I’ve never found the “left-right” description of political orientations a particularly accurate way to describe actual perspectives and positions. This spatial metaphor may have made some sense just after the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly placed supporters of king and religion on the right of the assembly president and advocates of revolution on the left, but even then this linear distinction became a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing the varied viewpoints into a predetermined dichotomy. This way of thinking about philosophies and allegiances results in groupings that may be accidentally linked at the present point in history, but that logically combine the incompatible. For example, what do classical liberals, who believe in minimal government interference with individual interactions, have in common with classical advocates of state power, such as Joseph de Maistre, or with proponents of military nationalism, or even with moderate traditionalist classical conservatives, such as Edmund Burke? Why would Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini fall on the extreme “right” while Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung fall on the other side when all four have so much in common? The left-right image lies behind Corey Robin’s recent cartoonish characterization of the history of political thought as a struggle between supporters of status quo power and privilege and democratizing champions of liberation.
I suggest that a better way to think about political positions might be to conceive of them as falling within a triangle, depending on the degree to which the positions involve statism, traditionalism, and individualism.
As a formal political philosophy, individualism may be the most recent of these. We often think of individualism as appearing in the late eighteenth century in the works of John Locke and others. To various extents, individualistic thinking appears in the thinking of Thomas Jefferson, later anarcho-capitalists such as Benjamin Tucker, and classical liberals such as John Stuart Mill. As a political tendency, though, individualism is probably as old as human societies. Thomas Mayor, for example, has recently characterized hunters-gatherers, participants in the most ancient type of human order, as “the original libertarians,” and most anthropologists would agree that hunting and gathering societies display a high degree of individual voluntarism. I’d define as individualism, then, emphasis on the control of individuals over their own lives and actions.
Traditionalism is an emphasis on social institutions passed down over time. The oldest and most fundamental of these institutions is the family, and traditionalist politics generally place family relations at their center. But other kinds of relationships based on immediate personal ties or religious affiliations may also constitute traditional institutions. Not surprisingly, these relationships are often conceived of as family-like relations.
Statist orientations place formal governmental bodies in the position of deciding and directing the lives of those in their control. While it might at first appear that statism is incompatible with the other two, or that the other two are mutually incompatible), in fact approaches to political life tend to combine the three to some extent. A divine right monarchy, for example, can be located somewhere in the upper part of the triangle, containing elements of statism and traditionalism and located between the two. The sociologist Robert Nisbet argued that the modern centralized state results from the disintegration of traditional social institutions, producing atomized individuals under a powerful government. So, we would probably place modern corporatist polities close to the statism-individualism line, with the more authoritarian corporatist states closer to the angle of statism. The welfare state, with its proliferation of government-guaranteed individual entitlements, would also be a form of statist-individualism, somewhere near this part of the triangle. Nisbet’s biographer Brad Lowell Stone has characterized Nisbet’s own political approach as an anti-statist libertarian communitarianism, stressing traditional social institutions and relationships. This kind of political thought or a political commitment of this type would be located near the traditionalism-individualism line, probably somewhat closer to the traditionalism angle.
These placements within the figure are, of course, impressionistic. One could, though, come up with indexes of all three tendencies and place political theories, parties, movements, and actions inside this space based on three sets of scores.