I have been writing and rewriting a book for over 20 years that captures my study of political theory. It is titled, The Theory of Political Relativity. The goal of publishing that book (as soon as I can find a publisher with sufficient lack of judgment) will be to advance a universal scale for defining political belief systems. Or, to put it in plain language, “What does it mean to be politically left, right, liberal or conservative?”
The task is quite challenging, as evidenced by the lack of a universally accepted expression. I concluded about ten years ago that there are two reasons for this quandary. First of all, there is a tangle of terms. And second, most attempts at modeling the politic spectrum have used two-dimensions for what turns out to be a complex, three-dimensional matter. People are humans, after all. So, this is bound to get complicated.
This article is the first in a three-part series based on excerpts from The Theory of Political Relativity. To get the entire thesis, you will have to read the book, which is unfortunately not available. And that is really a shame, because it is the best explanation that I have seen on the topic.
Part I: Nomenclature
In the 1880s, an ancient North American nation, known as the Sioux, participated in a ritual that they called Grass Dancing. European pioneers to North America had farmed a great portion of the Dakota Territory with wheat, replacing the buffalo grass that had grown there for centuries. Without its native grass, the buffalo all but vanished from the plains. Longing for a return to their traditional way of life, the Sioux appealed to the Great Spirit to replace the missing grass that sustained the buffalo. The Grass Dancing ceremony was intended to bring about the return of the buffalo and the old ways of the Sioux.
The Europeans were the liberals from the perspective of the Sioux nation. The Sioux were in a position of holding on to a proven tradition, which is a classic example of conservatism.
I pose this example in order to illustrate that the terms liberal and conservative are frequently used incorrectly to describe left and right politics. The political spectrum is more appropriately expressed in terms of right and left. Liberalism is merely the rebelling against tradition. Conservatism is loyalty to tradition.
Conservative and liberal positions reflect an attitude with regard to indigenous tradition. An act of liberalism can be the rebelling against a right wing practice or a left wing practice. Conversely, An act of conservatism can be the loyalty to a right wing practice or a left wing practice.
Communism has been the established structure of government in the People’s Republic of China for generations. This makes the government structure of communism the tradition for that nation. Therefore, communism is the conservative political position for the Chinese. When a news report describes a political figure in China as being conservative, the reporter should be speaking of someone who supports the Chinese ideology of communism. A political conservative in the United States would be someone quite opposed to communism, because the political tradition of America is a radical contrast to the ideology of communism. It follows that the political conservative in China would be considered to be a political liberal in the United States.
Albert Einstein wrote about the application of his Theory of Relativity in his book, The Meaning of Relativity. He discourages humanity’s tendency to be myopic; to measure our views based only on our own experiences. In rejecting the single-minded view of centrist thinking about physical existence, Einstein writes, “The earth’s crust plays such a dominant role in our daily life in judging the relative positions of bodies that it has led to an abstract conception of space which certainly cannot be defended (p3).” In other words, does the earth rotate within the universe, or does the rest of the universe revolve around the earth every 24 hours? Einstein proposed that, without a constant that applies universally, events are not measurable. “It is neither the point in space, nor the instant in time, at which something happens that has physical reality, but only the event itself. There is no absolute … relation in space, and no absolute relation in time between two events, but there is an absolute … relation in space and time…(pp30-31).”
Because the terms liberal and conservative are purely relative, they cannot be effectively used to establish definitive political positioning. They are only useful for contrasting perspectives. In my example, the European immigrant farmers are liberals within the context of the Sioux practice of buffalo hunting. But without that domestic comparison, the practice of farming is itself not a liberal activity. If history had unfolded differently, and the Sioux had landed in Europe and displaced farms with hunting grounds, they would become the liberals by rejecting the farming tradition established by the Europeans.
Just as with space and time, the comparison between political states of affairs is purely relative without an adequate scale. Differences can be contrasted, but value judgments are not readily assignable. The terms left and right, rather than liberal and conservative, provide a more useful standard for civic definition.
In exploring the cause and effect of political preference based on perspective, I have discovered that there are two questions that draw out a person’s political bias; “What is your concept of god?” and “What is your concept of man?” With comprehensive answers to these questions from any individual, the whole of their political opinion can be conjectured. These are the universal constants on which all human politics are measurable. The concept of god and theconcept of man are the space and the time of political relativity.
Next week, Part II: The Fiscal Scale.