What organizes people into sustained political factions like left vs. right? Supposedly our opposing answers to some fundamental question, but what is that question?
Gender is a natural distinction, though not as decisively delineated as we once thought. Still, there are males and females, gays and straights in nature. Are there lefts and rights in nature, and if so, is the distinction between them reflected accurately in our current categorization of people as being on the left or right?
A term can persist though it’s meaning changes. For instance, “I love you,” repeated consistently in a relationship while its meaning morphs from “you’re sexy” to “you’re cozy,” or from “I’m feeling a swell of emotion,” to “I’m committed to staying with you.”
“I’m left wing,” or “I’m right wing,” morphs too, reflecting changing coalitions and interests. Today, left and right have come to mean factions that would like the other faction out of the way. They’re not a yin and yang that need each other. They’re warring kingdoms competing for exclusive dominion over the same space, and then competing over which kingdom is to blame for starting the warring.
Not a bad time to get back to fundamentals. Maybe we can find a way that while advocating for our wing’s position on any particular issues, the two wings could remember that they depend on each other to fly.
What then is the true and fundamental, natural, co-dependent yin and yang of political life?
At core, it’s tight vs. loose, constraint vs. freedom. Conservative vs. liberal vaguely represents this distinction, conservative implying constraint, liberal implying freedom.
Can one do without the other? Not really. Sure, we all want freedom but most of us recognize that one person’s freedom can easily become another person’s constraint. On a dance floor, one guy flailing freely constrains other people into smaller spaces. We experience constraint, or social order as security. What we really want is security and freedom in the right mix, and unless we’re sociopaths or narcissists we recognize that we need to balance our security and freedom with other people’s security and freedom.
This distinction has deep biological roots. Life evolves through a combination of conservation or heredity—traits constrained to stay the same over generations—and liberty or freedom to vary from generation to generation. Life progresses by trial and error. Error is judged against the constraints necessary to sustaining life. The diverse trials are free variations, some of which cross the line, too freed to survive.
Though people think of evolution as an active selection process it isn’t one. The business end of evolution is the biological individual, the organism or self, striving to survive. It’s what must maintain a sustainable balance between conserving or constraining and unconstrained freedom. We see it in a necessary condition for life, the protective but selectively permeable membrane that holds an organism together. Your skin for example, with its pores and orifices. The skin contains, constrains, and protects you, but the pores and orifices allow for free interaction with your environment. Even the simplest living being depends on constraint and freedom, or selective interaction.