The psychology of the left and the right | The Background

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The psychology of the left and the right

Argha Ray

The word ideology was coined by Antoine Destutt de Tracy in 1796 during the Great Terror of the French Revolution, a phase of the revolution punctuated by unrestrained mob violence. Though, initially a liberal philosophy, Napoleon, after pretending to share the liberalism with ideologists of Tracy’s National Institute, later referred to them pejoratively as “ideologues” when he consolidated power during the early months of the French Republic. Since the time of the French Revolution, ideological opinions have been classified most often in terms of a single left-right dimension. In modern usage as well, ideology predominantly has a unidimensional connotation of a left-right divide, which has its roots from late 18th century sitting arrangement in the French Assembly Hall, where supporters of status quo were seated on the right side of the Assembly, and their opponents were seated on the left.
Across the world, it has been common to substitute “liberal” for “left” and “conservative” for “right”. Though this unidimensional bipolar left-right model of ideological structure has been criticized in the scholarly literature, and multidimensional models of ideological structure have been proposed, the parsimonious unidimensional model has withstood the test of theoretical utility and empirical validity. Conservatism and Liberalism have consistently been shown to hold a negative relationship in numerous research studies.
Psychologically, people adopt ideological belief systems such as Conservatism or Liberalism as it satisfies their prior epistemic commitments and psychological needs and motives, a process John Jost at New York University calls Motivated Social Cognition. But researchers have predominantly leaned on one side more than the other. The tradition of singling out right wing rather than left wing ideology for special inquiry started with the authors of the book The Authoritarian Personality in the backdrop of rising Fascism throughout Europe leading to World War II. The authors were Theodor W. Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel Levinson, and Nevitt Sanfordfrom University of California Berkley. Later there was a gradual loss of interest in this area due to several methodological and conceptual issues. Bob Altemeyer at University of Manitoba revived the interest by replacing Theodor Adorno and colleagues’ Fascism Scale with his Right Wing Authoritarianism scale. Countless researchers have used the scale with success ever since. Researchers say, there are two core aspects of Conservatism. One core aspect is traditionalism and an opposition to change. The other core aspect is endorsement of inequality. These inclinations of political conservatives are generally associated with intolerance, prejudice, stereotyping, and hostility towards a wide variety of out- groups including stigmatized or disadvantaged groups. The prejudices include racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, pseudo-patriotism, classism, disability discrimination, religious fundamentalism etc. However, there has been criticism that authoritarianism or dogmatism is also associated with left wing extremism. Indeed, studies on Russian samples show that authoritarianism is as much a characteristic of the Communist left as is a characteristic of the Western right. However, empirical evidence is unequivocally skewed in favor of the “rigidity of the right hypothesis”. Altemeyer exclaimed “authoritarian on the left has been as scarce as hens’ teeth in my samples”. But in recent publications, four researchers Lucian Conway, Shannon Houck, Laura Gornick, and Meredith Repke created a mirror image of the Right Wing Authoritarianism scale and named it Left Wing Authoritarianism scale. They remark that “the same processes that create authoritarianism in right‐wing persons also operate in left‐wing persons in essentially equal degrees”. This turns the “rigidity of the right hypothesis” on its head. Indeed, other researchers like Jeff Greenberg at University of Arizonaand Eva Jonasat Ludwig Maximilian University of Munichshare similar views. They note that “psychological theorizing and research on political attitudes always run the risk of being guided by the motivated social cognition of the theorists and researchers on the basis of their own sociopolitical views,” and there should be a “counterweight toward balance and diversity in the application of motivated social cognition to understanding the determinants of political orientation”. Even German philosopher Jürgen Habermas from the Frankfurt School, the same school as Theodor Adorno, theorized about the notion of left wing fascism. One conclusion that can be drawn from this raging debate among psychologists is that rigidity is fairly equally distributed across the political spectrum. The psychological makeup on both extremes is strikingly similar. This explains why sometimes diehard left votes flips nonchalantly to the right.

Cover Photo: Representation image

The writer is a doctoral fellow at Iowa State University, United States.

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