” . . . we argue that it’s not the American people who are ignorant of true ideology but essentialists who are ignorant of the fact that there is not true ideology. The usage community decides the meaning of words, not private individuals, and in present-day America, left and rights are entirely tribal designations.” The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America (2023) by Hyrum Lewis and Verlan Lewis, page 42

“These factors explain the persistence of an essentialist theory or ideology that has been soundly falsified. Not only is essentialism false, but as we will show in the next chapter, it is also incredibly damaging.” The Myth of Left and Right, page 74

 

Why Drawn to This Book (Immediately)

 

I was drawn to this terrific book of only 100 delightful pages (to political junkies, at least) the day it was published last year by Oxford University Press, and I had it finished in moments by January 29, 2023 at 9:48 AM (to be exact). I knew that brothers Hyrum and Verlan Lewis’ The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America would be quite good because I’d been thinking its title for two or three decades.

Such a book would be about truth, and, in particular, the truth that the ideas of Left and Right have almost no meaning anymore for a whole host of reasons (well beyond the scope of any 100 page book or this short book review). Use of such language prevents those in tribal camps from listening to each other past the jargon, and it also prevents America’s citizens from being able to fix all the damage that’s been done, primarily since the 1960s, and to move forward with a joint vision into a higher level of human flourishing and happiness.

What we need to do is ditch all the terms like Left, Right, Liberal, Conservative, Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, etc., etc. in certain settings and get more granular about our common goals and the best ways to achieve them. We have hundreds (no, thousands) of years of human social and private activity providing tons of evidence of what works to accomplish this or that goal and what does not. We do not need any more social experimentation with all that’s been tried, failed, and succeeded since 1500 to know what any given social practice will bring.

This is not a dreaded “end of history” or Whiggish interpretation kind of argument. While truly nothing new in human thinking or organization will be invented under the sun, human circumstances in “modernity” are always changing rapidly. In fact, primarily via technology, science, and rapid, high quality communication, change is accelerating at rates alarming to many, especially the young.

Back to The Myth off Left and Right: Poor communication, confusion about the truth, and a failure to look honestly at the evidence of the vast quantities of social experimentation during the 1800s and 1900s in the West causes us to make the same mistakes over and over again. We need to consider fixing our language (words), narratives, and techniques of discourse (more patient listening would help) to get anywhere together.

The Myth of Left and Right‘s two authors clearly want to do something about all of this, and I applaud them. At publication, Hyrum Lewis was an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University-Idaho, and Verlan Lewis was a visiting scholar in Harvard University’s Center for American Political Studies and the Stirling Professor of Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University.

These two brothers are bright, good writers, and, I believe, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon). I completely agree with the article linked here in Scroll (BYU-Idaho’s news organization) that the Lewises’ observation about misleading terminology are on track and that their motives—to improve communication, reduce weaponization of political positions, and promote more peaceful dialogue—are front and center.

 

Comments on the Lewis Brothers’ Worldview

 

I am no expert on the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS Church), and I have idea to what extent they are believing, active members. (“Christians” in my church vary all over the map.) I only know that the LDS is a Christian religion and that every Mormon I have ever met, as far as I can tell, is a hard working, morally upright, and fine, outstanding, American citizen. Faith, family, and flag seem to be paramount to them. (As an aside, the LDS has built a beautiful new church on the north side of Richmond, Virginia, the city where I live.)

Based on our worldview research at Praxis Circle, the churches thriving today all seem to emphasize evangelism of some type in combination with moral discipline. Well, the LDS Church seems to hit the bull’s eye there.

“There Is a God” and “The Myth of Left and Right” Books

So, after finishing The Myth of Left and Right, I turned immediately to Hyrum Lewis’ There Is a God, a similarly well-written book of only 162 pages, and finished that on February 10, 2023 (at 11:55 AM, if you must know). I wanted to understand Hyrum’s logic and maybe get a read on whether we might be worshipping similar gods within the Christian faith. At Praxis Circle, we are quite interested in bringing Christians together to talk about what they have in common to make a bigger impact in renewing American and good Western society.

