Article written in 1991 for the academic journals but not accepted for publication
IS RIGHT ALWAYS WRONG? A NOTE ON THE RIGHT-LEFT
CONFUSION OF MODERN POLITICS
University of N.S.W., Australia
"Right-wing" seems generally to be equated with conservatism
(opposition to social change). Thus pro-Communists in Russia are said
to be Rightist while anti-Communists in the Western world are also said
to be Rightist. This is a fundamentally confusing usage and "Rightist"
should at least in academic circles mean something more specific. A
strong element (though not the only element) in Western Rightist
thought over the years has been a rejection of government activism as a
means of social improvement. This, then, would be a convenient default
denotation for "Rightist" to have in future writing on the subject.
Conservatism (opposition to social change) is widespread in society but
Rightists seem in general to be no more conservative than Leftists.
Right as Wrong
One could be forgiven the impression that the term "Right-wing"
normally describes some evil. Writers of influential psychological
books commonly describe Rightists of the Western world in highly
pejorative ways (e.g. Adorno et al., 1950; Altemeyer, 1981 & 1988) and
we also read in the media that it is "Rightists" who want to wind back
the clock towards tyranny in newly democratic Russia.
But how can it be that defenders of Communism in what was the
Soviet Union now seem generally to be referred to in the media as
"Rightists" while opponents of Communism in the Western world are also
called "Rightists"? Is the term "Rightist" really devoid of all
In a way, we all know the answers to such questions. The kernel
of the answer could be summarized in a simple "formula" along the lines
of: Rightist=Conservative=Opponent of change. Thus a person is a
Rightist, not because of the policies he or she favours but because of
the relationship of those policies to what has been the norm in the
society concerned. Communism has been the norm in Russia so it is
"Rightist" to defend it -- just as a proponent of free enterprise in
the United States is "Rightist" in defending what has long been
Are Rightists conservative?
It would seem regrettable, however, if social scientists generally
accepted a usage as loose as this. Surely it would be much more
useful if the terms "Rightist" and "conservative" were distinguished
rather than equated. While the equation of "conservative" and
"opposed to change" offers no problems, surely it would assist our
thinking if we reserved the term "Rightist" for those who espouse a
particular type of policy of some identifiable sort. Thus
"Conservative" could be a relativist description while "Rightist" would
be an absolutist description. Describing a person as a "Rightist"
would then immediately convey useful, reliable and consistent
information about the attitudes and policy preferences of the
individual concerned. Surely that would be desirable, at least in
Let it be clear, however, that what is being presented here is a
proposal for future usage rather than an attempt to distil what has
always been throughout all time "Rightist". It may well be possible
for some future historian to distil out what has always been the core
meaning of the term "Rightist" but for the moment it would seem safest
to assert that the term has been used over time and in different places
to refer to a range of beliefs (Remond, 1969; Wildavsky, 1987; Laponce,
1972). The French, for instance, would appear to had from time to time
various quite different "Rightist" movements that can only weakly be
identified with anything in the English-speaking world (Remond, 1969).
The more modest aim on the present occasion is therefore to identify
what is hopefully the one most prominent theme of modern-day Rightism
in the English-speaking world and reserve it as the default meaning of
the term "Rightist" in general (The "default" meaning is the meaning
normally assumed in the absence of other information or specification).
It would also help, of course if the theme so identified were found to
be one that had some historical parentage. Finding prominent
historical antecedents for it would engender confidence that some
pervasive, lasting and perhaps therefore important influence had been
Let me therefore put at once my central submission: I submit that
anyone with any awareness of contemporary politics in the predominantly
Anglo-Celtic countries today would know that Leftists have long
advocated an increased role for the government in society (by way of
higher taxes, increased regulation and control of business and more
welfare programs) for the supposed benefit of the poor and
disadvantaged while Rightists want to limit or reduce such government
activities on the grounds that they interfere with individual liberties
and do not in the long run help the poor and disadvantaged anyway. So
what Leftists and Rightists of the contemporary Anglo-Celtic world
generally advocate, is not, I submit, particularly problematic:
Leftists believe (in general) in big government as the way to maximize
human welfare and Rightists believe (in general) in small government as
the way to maximize human welfare. I submit, therefore, that our usage
of the term "Rightist" should imply reference to such themes.
