Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Review of The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America by Verlan Lewis, Hyrum Lewis

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = Politics
Book Club Event = Book List (06/01/2024)

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“As an alternative to this essentialist theory of ideology, we propose the social theory of ideology.  While the essentialist theory says that distinct political positions correlate because they are bound by a unifying essence, the social theory says that issues correlate because they are bound by a unifying tribe.  According to the essentialist theory, people start with an essential principle, use that principle to think themselves to hundreds of distinct political positions, and then join the tribe that just happen to agree with them on all of these positions.  The social theory says this is backward: people first anchor into an ideological tribe (because of family, peers, or a single issue), adopt the positions of the tribe as a matter of socialization, and only then invent a story that ties all of those positions together.  Ideologies, in other words, are reverse engineered to fit tribal actions and attachments.” – Verlan Lewis, and Hyrum Lewis, Chapter 1: The Myth of Left and Right, Page 18

“But even as more dimensions were added to politics, Americans retained their old unidimensional model.  The ideological landscape had changed, but the map of the landscape had not.  The political framework in the late twentieth century when a proliferation of new political issues rendered a unidimensional approach to politics obsolete, and yet ideologues wouldn’t face up to this reality: they wanted to believe that their side was right about everything and the other wrong about everything.” – Verlan Lewis, and Hyrum Lewis, Chapter 3: The Development of Left and Right, Page 44

“The problem for American politics, then, is not tribalism per se – after all, tribalism is a fundamental part of human nature and an inevitable part of politics – the problem is that we don’t acknowledge the tribalism.  Instead of confronting the reality that we are conforming to tribes, we tell ourselves reassuring stories about how everything our party believes just happens to grow out of a principled ideological essence.” – Verlan Lewis, and Hyrum Lewis, Chapter 5: The Persistence of Left and Right, Page 93


Is This An Overview?

Humans are social animals.  Wanting to belong to a tribe is normal, but the tribal categories are not.  There are different ways to understand the political spectrum.  The essentialist theory of ideology, or alternatively, the social theory of ideology.  Principles or group dynamics.  The essentialist theory of ideology claims that all political issues are related to a single underlying issue, an essence.  That diverse issues are connected to a unifying essence.  That people find a tribe that that fits all of the myriad issues they agree with.  The social theory of ideology claims that diverse issues are connected by a tribe.  People choose a tribe, then defer to the tribe for their values.  People are socialized into the values of the tribe, then construct a narrative to justify their choices.   

Political discussions tend to assume that there is an essence to each tribe, that there is an underlying theme for each tribe.  But no such underlying theme exists.  The political spectrum of left or right is not an indicator of what an individual thinks about ideas.  All it indicates, is a commitment to a tribe.  When making claims, people signal support for a tribe rather than the claim.  They signal tribal solidarity, rather than adherence to principles.  People are willing to abandon their beliefs, but not their tribes.

Ideologies do not define tribes, rather, it is the tribe that defines ideologies.  The tribe makes a decision, even if opposing eve0rything they have done before, then the people justify the decision and following actions as being in accordance with the essence.  What essentialism does is reduce cognitive ability, as it enables a confirmation bias.  The more intelligent people are better able to misinterpret information to protect their tribe, and justify tribal prejudice.


Do Political Tribes Have An Essence?

The political parties have similar decision and do similar activities, they just do them differently.  But they want to create division, thereby claim that the opposition is different.  Both claim to want to reverse their opposition’s policies.

The political spectrum is defined in a way that includes people who have polar opposite ideas, but are forced to be on one side.  Narratives can be created about any essence that unite diverse issues.  A narrative that validates false beliefs.  The tribes redefine terms to make the opposing tribe guilty by definition.

Even if a political party changes its policy entirely, their supporters consider it a move to their side whether left/right.  Under the essentialist theory, no matter the change in policy is a further move to in their direction.  They define a move to a side based on what their party does.  A case of circular reasoning, as they redefine the conclusion by the conclusion. 

The political spectrum is useful for coalitions.  To share values during a specific place and time, but there is no underlying essence.  People have not changed their values, but the ideologies have.  As the tribes have changed their values, the people now stand on opposing tribes.

Reality is complex, with a search for an essence part of a need for simplicity.  The problem of the search, is that the simplification loses content and harms dialogue rather than aid in understanding.


What Effect Does Essentialism Has?

