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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Political Ambiguity: We are more than just liberal or conservative


chau_opThe political spectrum is quite difficult to understand. As far as we know, its origins are in the French Revolution. At the time, legislators who sat on the left side of the National Assembly were in favor of the Republic and those who wanted to preserve the monarchy sat on the right. Despite the strict political divide this practice implies, people on each side hold a wide variety of beliefs and opinions. But how do these classifications define politics in the modern age?

With the United States’ two-party system, it seems quite easy to label the Democratic Party as left-wing and the Republican Party right-wing. But it’s not as simple as that. A great amount of ideological deviation exists between a party’s platform and its legislators. The terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ used to describe the two parties’ supporters remain vague and open-ended. People often hold complex beliefs that cannot be exclusively classified as either right-wing or left-wing. This political divide is little more than a system of classification. For example, a person may be supportive of a free market, which puts them at the economic right. But at the same time they might be socially liberal, supporting gay marriage rights. Similarly, just because a party is labelled as left-wing does not mean it’s unable to hold socially conservative opinions on marriage or religion. Having just two terms, left- or right-wing, liberal or conservative, does not suffice to describe the diverse range of beliefs in our society.

Any issue that people clash on, whether it be the minimum wage or our immigration system, is not merely two-sided. Topics like these will surely have many sides trying to pinpoint a cause to the problem. An issue like radical extremism, or the Oregon standoff, requires a much deeper understanding than the usual two-sided partisan scapegoating. If you just scroll through a few online articles, it’s fairly easy to find comments like, “KKK and the Christian Right wing strikes again!” or “Smells like a radical left-wing agenda cooking.” Rather than talking about the root causes of the recent Burkina Faso hotel attacks or the Oregon refuge standoff, many people choose to play the ideological blame game. Ignoring other confounding factors, many blame the party or side they demonize as the true cause of a problem they feel strongly about.

Similar to George Carlin’s assertion that “politicians don’t just fall from the sky,” it’s also true that political parties don’t come out of thin air. They were created for and by the people to advance policy initiatives and better the workings of government. In recent years, we have seen the two parties and their supporters blame each other for the inefficiencies of lawmaking. The inevitable effect of polarization between the two parties, who often stand quite close on many issues, is a belief in imaginary ideological differences. One party will label its rival as “the other”— ignorant, incapable of grasping the issues and purposively seeking out holes or hypocrisies in the other side’s argument. Political parties do benefit the lawmaking process, but now they’ve become a barrier to analyzing and solving contentious topics.

Using the language of the political spectrum to unite us rather than to classify and divide us will advance our academic discourse on important issues. If we can free ourselves from the labelling and the criticism, we can start a new chapter in politics, and use the spectrum to help, not hurt, our understanding of the world.

You can reach JUSTIN CHAU at jtchau@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Great commentary! Well done. Obviously, politics is multi-dimensional, so perhaps we should start thinking about adopting a parliamentary-type system for our state legislature. See my Nov. 1, 2010 column, “Election Day”: bit.ly/1UgokIu


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