Can Leftists be Rightists? (!)
The failure to make a distinction such as the one proposed can have
consequences that are both amusing and confusing. As just one
example, take the recent much-commended work on Right-wing
authoritarianism by Altemeyer (1981 & 1988). Altemeyer found that his
scale of Right-wing authoritarianism (RWA) distinguished only very
weakly between supporters of the major Canadian and United States
political parties and candidates. As he says: (Altemeyer, 1988, p.
239) "Right-wing authoritarians show little preference in general for
any political party." And this is despite the fact that scores on
Altemeyer's RWA scale are fairly normally distributed! In other
words, what the RWA scale measures is widespread in the population (Is
that what one would expect of Right-wing authoritarianism? Altemeyer
mostly studied Canadian college students so is there some fashion for
military dictators among Canadian college students that we are unaware
of?) but has no real influence on party-political orientation.
The obvious conclusion from this is that vast numbers of North
American "Liberal" voters (nearly 50% of them) are Right-wing
authoritarians (Altemeyer, 1988, p. 240)! Is that not just a little
And note that Altemeyer's RWA scale seems a particularly well-
validated one. His work with his scale did in fact win him the annual
behavioral sciences prize of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science!
So what is going on? What sort of sense does it make to describe
Leftists as Rightists? How is our terminology letting us down? What
did Altemeyer really find?
Conservatism now irrelevant politically
In plain terms what Altemeyer found was simply that, at least in
North America, conservatism (attitude to change) is no longer of much
political relevance or importance. As has been shown elsewhere (Ray,
1985 & 1987), the RWA scale correlates extremely highly with other
measures of conventional political conservatism and negligibly with
other scales of authoritarianism. The principle of parsimony therefore
causes us to view it as no more than a measure of conventional
political conservatism. It is therefore on conventional political
conservatism that the supporters of the major North American political
parties are not distinguished. There are both opponents and proponents
of change in all the parties. The changes they want in the different
parties may be different but each party advocates change of some sort.
To look at attitude to change per se is therefore to look at something
that is now largely irrelevant.
Another way of looking at it would be to say that there is a lot of
conservatism on social issues in the population but it is not
conservatism that influences the vote. So Altemeyer's findings show
something quite different from what at first appears to be the case.
They tell us something very intelligible and interesting about
conservatism rather than something very confusing about Rightism.
If, however, my proposal to give the term "Rightist" some absolute
(rather than relative) meaning had by now become the norm, no confusion
would have arisen. Altemeyer would have had to focus on something
other than attitude to the status quo before he could describe his
scale as measuring any sort of "Rightism". He would have to describe
his work as showing that there is a lot of conservatism among Democrats
rather than a lot of Rightism. That surely makes a little more sense.
Democrats do indeed vigorously oppose Reaganite and neo-conservative
proposals to reduce or eliminate existing welfare programs. That may
make them opponents of change and defenders of the status quo but is
that important? Altemeyer's research suggests that it is not. It is
policy and policy objectives that matter, not the status quo.
Conservatism and self-interest
So how did this equation of "conservative" and "Rightist" arise?
Surely it has always been true that anyone, Right or Left, will reject
change if their interests are threatened. Thus, hard-line Communists
in Russia and China have long resisted (and continue to resist -- with
varying success) change in their countries towards a more open and
democratic society -- even at the cost of great bloodshed. And
equally, anyone, Right or Left, will advocate change to further their
own ends. Thus Britain's Prime Minister Thatcher was the leader of
Britain's "Conservative" party but was at the same time one of the most
actively reformist leaders Britain ever had. Nothing seemed sacred to
her. Industries that had been in government ownership for decades were
suddenly privatized. Saying that she defended the status quo is
laughable. So if we equate Rightism with conservatism, we would have
to say that Margaret Thatcher is a Leftist while Brezhnev, Li Peng and
their ilk are (or were) Rightists! Black might as well be white.
So how has the obvious been for so long overlooked by so many? Why
have we for so long seen attitude to change as the distinguishing mark
between the political parties of the English-speaking world? To
answer that, a little history might help:
The Right in history
To quote one history of the earliest English Tories
"The principles of Tory paternalism do not lend
themselves to effective legislation or improved administration.
