The other day I blogged about the distinction (in my mind, anyway) between a conservative and a right-winger. This led me to think about the way the schools teach the political spectrum. My teen-age daughters were taught, as I was in the 1960s, that the spectrum runs from the far left, occupied by communists, to the far right, occupied by fascists and nazis. They were also encouraged to believe, as I was, that these two extremes somehow merge when pushed to their limits.
Although I bought this concept for many years, I now consider it nonsense. A useful political spectrum must be based on a continuum of ideology. I can’t think of any such continuum in which communism and fascism are polar opposites. The most meaningful continuum is based on the two fundamental and related questions of political philosophy — how much power should the government have and how much freedom should the individual exercise. On this spectrum, as Balint Vazsonyi has pointed out, communism remains at one extreme, while the other extreme is occupied not by fascists but by pure libertarians. The fascists and the nazis (short, after all, for National Socialists) are situated right next to the communists because, as Vazsonyi has explained, their views on government power and individual freedom are quite similar. In other words, the two “merge” not as the result of some cosmic paradox but because they were nearly the same from the beginning. On this spectrum, mainstream American conservatives, with their belief in effective but limited government, are located on the libertarian end, but at a distance from pure libertarianism.
I don’t know who came up with the orthodox political spectrum, but it is not difficult to see whose interests it served. In the post World War II environment, socialists, many of whom had initially opposed war with Germany because of Hitler’s alliance with Stalin, must have been pleased with a model that distanced them from fascism. Liberals would have been similarly pleased with a model suggesting that conservatives were not far removed from nazis. Today, the orthodox spectrum serves similar purposes. Although utterly misleading, it is probably taught in government classes all over America. Indeed, I suspect it is taught because it is so misleading.
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“Arise and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.” Winston Churchill
“Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof.” Inscription on the Liberty Bell