In sum, I am happy to report that Hyrum and I certainly appear to be worshipping a similar God based on Scripture. In fact, his arguments for God where extremely well presented and up-to-date, and they offered in an apologetic way forward not often encountered before (after reading dozens of similar books). He does not rely much on Thomas Aquinas’ famous and extremely important and common five arguments; instead, he takes on the most difficult argument against God—the problem of evil or pain and suffering—and then applies theology, philosophy, logic, and today’s evidence from science to make room for God, while destroying the materialist or naturalist view of reality.

He defines truth and relies heavily on it’s generally-accepted definition (see below) and then applies the vast knowledge of human experience and its natural observations from human life to show how obvious it is to those with faith and love to see that God not only exists, but makes His presence felt in every place in every moment in time.

“Many thinkers in previous centuries believed that truth was something that sat around in nature in all of its purity, just awaiting discovery. . . . Today, most of us have come to realize that truth is seen through various perspectives that lead different people to different views of reality. Although there is such a thing as absolute truth, we don’t ever have unmediated sensory access to it—truth is filtered through our subjective perspectives. Even scientific theories are human creations embedded in man-made paradigms. . . . It’s not that truth is relative but that human viewpoints are relative. As the Apostle Paul said, those living in mortality “see though the glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). . . . although science can come up with better models that are closer to the truth, these models are never final.” There Is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days (2017) by Hyrum Lewis, pages 53 and 54

(One might ask after reading the above: How can Hyrum know “there is such a thing as absolute truth,” given what else he writes above? Good question. I cannot put words in his mouth, but, to me, the answer is that our Christian worldview believes God, the Creator God, created us in His image to grasp absolute truth as God reveals it to us. Our God’s reality does not deceive us. However, we recognize worldview this does require faith, even in reality’s direct revelation, as does the acceptance of any form of knowledge or belief. The only thing here we can be 100% sure of is that all human beings make the leap to truth to live in this world successfully. Moreover, it’s worth continuous searching for and discussing, and this is what Western universities were originally founded to do.)

I am also attracted to the Lewises work because in both books they often cite Praxis Circle Contributors and others we follow closely like Eben Alexander, Arthur Brooks, Mary Eberstadt, Jonathan Haidt, David Hart, Deirdre McCloskey, Charles Murray, Michael Novak, George Ritchie, Steven Pinker, and Rodney Stark. These books together bring into consideration many of the worldviews, paradigms, and ideological or philosophical models or narratives that Praxis Circle is often focusing on, referring to, and examining. I cannot do justice to such a fine piece of work as There Is a God here either, and I will only offer one quote below that would raise interesting questions between such PC Contributors as Stephen Meyer (a theist) and Jon Haidt (a naturalist):

“The vast majority of people throughout history have believed in deity, so if there was no God, why would evolution trick us into thinking there was? . . . The answer for Darwinian fundamentalism is that evolution doesn’t select for truth, but for survival. Evolution rewards behavior, not thought. . . . So religious belief (again, notice the circular reasoning) must have helped ancestors survive. . . . If evolution is so powerful that it tricks us into believing useful lies, then on what grounds should we believe in the findings of science? . . . The explaining away of belief that atheists engage in destroys the very foundation of atheism. Materialism, it would appear, can’t even survive itself.” There Is a God, pages 82 and 83

Fun as it is, we must leave evil, materialism, Darwin, the theory of evolution, and God aside for the moment and return now to the Book of the Month at hand.

 

The Myth‘s Theme and Final Comments

 

The Lewises explain how the terms Left and Right originated and why they believe they make no sense whatsoever. The primary reason (perhaps too simplistically stated here) is that those on the Left often support policies commonly associated at different times with the positions of the Right, and vice versa. Indeed, politics often changes so much over long periods of time that the so-called positions of Left and Right become completely reversed. They argue “Left” and “Right” only polarize tribes and offer few, if any, consistent ideological references.

Easy to understand examples are “the Right” furthering cancel culture during the McCarthy Era against “the Left” while suffering it today (the day after Donald Trump was found guilty on 34 counts), or the “the Right” cutting taxes during the 1980s, then increasing taxes and deficits in the 2000s. Or “the Left” being against the Vietnam War but now for the War in Ukraine.

