Article written in 1991 for the academic journals but not accepted for publication


J.J. Ray

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.

Catch 22?

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 meaning?

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 normative there.

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 scholarly circles.

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 identified.

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 puzzling?

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 (Conservatives):

"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 government".

(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 beliefs?

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 pragmatism.

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 equated.

Adorno reconsidered

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 life.

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.


Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality New York: Harper.

Altemeyer, R. (1981). Right-wing authoritarianism Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Altemeyer, R. (1988) Enemies of freedom: Understanding Right-wing authoritarianism San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Altemeyer, R. (1990) Altemeyer replies. Canadian Psychology 31, 393-396.

Beattie, A. (1970) English Party Politics Vol. II London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson

Buck, P.W. (1975) How Conservatives think Harmondsworth: Middlesex Penguin.

Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly 24, 129-133.

Friedman, M. & Friedman, R. (1984) Tyranny of the status quo London: Martin Secker & Warburg.

Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right London: Quartet.

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Laponce, J.A. (1972) In search of the stable elements of the Left- Right landscape. Comparative Politics 4, 455-475.

Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism London: Temple Smith

Ray, J.J. (1973) Dogmatism in relation to sub-types of conservatism: Some Australian data. European J. Social Psychology 3, 221-232.

Ray, J.J. (1976) Do authoritarians hold authoritarian attitudes? Human Relations, 29, 307-325.

Ray, J.J. (1983). Half of all authoritarians are Left-wing: A reply to Eysenck and Stone. Political Psychology, 4, 139-144.

Ray, J.J. (1984). Half of all racists are Left-wing. Political Psychology, 5, 227-236.

Ray, J.J. (1985) Defective validity in the Altemeyer authoritarianism scale. Journal of Social Psychology 125, 271-272.

Ray, J.J. (1987) Special review of "Right-wing authoritarianism" by R.A. Altemeyer. Personality & Individual Differences 8, 771-772.

Ray, J.J. (1988) Why the F scale predicts racism: A critical review. Political Psychology 9(4), 671-679.

Ray, J.J. & Lovejoy, F.H. (1983). The behavioral validity of some recent measures of authoritarianism. Journal of Social Psychology, 120, 91-99.

Remond, R. (1969) The Right-wing in France from 1815 to De Gaulle Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Roberts, D. (1958) Tory paternalism and social reform in Early Victorian England. The American Historical Review 63, 323-337.

Standish, J.F. (1990) Whither conservatism? Contemporary Review 256, 299-301.

Titus, H.E. (1968). F scale validity considered against peer nomination criteria. Psychological Record, 18, 395-403.

Wildavsky, A. (1987) Choosing preferences by constructing institutions A cultural theory of preference formation. American Political Science Review 81, 3-21.

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