liberals and Leftists on the other side.

On the Right, the tension is due to the fact that the moderate conservatives are willing to accept the current situation on most issues, whereas Rightists are not. Rightists in the Republican Party often contemptuously call moderate conservatives "RINOs," which means "Republican in Name Only," and therefore fair game for attack because they are weak-kneed compromisers and backsliders. For example, most American conservatives do not want to go back to black-white segregation or to the subjugation of women, even though most conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s opposed the extension of equality, fairness, and opportunity to women and African-Americans (including famous libertarians of the 1950s through the 1990s such as William F. Buckley). Present-day conservatives have accepted those changes; they figure that's the way things are, but things should change no further (and people like Buckley came to accept the changes and even regret some of their past views).

However, those on the far Right have not accepted most of these changes. They talk about the 1950s as a golden era, even though there were far fewer ultra-conservatives than there are now, and even though it was a time of racial segregation and almost complete male dominance. The thought that there have been changes in the tried and true ways completely upsets them. Indeed, they claim that the problems of today are due to the changes since the 1950s. There has been "moral degeneration," something that Rightists have been saying throughout Western history. They have once again created a self-serving myth about the past.

Similarly, there is tension between liberals and Leftists over many issues. Liberals want small gradual improvements, but political Leftists want major changes right now. When various types of Leftists have to define what they share in common, they are sure of one thing -- they are not mere liberals. Put another way, Leftists often define themselves as "not-liberals."

The moral outrage of True Believers of the Right and Left leads them to share a second similarity: they see everything as rushing to a huge crisis. They share the feeling that things have become intolerable and can't go on any longer. This sense of crisis is defined as growing immorality and degeneracy on the Right and as intolerable inequality, corruption, and injustice on the Left. However, at the same time, both Right and Left have hope because they believe that things are going to come out all right, that is, the way they want them to.

These feelings of impending doom followed by a new dawn lead the political Right and Left to share the same underlying theory of how history unfolds and how it will end. For both extremes, it is a story of an original paradise that is lost due to one or another mistake or sin, followed by a growing crisis that leads to an apocalypse, which then leads to a regaining of paradise. That is, both Right and Left begin with the idea that human beings once lived in positive, non-conflictual social groups that were, sadly, disturbed by one factor or another, which has led to the current crisis that is soon to reach an apocalyptic climax. This huge climax -- this Armageddon, this revolution, this upheaval -- will be followed by a new positive state of being. It will incorporate some positive aspects of what developed after the primordial human society was left behind.

Where Right and Left differ is in the substance of the matter. Reflecting the differences along the Right-Left dimension, what varies is the nature of the original human social setting, the cause of the problems that developed, and the nature of the resolution. This is best seen by looking at Christianity, which is the underlying theory of many on the far Right, and Marxism, which is the underlying theory of many on the far Left.

Original statePrimitive CommunismGarden of Eden
ProblemDivision of labor, private ownershipSin
CrisisAlienation/exploitationMoral degeneracy
ConflictClass conflictGood vs. Evil
ResolutionRevolutionChrist's return
ResultSocialism/CommunismHeaven on Earth/Rapture

Although the two theories of history have very similar structures, their substance is completely different. The Rightist theory is far more individualistic and psychological. The Leftist theory is almost completely group or class oriented, and hence sociological. These differences far overshadow the similarities and drive the two extremes even further apart.

Third, the two extremes share the same story about how the current society is structured. However, they draw very different conclusions about who the good guys and the bad guys are in this shared scenario. The common story line goes like this:

But these similarities in moral fervor and in the narrative structure of the Left and Right's views of history do not fully explain how Leftists often end up in very rigid parties and perhaps eventually willing to call for revolutionary violence or engage in physical attacks on property and/or persons. A larger theory is therefore needed. The starting point for that theory can be found in group dynamics and organizational theory. That is, based on work in social psychology and sociology, it is possible to explain how extreme political groups on the Right and the Left can share many similarities even though the substance of their concerns is very different.

In concluding this wide-ranging essay, I realize that it is only one dimension of the work that needs to be done by political psychologists, political sociologists, and other social scientists to integrate the psychological, social psychological, and sociological levels that will be needed to understand these complex and sensitive issues. Richard Ellis (The Dark Side of the Left) and Janja Lalich (Bounded Choice) provide two starting points on how Leftist groups become hierarchical and sometimes violent.


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First posted June 2009; most recently updated October 2013

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