The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis

Ted Grimsrud—February 7, 2017

We in the United States enter into uncharted waters in these early days of the Trump regime. It seems clear that in the months and years to come, the United States will be the location of political strive of an intensity not seen for a long time within the boundaries of our nation. The kinds of conflictual social struggles that most of us have only observed from a distance are almost certain to become very close to hand.

I believe it is important to note a couple of qualifications to the generalizations I made in the above paragraph. For people of color in the US, and members of other vulnerable groups, the United States has not been a place of comfort and tranquility. We don’t know what kinds of suffering will emerge as a result of the takeover of the federal and most state governments in all their branches by anti-democratic reactionary forces. However, we do well to keep these sufferings in perspective given our nation’s legacies of the intense violence visited on indigenous peoples, on imported slaves, and on sexual minorities—among others. For those still today who have lived with the consequences of such violence over generations, the word to we frightened middle class mostly white folks could legitimately be “welcome to our world.”

Likewise, an awareness of political turmoil around the world over the past 125 years reminds us that for many areas of the world that have suffered from interventions from the American Empire, such turmoil has been fostered by the projection of American force. The words from such locations to us might also appropriately be “welcome to our world.”

However, even as we don’t magnify our own sense of uncertainty and anxiety with claims for their unprecedented significance, it should be cold comfort to those who already know the dynamics of vicious prejudice, authoritarian governance, economic dislocation, and environmental degradation. That’s because they will also likely have their suffering enhanced in the days to come. The Trumpian agenda surely will not be tempered by compassion for the historical sufferings of the vulnerable.

The left/right analytical framework

It seems to me that one important element of resistance for all of us is to think carefully about how to frame our political dynamics. One framework that has become conventional wisdom is to think in terms of a left/right spectrum. Some are saying that after eight years of a leftist government with the Obama administration (admittedly greatly constrained by the legislative power of the right) we are moving to a rightest government with Trump. One’s response to Trump, et al, is said to reveal where one stands on the left/right spectrum.

Labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” are constantly used as if they communicate something meaningful about political dynamics. Many analysts talk about the swinging of a pendulum from left to right that moves continually and always returns from one extreme or the other.

Linked with the left/right language is also sentiment that we have these on-going conflicts between strong partisans from both sides of the political spectrum. These conflicts are framed as being mainly due to political ideologies that mirror each other on the two sides of the spectrum. An example of this kind of analysis is a recent book by political thinker, Mark Gerzon, The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.

The Bridge Alliance is a laudatory effort to encourage efforts to heighten civility and meaningful political work among people with different points of view. But it appears that this effort does presuppose the left/right analytical framework. One has to wonder how many people are genuinely on the “right” of this spectrum seriously engage such “middle ground” efforts.

I suspect that any efforts to bring authentic social healing to the United States right now that operate within this framework will be quite limited in their effectiveness. Of course, it is hard to imagine any efforts that can promise effectiveness given our current environment. However, I think to have any hope for actually understanding where we are now and where we should want to hope to go, we will need to jettison any tendency to reduce our dilemma to “left” vs. “right.”

Why the left/right schema must go

The left/right schema lends itself to superficial labeling rather than a more rigorous consideration of issues and values. For example, to label Obama as a leftist does not give a critic of Obama’s warism any place to be part of the conversation—given the even more extreme warism of those on the “right.”

The left/right schema also tends to underwrite moral relativism. We often place people’s views on a left/right spectrum with a sense that what matters is how those views relate to other views on the spectrum rather than how those views fit in relation to core convictions that we think of as truthful. Disagreements are then thought of mainly as simply related to where we are on the spectrum, not to evidence of truthfulness, accuracy, and coherence with the core convictions.

For example, for some years and now more than ever, many voices in our society (increasingly including Republican Party office holders all the way to the top) speak of issues such as climate change and evolution as open to debate with the implication that one’s view on such issues is simply a matter of one’s place on this left/right spectrum rather than a matter of actual scientific evidence.

