06/04/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

Reflections on the Primaries

The Republican primary contest has been resolved, and we can turn our attention to the general election. But before we turn to left vs. right, I wanted to share some observations about right vs. right. I can't help myself. It's summertime and I'm a teacher with lots of time on my hands.

There aren't too many things that can be satisfactorily explained with a single, two-valued variable like left-right. And I never found satisfying a discussion of which of the Republican candidates -- for example Ron Paul or Rick Santorum -- was farther right or who was more conservative. Would anything useful be accomplished by answering the question? The traditional left-right characterization of the political spectrum seems woefully inadequate in understanding today's political environment. It trivializes and masks some important differences.

One common characterization places moderates in the middle on a horizontal line with conservative to the right and reactionary to the far right, and with progressive to the left and radical to the far left. These are pretty strong labels with lots of baggage. Let's put those connotations aside for the moment and rely on some standard definitions from political science.

First of all, let's not confuse political Conservatism (capital C) with philosophical conservatism (small c). Philosophical conservatives favor what is known through experience and have a healthy skepticism about what is imagined from pure reason without evidence. Some theorists call this realism because it's about how things really are. That's not to say that conservatives oppose all change, but if a new problem demands a new solution, it should be pursued in small steps gaining experience along the way -- incrementalism. Progressives, as the name implies, are forward leaning, with great confidence in reason's ability to solve problems -- rationalism. Theorists sometimes relate this to idealism because it is in pursuit of an ideal not yet a reality.

Progressives and conservatives can find common ground with progressives leaning toward comprehensive reforms and conservatives saying, "Slow down, let's take one step at a time." Progressives propose bold new solutions -- some good, some bad -- and conservatives keep us from jumping off cliffs. Not a bad pairing with a complementary yin and yang, anima and animus feel to it. That's quite different than political Conservatives and Liberals that appear to be anything but complementary or complimentary.

Moving farther to the right are reactionaries. Rather than conservatives' resistance to bold departures from the status quo, reactionaries believe we've already gone too far. They prefer going back to past ways, sometimes back to a romanticized, idyllic past way that never truly existed. Rather than resist change, reactionaries promote change in reverse.

To the far left are radicals. They, too, favor change and the object of change is often the government. Rather than the progressives' purposive reform of government, the conservatives' stabilizing resistance to bold change, or the reactionaries' reversion to an idealized past, radicals think the current system is beyond repair and should be discarded and replaced with a new untried system.

But even with a five-valued variable, I can't see much daylight between the candidates. Imagine another dimension represented by a vertical line. Again, a word like moderate, centrist, or pragmatist lies in the middle, with authoritarian above the line and totalitarian at the top, and with libertarian below the line and anarchist at the bottom. Some of these labels are powerful and shouldn't be tossed around lightly. Definitions are in order.

Libertarianism is defined as "the belief that the requirements of group cohesion should be subordinated as completely as possible to the autonomy and self-regulation of the individual member." Anarchism argues for the absence of state and social coercive power all together. Libertarians on the right and civil libertarians on the left are distinguished by which coercive institutions they believe constitute the greatest threat to individual liberties and by the methods they employ to secure liberties. Civil libertarians, much more so that libertarians, are suspicious of the coercive power of big business.

In contrast, authoritarianism is defined as "the belief that the purely personal needs, inclinations, and values of group members should be subordinated as completely as possible to the cohesion of the group and its requirements." Some distinguish authoritarian from totalitarian governments by the limits of their authority to regulate citizens' behavior. In an authoritarian system, the authority extends throughout the public square; in a totalitarian system, authority extends into the home and mind.

What distinguishes Ron Paul from Rick Santorum is placement on the vertical rather than on the horizontal axis. Paul has been consistently talking and walking his brand of libertarianism for decades. Santorum and similarly-minded former candidates campaigned on a promise to legislate their religious views on all, even on those who did not share their religious beliefs. And those beliefs involved the most intimate activities of an individual's life -- contraception, abortion, end of life, sex, and marriage. At the same time they argued for freedom of religion as an individual right.

We'll never know what anyone truly believes. We can only observe what they do and say. Mitt Romney, judged by his track record, is probably a moderate, establishment Republican. But given the deep divide in the Party, he could not campaign as such. To gain his party's nomination, he had to simultaneously speak to polar opposites. The label "flip-flopper" didn't quite capture his conundrum.

Answering the "who's farther to the right" question seems to be energy spent without reward. But the left-right, up-down distinctions better aided my understanding of the choices presented to the American public in the Republican primaries. Perhaps these two dimensions won't be sufficient to distinguish the policy inclinations of Obama and Romney, but the summer is young and it's either this or mow the lawn. When all is said and done, it probably won't change my vote, but it comforts me to know that I've exercised some degree of due diligence in the matter.