Coleridge, the most profound and influential of these theorists, looked
to the moral regeneration of the individual, not to the reforming
State, and he envisaged the Church of England as the head of a
paternalistic society. He despised what he called "act of Parliament
reforms", and he exalted the Church as much as he feared the State."
Of a slightly later period we read: "Only State aid
to all voluntary schools could extend education, but the Tories would
not tolerate State intervention in a sphere reserved for the Church.
In a grandiloquent speech to the Commons, Disraeli played deftly on
this deep jealousy of the State. He raised the spectre of a
centralized despotism comparable to those which oppressed China, Persia
and Austria, and sombrely warned that the grant would force a return
"to the system of a barbarous age, the system of a paternal
(Roberts, 1958). The more things change.....
Dislike of State intervention has long been a prominent theme (though not of
course the only theme) among Rightists. Nor do we have to go so far
back in history to come up with instances of this sort. Two notable
quotations that might be referred to are by the eminent British
Conservative Prime-Minister Sir Winston Churchill and by the noted
Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott (See Buck, 1975 p.139-141
and p. 154 as a convenient reference for the detailed texts of both
statements). Although both statements were made long before the
Reagan/Thatcher/Gorbachev era, both stress how important to
Conservatism is the limiting of State power and activity -- though
neither of course limits the concerns of Conservatives to that one
theme. So, again, what Rightists advocate is both consistent and well-
known. It is why they advocate it that is the problem. What is the
guiding rationale, instinct or philosophy behind such anti-State
The Underlying Theme on the Right
Some answers to this question may perhaps be found in the political
history literature. In this literature a quest for common elements in
Rightist politics over time is a topic of considerable and enduring
interest and a focus of much scholarly enquiry. The commonest view
seems to be that the only continuing theme in the policies of the
British Conservative party over the many years of its existence is not
opposition to change or even opposition to State power but rather some
sort of pragmatism or practicality (Feiling, 1953; Gilmour, 1978;
Norton & Aughey, 1981; Standish, 1990). In other words, these and
other authors in effect conclude that British Conservatives (supporters
of the Conservative party) are certainly Rightists but are generally
not conservative (opposed to change)! That they are pragmatists means
that Rightists advocate what they do because they see such policies as
simply more practically successful, beneficial or vote-winning. They
look for what works and go for that. This is not an explanation of
the motivation behind political Rightism that will please adherents of
depth psychology but it does nonetheless appear to be an explanation
well-supported by the historical evidence.
Mrs Thatcher an Aberration?
Some historians (e.g. Gilmour, 1978; Standish, 1990) therefore
argue that Britain's Mrs Thatcher was a new type of Conservative.
Rather than being a mere pragmatist, she was strongly ideological.
This is, however, a neither a terribly well-informed view nor a wholly
unbiased one. Mrs Thatcher would surely argue that her determination
to reduce the role of government and government enterprises in the
national life was highly pragmatic and practically beneficial in the
light of the widely-acknowledged inefficiencies and insensitivities of
government agencies and enterprises. Moreover, a wish to limit the
role of the government in the national life has in fact most notable
precedents in the history of British Conservatism -- as has already
been noted. So Mrs Thatcher is in fact well in tune with historic
British Rightism (Toryism, Conservatism) and hence provides useful and
timely information on what it is all about. That it is not about
opposition to change can perhaps be seen from a more detailed
consideration of what she did while in office.
The Radical Conservative
Mrs Thatcher was both a proponent and a practitioner of drastic
change. If advocating drastic change is radical, she was radical. Her
short-lived "Community charge" (poll tax) was levied only on registered
voters and could be avoided by not registering. She thus made it
necessary to buy the opportunity to vote in Britain. A more startling
break with tradition would be hard to imagine. And Mrs Thatcher was
undoubtedly one of the world's most prominent and influential Right-
wing political leaders. She is still a heroine in Eastern Europe for
the lead she gave in privatization and winding back socialism.
Even the cause of her eventual downfall is instructive. Radical as
she was, she was still too conservative for the "Conservative" party
she led. She instinctively bridled at the idea of a common European
currency as such a move would lead to the decline and abolition of the
once supreme Pound Sterling (Britain's present currency). It was
rather like an American president being confronted with a demand to
abolish the Greenback in favour of a currency merged with that of
Canada and Mexico. Since such small changes as the introduction of a
$2 note have failed in the United States, one must appreciate what a
wrenching demand for change such currency questions can be. Mrs
Thatcher could not stomach such a radical change. Her party (the
"Conservative") party did want such a change, however, and she lost
power as a result.