Currently, we have a president (almost unanimously supported by Republican office holders) who simply tells one lie after another. It is difficult for those who operated within the assumptions of the left/right schema to assert simply that those statements are wrong and often immoral. Disagreement is portrayed more as a matter of political preference than true/false.

One of the ways the left/right schema causes the most trouble is how it is linked with the assumption that “wisdom” should lead to finding a place that is in between the two partisan extremes of “far left” and “far right.” This goes along with antipathy toward “hyperpartisanship.” It then becomes easy to dismiss strong critiques of certain views and practices as simply the result of one’s partisan stance rather than evaluating the critique based on evidence and coherence with core values.

This dynamic of thinking in terms of the left/right schema has served the Republicans quite well in the past generation. Compare Nixon to Reagan to Bush to Trump; over the past 40 years Republican presidents have moved steadily to the right and have moved the “center” with them (some analysts have suggested that Bernie Sanders, considered on the “far left” now is actually pretty close policy-wise to Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president when I was born in 1954).

An alternative frame: True/untrue

I’m not sure what the antidote is to the problems of the left/right schema’s dominance. One idea is simply to resist its use as much as possible, to refuse to buy into that expression of conventional wisdom in thinking and talking about American politics.

I wonder, in addition, if we might not be better off trying to think of having a center or core of moral social values and thinking about policies and practices in terms of their distance from those core moral values—rather than the left/right spectrum. This would be a kind of fixed center point and we evaluate politics in relation to that center. So, then the movement would not be from left to right or vice versa, but rather from the center to farther away.

The point of such an approach would not be to simply add a new way to label someone as “untrue” or “wrong.” Instead, it would be in order to have a clear set of stable convictions that might be used to evaluate specific political ideas or proposals or actions. Using such an approach would, for one thing, help us see how different issues could lead to different sets of allies. For example, I would imagine that many of the rural Republicans who live in my county would agree with some of my ideas about land use (such as opposing a proposal superhighway within a few miles of where I live).

If we were to think more in terms of applying stable core convictions to specific issues, and if we were to use language such as “true/untrue” in relation to approaches taken on some key issues, we will need to think carefully about how we think of “truth” or “core moral convictions.”

I have been influenced a great deal by Gandhi, who characterized his work as “experiments with truth.”  A couple elements of this work for Gandhi included the conviction that while “truth” is real and meaningful (he rejected moral relativism), it is not something to be possessed. No one knows the truth perfectly, hence we should enter any encounter with an attitude of learning and being willing to change our views—not simply imposing our beliefs on others.

As well, Gandhi famously insisted on prioritizing means over ends. That priority means that our method for seeking truth matters much more than the end point. Thus, we focus on treating people with respect and compassion, on always asking questions, on adjusting our sense of where we want to go as we learn more, on trying to find ways to work with others (even our opponents) rather than defeating them, on valuing all life as precious, and other such practices.

Placing a priority on core convictions requires of us self-conscious reflection on what those convictions are. This is a call for serious examination of what matters most to us, why, and what the relevance of this sense of priorities might be to our political concerns.

If we accept that truthfulness is our center point, and if we say that we will evaluate issues and ideas in relation to truthfulness, what might the criteria be for discerning what is true? Even though this is a question that does not seem to arise in very many political discussions, and even though we may fear that raising this question would lead to endless and hopeless debates, I actually suspect that we would find it easier than we might suspect to find some solid grounding for agreement on truthfulness in this arena.

The key is to focus on the few central points such as the centrality of compassion, of seeing all life as precious, of care for the vulnerable, and of respect for the integrity of the natural world. These values are present in all the major world religions, in humanist philosophy, and in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.

Christians should cultivate reflection drawing on their most important sources that affirms these values—and affirm the common ground we have with those from other traditions. Just about all of us, then, are well suited to operate with political values that focus on the central convictions about moral life and critique policies and practices in light of those convictions.