Examples are legion, and the Lewises offer many in the book. Suffice it to say we should discipline ourselves to cease and desist from giving frequent recognition to who sat on what side of the French Revolution’s National Assembly in the late 1700s (the Left being for that terrible but perhaps necessary revolution and the Right being prudently against it) for several good reasons.

Instead, we should look to the underlying goals being argued for, whether they are worthy, and how to accomplish best what we are trying to achieve. Argue based on truth, not ideology, and reframe your narrative relying on new words and narratives to make your points. If the right word doesn’t exist, invent one. If the narrative doesn’t work, change it.

“The Left” has always been very good at this, and “the Right” has not. If “the Right” continues the trend of losing, it might be in part because its leaders are not as effective with language and never developed an ability to argue from facts that have been substantially in their favor since at least the 1980s.

Right from the beginning, the Lewises state their case clearly and precisely:

“Ideology dominates American politics, and since we are thinking about ideology all wrong, we are thinking about politics all wrong. Concepts have consequences, and when society adopts an incorrect political model, the results can be devastating. The standard view of ideology is that politics is largely a clash between two worldviews that can be modeled on a political spectrum. The left-wing worldview . . . is expressed in a preference for greater government control of the economy, social permissiveness, and foreign policy dovishness, while the right-wing worldview is expressed in a preference for free markets, social restriction, and foreign policy hawkishness. Taking these worldviews to extremes leads to totalitarianism—fascism at the far right or communism on the far left—while the more respectable positions exist at the center left (“liberalism” or “progressivism”) and center right (“conservatism”). . . . It is, without question, the most influential political diagram of the twenty-first century. . . . It is also completely wrong.” The Myth of Left and Right, pages 1 and 2

I have highlighted the two quotes at the very top here to emphasize how the Lewises frame their argument. They divide all of American politics into two ideologies: essentialism and social constructionism. The essentialist theory of ideology looks for master issues and principles that govern the resolution of fundamental political positions. People vote a certain way and act a certain way because it fits their principles.

In contrast, the social theory of ideology looks to groups or tribes who construct principles as they go but especially after the fact to justify the behavior they favored in the first place. Essentialists follow the mind, and social constructionists favor their desires, feelings, and passions. These are theories of moral psychology often examined and debated by those like one of our newest Contributors, Jonathan Haidt. He favors the rider on an elephant model of human behavior, with the mind being the rider and desire being the elephant.

I would quibble with the presentation of the left-wing versus right-wing positions as presented above in that I believe a fundamental divide between Americans is over the preferred size of government and the control it exerts over our lives, particularly in its influence on families and the economy. In my opinion, there are no fascist right wingers because fascism is strictly a phenomenon of big government, not limited government.

There are also true, fundamental, and critical differences between worldviews over morality and its application that need no elaboration here. I would also say that both sides can be hawkish and dovish depending on the circumstances, the parties involved, and where the country is in the political cycle.

Where I differ strongly with the Lewises is that I do believe worldview is quite dispositive and does not present a chicken or egg problem. The Lewises define essentialism in their book as the idea that “the essentialist theory says that all left-wing positions promote change while all right-wing positions try to arrest or reverse change” (pages 5 – 6).

While this seems to describe accurately the average person’s way of thinking about “liberal versus conservative” (to the extent average persons think about such things), I believe that it’s a poor definition. To employ a legal phrase, it is “void for vagueness” because all politics involves change. Politics is the ultimate river that one never steps in twice.

The Lewises also say, “The essentials theory says the political spectrum describes a reality of binary principles, but the social theory says the political spectrum creates a reality of binary tribes” (page 6). By the end of the book, as noted in the quotes at top, the Lewises put all of their eggs in the basket of social construction theory.

Well, though it really pains me to say this: I believe their conclusion quoted just above—that worldview or the essentialist theory of politics is “completely wrong” is itself “completely wrong,” or at least deserving a whole raft of further discussion. To put it another way and in the words of one of my favorite PC Contributors, Jim Hall, I would have to render a “Scottish verdict” on the conclusion of The Myth of Left and Right, and that is: unproven.