The poll-tax was also a background issue in her downfall but note
that her party at no time raised ideological or in-principle objections
to it. Only its very great electoral unpopularity (it applied a direct
tax to many millions of voters who had not been directly taxed before)
caused its eventual abolition -- well in line with traditional Tory
Other Radical Conservatives
It should also be briefly noted that Mrs Thatcher was hardly
unusual as a radical Conservative. We read in one history, "The
Conservatives in the 1930s were not unreceptive to novelty, but in
their case the rejection of the economics of the 1920s took a different
form. The National Governments of 1931-40, in which the Conservatives
played the dominant part, introduced such hitherto-heretical measures
as managed exchange rates and cheap money." (Beattie, 1970, p. 439).
U.S. President Ronald Reagan, too was a clear proponent of change.
If he had opposed change and supported the status quo, he would have
defended existing welfare programs and tax levels for the wealthy.
Instead, he cut many welfare programs back and sponsored a slashing of
the top tax rates.
Ceasing to identify Rightism with conservatism also helps with
such minor puzzles as why the major Rightist party in Australia is in
fact called the "Liberal" party. (The adherents of the party concerned
claim that it is they who stand up for the liberty of the individual in
the face of the encroaching State). And why is the Canadian party
named the Progressive Conservatives? Is it not self-contradictory to
call oneself both progressive and conservative? (It is, but
Conservative parties are generally Rightist rather than conservative).
And why do prominent Right-wing intellectuals (Friedman & Friedman,
1984) describe the status quo as "tyranny"? Should they not be writing
of it as the ideal? Clearly, Rightism and conservatism cannot be
It is interesting that there has also long been in the
psychological literature some interesting evidence on the political
unimportance of conservatism. The work of Adorno et al (1950) with
their F scale is well known but might perhaps once again be returned to
here. What has research with the F scale shown? Rather contrary to
what the original authors thought, it has been found that the F scale
measures some form of conservatism but that it has little relevance to
current politics and little or no validity as a measure of
authoritarianism (Titus, 1968; Hanson, 1975; Ray, 1973, 1976, 1983b,
1984 & 1988; Ray & Lovejoy, 1983).
Does that sound familiar? It is, of course, just what proved true
(see above) of Altemeyer's RWA scale. Altemeyer (1981) summarized at
considerable length most of the problems of the F scale and devised his
RWA scale to replace it but ended up obtaining much the same findings.
This surely is a worthwhile confirmation of the political unimportance
of conservatism (opposition to social change). Given its now almost
worldwide influence, however, Rightism (suspicion, criticism or
rejection of State interventionism) is surely far from unimportant.
An historical alliance
So why on earth are conservatism and Rightism still equated?
Again, the answer basically lies in history. Conservatism and
Rightism were once allied. For a hundred years or more, the direction
of change in at least the English-speaking countries has generally been
a Leftward one. Up until quite recently, governments steadily
acquired more powers and raised more taxes in order to enable them to
do more and more for various worthy causes. Anyone who opposed big
government was therefore cast into the role of opposing change and
advocating the status quo. For many years, Rightism was synonymous
with support for the status quo.
Eventually, however, the ill effects of too much government
intervention became so obvious that even Leftists began to lose faith
in their policies -- with President Mikhail Sergeiovich Gorbachev of
the former Soviet Union being merely the most spectacular example of
this. Once disillusion with government intervention became
widespread, however, Rightists got the support for what they had always
advocated (a minimal State) and promptly showed in the most obvious way
that their support for the status quo was, as they had always argued,
highly contingent and of only minor importance compared with their
basic aim of achieving limitations on government interference in one's
An empirical question
In conclusion, then, it seems necessary to say that it is entirely
contingent and empirically determinable whether opponents of social
change (conservatives) are predominantly from the Left or the Right.
To continue automatically to equate opposition to change with one side
of politics only would be sheer dogmatism and quite blind to the events
of the real world about us.
For all that, however, it is now very doubtful that conservatism
now matters much to students of politics. It seems to be attitude to
the State rather than attitude to change that is the key variable in
understanding current political alignments.
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