Political application

If we move away from the left/right schema and think more in terms of the true/untrue schema, we may the proceed to critique the policies and other expressions of the Trump regime for violating the truth. We may insist that such judgments are not reducible to being on different places on the left/right spectrum but rather are about truthfulness. Hence, we may demand that those formulating the policies and practices defend them in relation to the core truths of compassion, the preciousness of life, care for the vulnerable, and respect for the integrity of the natural world.

I also believe that to draw more overtly and fundamentally on such core convictions—with the confidence that these convictions are widely shared among people of good will in our society and around the world—will provide more clarity and focus in responding to the violations of human wellbeing we are already seeing. Such an approach will enhance a sense of stability and hope in the face of stress and trauma.

Such self-consciousness about core convictions will also challenge all of us to remember the necessity of practicing our resistance in ways that are consistent with the values we are using to critique current office holders. Gandhi’s insistence on the priority of means over ends is an excellent reminder that our work to enhance healing in our world involves both resisting the wrongdoing of people in power and witnessing to the world we hope to create with our thoughts and actions in the present.

17 thoughts on “The left/right schema must go: The task of moral political analysis

  1. Great concepts, Ted. I like the re-orientation you are suggesting. I’d suggest you might also create a significantly summarized version of this article, since many will read 500 to 700 words, but not many will continue if they see much more than 1000.

    I heartily agree that we need to keep emphasizing fidelity (“trueness”) to values that are basically universal. The kind of model you’re suggesting would then need to incorporate certain methods for evaluating pragmatic concerns. How to relate those to core principles. This is the “means” aspect you referred to as vital, and rightly so. Also, how to apply politically neutral principles of analysis (proper use of statistics, credibility of sources, examination of potential unintended consequences, etc.).

    This kind of thing is largely established and used in scientific and academic settings (though those “places/processes” can also be tainted by bias and blind spots). But there are many great barriers currently to looking for and looking TO that kind of analysis. Seems when a source trying to do that presents findings (as is the case re. climate science and certain other things), they often get effectively drowned out, for many, or countered by untrue charges or denials NOT based on evidences. That is, not real analysis or legitimate debate about data. Climate is just one of the most clear and large-scale cases; there are many others.

    Tracing the counter/denial process generally leads to at least some sense of the real power centers of the country… especially economic power centers, but secondarily, information-control centers. My key case-in-point re. the linkage of finances and media-manipulation relative to scientific evidence is the 15-years-ago fall of the 3 towers… twin ones and “building 7” of the WTC.
    Scientific/professional individuals and organizations have shown simply and clearly (backed by plenty of more detailed scientific, not “conspiracy theory” analysis) that they could only have fallen as they did via internal explosive demolition, NOT impact and fire (“official” theory). “The media”, most specifically the New York Times, has been repeatedly confronted with the completely solid scientific case for this and refuses to do anything with it. WHY??

    It’s not even as though doubts about the official explanation is a seriously minority position. It’s not, if minority at all! Probing and publishing on it would not, I’m convinced, erode the paper’s (or other media’s) credibility… at least on the merits, without other manipulation being involved. Which may get back to the real issue.

    1. One “real” issue, I think, is who or what the “truth” is meant to serve. Clearly many construals of “truth” are meant to serve the people in power, the 1% if you will. That would explain the numerous “blind spots” we many easily see with the Times—which nonetheless is our greatest newspaper and an important source of data and analyses that might help us approach the truth about many things. But that source is still shaped by human fears and biases (which may be part of the unspoken “censorship” you allude to).

      As well, I would say that truth as I understand it (and as I see the kind of truth Jesus taught sets us free) is ultimately quite vulnerable and noncoercive, even weak (do you know John Caputo’s book, The Weakness of God? I think it’s terrific). So we who seek truth follow the best possible means, but can’t control or determine the outcomes.

      1. A belated reply. I was preparing for and then attending a great conference at Claremont School of Theology, “New Frontiers in Theology”. Will blog on that later, hopefully.