Actually, political scientists cannot divide all of political ideology into either essentialist or social constructionist categories. There are intermediate positions on a spectrum and other ways to approach ideology itself. In fact, where they often quote principles applied to situations to make their points, I can find clear worldview reasons why and how the parties reached or justified their position and action.

Indeed, I can trace much of politics in the West in a consistent way from around the Protestant Revolution to today using developing Judeo-Christian worldview to explain most of the contending sides or factions using the work and analysis of many of the influential thinkers the Lewises cite, whom we presumably admire on a mutual basis.

A good way to look at politics in America today is via our moral foundations as explained by Jonathan Haidt here. Some of our political positions are determined by ideology, some by the tribe’s wishes, and some by both the individual’s and the dominant group’s attachment to such moral foundations. The stickiness of such emotional and passionate desirability naturally and necessarily changes over time.

Similarly, worldview evolves as facts and circumstances change over very long periods of time (that’s praxis), just as Hyrum describes in his discussion of truth in There Is a God, quoted above. Worldviews incur paradigm shifts as do ideologies. In the U.S., the two dominant political parties have both changed much since the 1960’s, leaving a large independent space to develop. Clearly, the underpinnings connecting each party’s base are experiencing sea changes now as they did in the 1980’s, but this does not mean party bases have shifted completely from their essences.

Furthermore, I would wonder how the Lewises could throw essentialism to the curb in a fairly dramatic and dismissive way, while maintaining their LDS faith (assuming they are believers). Don’t the principles of their faith determine much of their behavior and their politics?

They do not cite the word Christianity in The Myth‘s index, and they do not talk much in The Myth about religion itself. Perhaps they are writing to the more secular audiences of the Ivy League universities or to Europeans than the majority of religious persons and Christians in the majority in America.

Finally, the social constructionist theory was made famous by Hegel and Marx and ruthlessly implemented in decidedly un-social constructionist and decidedly essentialist ways by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, to name just three. Constructionist theory is that society and culture produces all of language and society, and it predominates in postmodernism and identitarianism, as well as Marxism. The individual is portrayed as powerless and purely a function of the tribe, party, or nation.

This is partially true and partially false, which is the fundamental problem with The Myth‘s conclusions. The debates over nature versus nature are no different. Betting on just one or the other is always problematic.

 

Conclusion

 

In my way of thinking, social constructionist theory in its Classical Marxist sense has been largely, if not totally, discredited. What is a group but a congregation of individuals? What idea does not start initially from the mind of an individual? What tribe does not consist of individuals? Do tribes change their views? How, if not from the minds of individuals?

The existence of individual human consciousness and mind is true; they produce and depend on ideas that must have essence that becomes expressed in common language; and essentials that create worldviews have a tremendous and often dispositive impact on politics and human action. To me, this is undeniable and broadly accepted across the globe. It always has been and will be as long as we are human.

Call it natural human existence or law, if you like.

To restate another way, how could any social, cultural, political, economic, or scientific narrative, theory, or position change without the influence of the mind of one or more human beings (or without God, which is where Christianity does locate the Spirit)? Pure social constructionism is a tautology or unicorn.

And where is “the spirit” located by materialists called the General Will or Collective? This can only be absurd. No, Marx’s theories have had little to no credibility since the 1800’s given my own worldview, which is founded on truth.

In the end today, my recommendation is to buy The Myth of Left and Right and give it a read. Ironically, it advances the ball of essentialist thought well down the road in a positive and necessary direction. Fortunately, there are essentialist worldviews out there that highly value all of the goals (better communication, clearer thinking, better solutions, and increased love and peace) to which the Lewises are obviously dedicated. I believe these worldviews explain why the West has done as well as it has.

Yes, I would love to interview the Lewises one day about their worldview and discuss their response to this review, as well as get their follow on thoughts since publishing this important book just over a year ago.

In my opinion, what they have really accomplished is call into serious question the “Radical Left’s” (Neo-Marxist, Woke, Identitarian, Critical and Queer Theory-oriented, and Postmodernist) monopoly on the definition of “progress”: The perpetually growing gargantuan state washed of all morality.

It’s a great ship of fantasy now crashing before our eyes in America on the sharp-edged rocks of truth.

 

PS – Please see this interview where Hyrum and Verlan discuss “Left and Right” live: