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November 25, 2008

Part 2: Where the Left-Right Spectrum Shows Its Usefulness
Posted by Patrick Barry

So I'm going to go ahead and take issue with Shadi's post bemoaning the use of the left-right spectrum to characterize foreign policy positions.  At its core, I'd say that Shadi's position reflects uneasiness about using very narrow dichotomies to describe a world view. While I think it's unacceptable to use dichotomies (left-right being one example) to describe someone's broad position, I think its fine, even useful, to use them as shorthand for showing where someone stands in relation to a particular issue.

To show the usefulness of the left-right spectrum, it's probably worth investigating how the spectrum evolved into shorthand for an entire foreign policy perspective in the first place. Shadi argues that it’s because of the Right, and their manipulation of post 9-11 sensibilities, but I would argue that it was the debate over Iraq which largely served to popularize this left-right way of looking at foreign policy. 

Starting with John Kerry's failed bid for the White House, and really continuing up through the 2006 election, as Iraq grew worse and worse, you began to see the emergence of two parallel exchanges about the War.  The first was purely political.  The right recognized that as Iraq went, so they would as well, and the left perceived the issue as a political opening that would allow them to defeat the narrative that liberals were weak on national security.

The second debate took place within the wonk community. It was both retrospective, in that it examined whether the Iraq War was merely poorly executed or flawed from the start, and also forward looking, in the sense that people began to contend that U.S. interests would be better served by a withdrawal rather than a continued occupation. Here, easy political distinctions, like the left-right dichotomy, were less helpful for describing the contours of the debate.  Self-identified liberals continued to support the war, and lifelong conservatives had always opposed it. 

But as time went on, Iraq increased in salience and positions began to harden.  The separate political and policy debates began exerting such a reciprocating influence on each other, that they eventually became indistinct.  Politicians began drawing on ideas from the policy world, and policymakers echoed sentiment found within the popular discourse. Suddenly, the left-right spectrum became useful not just for characterizing the political debate over the war, but also for describing the dominant foreign policy debate with reasonable accuracy. 

This blending had some positive results, which mostly manifested themselves in the 2006 election.  Liberal politicians won on national security, and policy makers successfully used a political debate to build momentum behind their agenda.  But there were also consequences, chief among that people now tend to view all foreign policy through the lens of the Iraq experience, using the terminology and frames from that debate and applying them to a much broader set of issues.  This is where you get people saying that Obama has a leftist world view, or a center-right world view on international relations.  It's because the dominant foreign policy debate for the past few years has evolved largely along those terms.


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This is unconvincing, Patrick. You are speaking in abstractions, but offer nothing substantive to back up your defense of the left-right classification.

What you may mean is that there is a Democrat-Republican split on foreign policy. During elections seasons, when the society becomes gradually mobilized into a state of bipartisan electoral warfare, differences within parties tend to be submerged and some rough consensus congeals. Since we only have two parties, we get two positions. We can call them what we will: left/right, up/down, red/blue.

But I know for a fact, since I have been arguing these points here and elsewhere for several years, that there are many very significant differences among Democrats on foreign policy, and also many differences among Republicans, differences which we can expect to re-emerge now that the election is over.

The really deleterious effect of "left-right" talk on our cognitive health is that it does not just encourage people to conceptualize complex sets of normative and descriptive alternatives into a partition of only two elements, but it encourages them to view the alternatives as falling on a one-dimensional linear spectrum, even when they manage to recognize that there are more than two.

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