        As to your q. about Caputo’s book, I’m not familiar with it. Sounds interesting. Hopefully I can get to it eventually. Thanks for the referral. And if you’re not on the mailing list for the Center for Process Studies, its great publications via the Process Century Press, its conferences, etc., I highly recommend doing that. You don’t have to join and pay any dues for that. And, of course I’d hope you or others at some distance from SoCal, would use a conference at Claremont as an excuse to visit here. (Claremont is an hour or so east of LA, for those not familiar… and very close to Ontario airport, which is much preferable to LAX to fly into and out of.)

  2. Amen Ted! I have been pondering how to get out of the left-right polarities that only mire us more deeply in polarization and impossible dialogue and lead to post-truth alternative facts, that make truth equivalent with my opinion, or even subservient to my opinion. And the more often I repeat it the truer it is. Two elements that I am exploring have to do with: 1) asymmetrical articulations — “dialogue” pressed into the left-right mold is not symmetrical in terms of claims related to truth, history, and science. I wonder if there isn’t a parallel between the asymmetry of our warism and the asymmetry of the left-right polarity. American exceptionalism and entitlement inevitably and invariably privileges post-truth alternative fact ideology and is an asymmetrical enterprise. Being the self-proclaimed world’s sole and greatest superpower always moves in that direction. There are not and cannot be equivalent conversations on the left-right spectrum over such matters. 2) What you rightly note as a failure, even the intentional alt-right rejection of locating our ideas and conversation in relation to truth and science (I add history as another measure of our claims) also fails to connect with and account for our being spiritual human beings with a conscience. What we are learning from many of our ancient and contemporary spiritual guides is that we all begin with a first-order spiritual consciousness that gives boundaries and rules and values, etc., to ground and guide us for our early life. As we grow in consciousness (spiritual consciousness!) we always face a choice about going deeper and higher (depth psychology/higher consciousness/contemplation) OR choosing to remain in first order conscious in more rigid ways that inevitably becomes more violent and oppressive and is projected onto others. In other words, we also have a profoundly significant spiritual-psychological-theology task and responsibility in the satyagraha — truth search as Gandhi rightly modeled for us. Thanks again, Ted, for your foundational and formative articulation! I am in California giving 5 presentations on Contemplative Just Peacebuilding. Weldon

    1. Thanks, Weldon. I appreciate your added thoughts. I really like your thoughts on “asymmetrical articulations.” That is part of what I am trying to get at, too. The left/right schema tends to flatten things, blinding us to the extremely asymmetrical power dynamics. Stepping back from that schema may at least help a bit in becoming more aware.

      And I think you are exactly right about the choice concerning going “deeper and higher” or remaining in “first order consciousness.” One of our big challenges is how to work for genuine peace in a world where so many—including so many people in power—have chosen to “remain.”

      I would say that we who want to chose to go deeper have to make that decision and act on it regardless of how many others do. But we are still stuck in world where the choices to “remain” have devastating consequences for so many, including so many who may never be able to have the quality or even span of life that would allow them to make such choices.

  3. Ted, it would help me understand your sketch if you applied it to an example or two. How would your suggestion play out with regard to the claim that Syrian President Assad gassed his own people in August, 2013? Or the WikiLeaks disclosures of DNC staff discussions on how to ensure Clinton was the nominee? Or the attack on a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July, 2014?

    Propaganda has been a core, strategic tool of the US government since the time of Wilson’s presidency. So history must have some lessons for us in this time of Trump.

    1. Berry, I think I have in mind more a general way of thinking about politics than specific answers for how to think about very particular issues.

      But maybe I’d say in each of those cases that what I have in mind is breaking free from politicized responses to such situations that would automatically be linked to Republican or Democratic Party partisanship.

      I’d say that we should work to understand what happened in each case as thoroughly as possible and then think of responses that are consistent with our core convictions of the preciousness of all life.

      As you have written, in the American Empire right now, much of the foreign policy thinking from both Democrats and Republicans shares many of the same assumptions about domination. There are a few on the “right” (such as Andrew Bacevich) who are much more critical of militarism than most on the “left’ (such as virtually all Democrats in Congress, including Elizabeth Warren).

      In my long comment below in response to Leroy Seat, I reflect a bit on responding to the abortion issue.

      1. Thank you, Ted; this helps, as does your reply to Leroy.

        The cost of ditching “the left/right schema” is a loss of relevance in the great game of acquiring electoral power. After all, the left-right schema is a proxy for partisan reliability. If one is following truth wherever it leads, then one is highly unreliable in a partisan sense and not truly a player.

        So what you are talking about–in other words–is a sloughing off of a deep caring about which team wins. That perhaps shouldn’t be so difficult to do, but it is.

  4. Ted, let me add a few thoughts to this conversation.

    First, here is a quote from Carl Jung that frames the “danger” in terms of the psyche. “We are the great danger. Psyche is the great danger but we know nothing about it.” I prefer to think of it in spiritual-psyche both because I think it is impossible to separate spirit and psyche and because I consider it imperative to understand how profoundly we are spiritual beings in our essence and because the heart of our human condition in this political polarization is a spiritual problem. MLK named it rightly 50 years ago as “spiritual death” in his 4/4/67 Riverside Church sermon critique of America’s triplet sins of racism, materialism, and racism. By-the-way, we are going to Ched Myers and Elaine Enn’s Institute Feb 20-24, on the theme of that sermon of MLK’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” He named America’s sin then and was killed for it exactly one year later. This is not unrelated to Sen Elizabeth Warren being silenced in the Senate discussion on Sen Sessions nomination to the Supreme Court just a few days ago! Read Rev William Barber’s prophetic revelation yesterday about that racialized silencing! It is not about character, it is about a racialized system that will not tolerate naming the sin. This is what Merton and my dear friend Jim Douglass names as the “unspeakable.” By-the-way, most of the arguments about racism — you’re a racist…no I’m not or that’s racist….no it’s not — is at best unhelpful. America is and always has been a racialized system and that racialization is raising it’s demonic head and breathing fire while most of the argument goes on over “There are dragons around” and “No there aren’t.”

    Second, all this may be best understood in terms of both personal and national addiction/addictive behavior and language, What is happening is severely addicted personal and national behavior in word and action. Again that addiction is asymmetrical dependency on and demands for post-truth alternative facts that are being used to silence, dominate, oppress, anything and anyone getting in the way or who would expose by their existence or action the spiritual death and sin. The great spiritual movement that best breaks into spiritual death and sin of addiction is AA. You can only enter AA when you recognize and name your addiction and addictive behavior that is harming you and everything and everyone around you. In other words, it is to know and name “stinking thinking.” What is happening today is classic addictive and “stinking thinking” and it is asymmetrical! Naming this “stinking thinking” and refusing to live it in word and action, such as MLK then or Elizabeth Warren or William Barber now, is essential to even begin to resist our personal and national addiction and live into honest and healthy lives.

    Keep up your good work! Weldon

    1. Weldon, I like you bringing up Carl Jung and depth psychology/spirituality. I’ve been thinking about reading more Jung to further my own understanding, tho I’m already more-than-average familiar with him, his profound differences from Freud, etc.

      As you say, naming and facing our real condition (or our “collective unconscious” one, using Jung) is a crucial first step toward growth and health. I just wrote a blog post effectively claiming that Trump’s election was possible at least partly because so many people either have little understanding of personality dynamics or discounted them way too much. It is indeed disturbing that our new president is a person who is in one of two conditions (or a combination):

      1. He is incredibly lacking in self-awareness at the same time as being incredibly self-absorbed (probably linked with “personality disorder” as precisely described in ongoing versions of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual”), evidenced in almost-continual unconscious “projection” of his inner problems out onto opponents or perceived threats (real or unreal), or

      2. He is doing the above while fully realizing how/why he is doing and not caring about who is hurt or how much chaos and disruption it may cause.
      (This would also be basically personality disorder, though with more psychological insight into himself than I think he probably has.)

      1. Howard ~ Since you mentioned being interested in Jung (and assuming you’re still following comments), I hope you won’t mind me recommending a couple of books by one of my favorite Jungian authors, analyst and Episcopal priest, John A. Sanford: “The Kingdom Within: The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings”, and “Mystical Christianity: A Psychological Commentary on the Gospel of John.”

        Coming from a Jungian perspective, Sanford’s insights into the deeper psycho-spiritual significance behind Jesus’ teachings and of his call for us to become fully *conscious* and self-aware, continue to speak to me in ways that have me underlining something new almost every time I pick up his books to re-read them (which I do on a regular basis.)


        Ted ~ Left/right, Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative, I agree, the idea of being compelled to identify with, then choose between one of two viewpoints (or ‘tribes’) is a false choice, a form of moral relativism that opens the door to all kinds of problems. And you’re right, the answer isn’t necessarily, or even usually, a matter of compromise. Truth, yes! But also something transcendent, beyond labels, dogma and legalism, and arrived at through a joining of heart and mind, compassion and critical thought, unconscious and conscious forces, always in the service of love for neighbor and the least among us (which includes anyone on the receiving end of U.S. aggression, oppression, exploitation, any of the isms).

        It’s why I choose not to vote in support of our system, even if that means risking the loss of something I might personally benefit from. Like a lot of folks, my husband and I have practical concerns about rising rents and possible eviction, astronomical insurance premiums, lack of access to affordable health and dental care, and of having to dip into our modest savings every month just to make ends meet. Still, we’re blessed.

        Jung once commented that “Whatever is not conscious will be experienced as fate.” I see Trump as being a natural outcome, our fate if you will, the latest and most severe symptom to date of an inner and outer corruption and disease of the soul, and of our collective failure to consciously deal with our ‘stuff’. This past election has been disheartening and divisive in so many ways. Trump continues to show us an exaggerated version of some of the worst aspects of our unconscious collective identity and of our unsustainable, deteriorating, capitalist, imperialist and *dualistic* system. Maybe this is what it will take to finally wake some of us from our sleep, I hope so.

        Clinton/Sanders supporters possess these same negative aspects as well, though *sometimes* to a lesser degree and with less conscious awareness, which makes it easy to unconsciously project them onto ‘others’ while denying their existence within themselves. None of us are immune to personal and collective unconscious forces. Group-think which depends upon a favorable moral comparison of ourselves and our companions in relation to some other point of view, can be especially difficult to recognize and resist.

        Reinhold Niebuhr summed it up when he said:

        “The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with the all the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior. . .”

        I’m glad to have found your site, Ted. Thanks.

      2. This is in reply to LB, as there is no reply option after that comment.
        Thanks, I appreciate the Sanford referrals. I’ve encountered him, but I think mainly indirectly. Can’t remember that I’ve read a book of his. I plan to check on one or both of those books. An author who (as a non-Christian) probably drew a lot from Jung re. psychological interp. of Gospel of Mark is John Carroll, “The Existential Jesus”, tho I can’t “buy in” yet on some of his points.

  5. Strange.
    I think that the left/right opposition helps a lot to understand present events. How can we explain why so many people get hysterics about Trump’s so-called “muslim ban”, even if that ban contains only minute differences to Obama’s ban which was widely accepted? The simplest explanation: because Obama was a Leftist and Trump is a Rightist.
    And what’s all this about “truth”? The simplest explanation: It’s the first time that convictions which the Left had generally carried through and come to see as self-evident are contested again by the Right.
    Couldn’t we describe the momentaneous state of mind of the Left as the first stages of grief: confusion and anger? And could we describe this without using the concept of “Left”?
    I don’t say that we ourselves should define us by partisanship to the Right or the Left, but that we see them as historical nuclei of big feelings which shape the political debates.