Ideological tribalism turned people away from respecting other people’s rights, democratic values, accepting election outcomes, and follow the rule of law.  Essentialism leads to conformism and hostility, which creates tribal stereotypes that become self-fulfilling.  Tribal identity leads to hating the alternative.  Disagreements can be divisive, but the animosity is amplified by tribal identity.  Discrimination has become acceptable when using ideological labels.

Although people need to be part of a tribe, people deny their tribalism.  Essentialist theory disguises tribalism.  People earn membership in their tribe by signaling their support for the tribe’s claims.  Extremist reaffirm tribal commitment when signaling support for the tribe’s claims, it does not mean they agree with the belief itself.  Although people will claim to follow the same principles.  Left-right essentialism persists to hide partisan values, to be tribal without feeling tribal.  To conform to tribal values without admitting the conformation.

Tribalism is not a problem, the problem is not acknowledging tribalism.  The problem is assuming that the socialization process does not affect the individual, when it actually does.  The self-deception makes ideological essentialism attractive.  They claim to be principled when actually they invent stories of their ideological coherence.  The essentialist illusion enables the party to change principles without losing membership.  Essentialism allows parties to change policies without appearing to change anything.

Essentialism reduces cognitive ability.  Ideological Essentialism leads to confirmation bias, and a willingness to misinterpret information.  To be self-righteous, and self-justify.  Essentialism turns intelligence as a tool against reality.  The more educated are able to defend their claims better than the uneducated.  Intelligence enables the rationalization of self-deception about the opposition, to justify tribal prejudices.  

There have been many inappropriate studies done on tribal fear sensitivity.  The studies were inappropriate because they checked for sensitivity using questions meant to illicit a response from what an opposing tribe would fear.  Individuals in a tribe have similar fears, defined by the tribe.  When the studies asked neutral questions, the different tribes turn out to be equally considerate on various aspects.  Although neither tribe is more intolerant in general, each tribe is intolerant to the other tribe.


How Did The Political Spectrum Come To Be?

Before the 1920s, Americans might have had different political parties, but there was no political spectrum.  The parties stood for certain political principles during the moment.  Later historians anachronistically imposed a political spectrum on those of the past, even if they did not actually think in those categories. 

What turned the American political system into a political spectrum was reporting done on the Russian Revolution.  As the Russians categorized between left-right spectrum, the reporters used the terminology.  But starting in 1919, journalists applied the left-right to competing factions of American socialists.  The terms were then domesticated to the main parties. 

As more political dimensions were added, Americans retained a unidimensional model.  Although the unidimensional approach was obsolete due to the proliferation of political issues, the ideologues would not change the way they approached the issues.  What ideologues wanted was for them to be right about everything, and the opposition to be wrong about everything. 


How To Overcome Essentialism?

Recognizing susceptibility to the essentialist myth is a step to overcome the problems that essentialism creates.  Recognizing that the myth creates distortions.  As essentialism packages ideas, the reverse is to use granularity by referencing the ideas separately.  This is part of a way to change the way ideologies are discussed.  Use constructive political disagreement. 

There are many tribes, which means that there are options to choose from.  As there are tribes that hurt the person and society, people should find better tribes to belong to. 



The focus of this book is on the problems of the essentialist political framework.  There are many examples given as evidence, they are diverse but short and can be self-similar.  The explanation of the resolutions are more limited, and tend to have mixed qualities.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is the myth of the political spectrum? 
•Why do tribes exist?
•What is the essentialist theory of ideology?
•What is the social theory of ideology?
•Is there an underlying theme to tribes?
•What does support for a tribal claim signal? 
•Did the tribes change?
•Did the tribes become more extreme? 
•How are the tribes defined? 
•How did essentialism effect the U.S.?
•Are people tribal?  Why do people hide their tribalism?
•How does education effect tribal essentialism? 
•What do the tribes fear?  
•How did the U.S. get a political spectrum? 
•How to overcome essentialism? 
•What is the private language fallacy?
•Can there be more than two political categories? 
•Is there a true essence that defines ideologies?  
•Is change an underlying essential principle?
•Is did Christianity change political ideology?
•What size of government do the political parties want? 

Book Details
Publisher:               Oxford University Press
Edition ISBN:         9780197680636
Pages to read:          121
Publication:             2022
1st Edition:              2022
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5