  6. Ted, thanks for your thought-provoking article, which I was especially interested in as last week I had just written a blog article titled “Can There be a Radiant Center in Politics?” (Here is the link to that article: )

    In spite of agreeing with you that perhaps there is too much emphasis on “right” and “left,” I don’t see how we can get around the fact that on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, global warming, and the like, those who strongly oppose those issues are mainly on the political right (Republicans) and those who are pro-choice, supportive of same-sex marriage, working to stop global warming, etc. are mainly on the political left (Democrats).

    I don’t see how emphasizing the center being constructed of core values rather that being a position between the left and the right will be of help in solving the political tension (polarity!) within the nation. People on both sides would say that they are acting out of their core values. The problem is the clash of those very values.

    For example, letters of the conservatives (people clearly on the political right) that I see in “Mennonite World Review” condemn abortion and same-sex marriage on the basis of their core value of seeing the teachings of the Bible clearly supporting their position. Since they see their position as grounded in the Bible, they believe it is the truth.

    I am afraid that seek to move from a left/right schema to a true/untrue schema may make the political and religious divisions/tensions in our nation worse instead of better.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Leroy (as usual!). I suspect part of the issue in what you raise is about definitions—perhaps we don’t actually disagree too much. Or, maybe we do….

      It does seem to me that in your article you do try to find middle ground between the extremes. It is understandable to me that one would want to do that because it is true that extremism causes so many problems.

      But I actually think that the only way Americans are going to free themselves from the brokenness of destructive “political tension (polarity!)” is by freeing ourselves from the left/right scheme—that is, to free ourselves from the dynamics of polarization. I don’t think focusing on finding middle ground will help us much—partly because that would still be happening in the midst of an acceptance of the validity of the spectrum. Plus, in my experience (and I would bet in yours, too), people who try to find a “radiant center” are quickly labeled “liberals” by those on the right (and not totally inaccurately).

      My suggestions in my blog post, though, are not so much aimed at trying to transform the way everyone thinks of the political dynamics. Rather, it’s more meant to be an exhortation to people who affirm what I could call a biblical peacemaking ethic. This is how I think we should think politically in an environment that remains polarizing. Not so much find a way to get everyone to agree to reject the left/right schema as to simply try to opt out of that schema in our own thinking and speaking.

      I would expect that if quite a few of us started doing that, our impact would not be to “solve” the problem so much as to witness to a different path—and maybe attract a few others to join us.

      Let me focus on abortion. Maybe what I will suggest actually is the kind of approach that you would see being part of the quest for a ” vibrant center.” But what I think is that we should focus on elements of the issue that we feel clear about at core truths—that unwanted pregnancies should be reduced at much as possible (with one consequence being fewer abortions), that we affirm the preciousness of all life (including, unequivocally, the lives of pregnant women), that the pin-pointing of when “human life” begins (in the sense of being endowed with full human rights) is a philosophical/theological and not scientific determination (that is, is something that fallible human beings subjectively decide and can reasonably disagree about, not simply a “fact”), that in our contemporary world the nations with the lowest abortion rates are those with the strongest safety net/support system for pregnant women (and where also abortion is legal—e.g., countries in Western Europe).

      The point would not be to adjudicate the left vs. right debate (which seems impossible) but to witness to the core convictions that are based on widely accepted humane values (from Jesus, Torah, humanist ideals, et al). I can hope that such an approach could hive off people from both left and right into a new sensibility—but one that would step away from the left/right schema. It wouldn’t be synthesis of those two extremes but a new framework.

      This is all new thinking for me. I’m interested in what you think.

      1. Ted, we often say that the correct way of approaching controversy is to be “principled” in our approach. And that sends us off in search of the right principles and the stomach to apply them consistently.

        Another approach to controversy focuses first on the community we belong to and then asks what that community says. This seems less principled but it does explain why we find it so difficult to abandon the left/right schema: our sense of belonging is at stake.

        Yet doesn’t the Bible often encourage us to give community first authority in our lives, not so-called principles (which may simply be the propaganda of the empire)?

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