Sep 9, 2022

The "myth of left and right"

The "myth of left and right"
Photo by Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash

Is our political spectrum completely meaningless?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”


One of the most difficult parts of my job is trying to define "left" and "right."

What constitutes a left-leaning belief? What constitutes a right-leaning belief? Do Liz Cheney and Donald Trump both represent the right? Do Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin both represent the left? What about commentators like Jennifer Rubin? Or Max Boot? Or Glenn Greenwald?

Over the years, I've found some interesting frameworks to pull from. Media Bias Fact Check has a compelling page that purports to define these terms, and where the left and right fall on big issues:

Left is "Collectivism: Community over the individual. Equality, environmental protection, expanded educational opportunities, social safety nets for those who need them." Right is "Individualism: Individual over the community. Limited Government with Individual freedom and personal property rights. Competition."

But it's not hard to look at those definitions and immediately think of contradictions and exceptions.

Last month, I wrote about which party was more extreme in today's political environment. One of the prompts for the piece was this meme, which went viral after it was shared by Elon Musk:

The premise of the meme is that Musk had stayed in some kind of fixed position on a left-right spectrum, while Democrats moved towards a left pole. As my piece explored, there might be some truth to this idea, but it also introduced many complications and problems.

So, I was thrilled when I recently came across an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, written by Verlan and Hyrum Lewis, on the "Myth of Ideological Polarization." The piece introduced a whole set of questions and challenges to the way we think about political polarization in America. It got me thinking. A lot. So I decided to call up Hyrum Lewis, who is a professor of history at BYU-Idaho and one of the co-authors of the forthcoming book “The Myth of Left and Right,” to chat.

Below, you'll find a transcription of our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the podcast version of it here.

When you're done reading our interview, I also suggest reading some challenges to Lewis's views, including this piece that was published in Heterodox Academy.

Isaac Saul: So, I stumbled across your work in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. And it was really fascinating. It touched on a lot of themes that I struggle with in my newsletter, about the polarization in the country and how to define it, and how to define the different sides. But I love to give people some space at the beginning of these conversations to just tell me about how they got here. I'm so curious what your path has been to writing a book about politics and polarization?

Hyrum Lewis: So I'm a historian by training. And I just saw some things that didn't sit well with me when I was studying history, because as you know, history is generally framed by politics. History will touch on cultural matters. It will touch on economic matters. But the framework that guides the narrative is always going to be political. It's going to be about wars. It's going to be about kings, about queens, about presidents. It's going to be about political figures doing things.

And so I am an American historian, that's my specialty. And when I was studying the American past, the labels that people were using didn't work. It was kind of strange to me. They kept calling Jefferson a liberal, and then they would call people like Robert Taft and Ronald Reagan conservative. And they would say they're on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

I said, well that's kind of silly. Thomas Jefferson's philosophy of government is the exact same as Ronald Reagan's. Jefferson said that government is best which governs least. Ronald Reagan said in the present crisis, government is not the solution to the problem. Government is the problem. Right? So they had identical policy views, they had identical philosophical views, and yet we're putting them on the opposite side of the spectrum. Something is wrong here. My colleagues are getting something incorrect.

And so I started investigating that further, and started to look in the psychological research, and the research on socialization and tribalism, and what I found was that, in fact, the way we are conceptualizing politics in the 21st century is completely wrong. Not just slightly wrong, not just wrong in the margins, but wrong at its very core. Basically, that's what my work does, is try to get people to see this fundamental error that we're making, because I think it literally is destroying the country.

Isaac Saul: You wrote about the meme that Elon Musk shared, which I actually did a whole piece about, on which political side is more extreme. You have this really interesting analysis of it, which is to forget whether people's views have changed, we've just totally redefined what the left and the right means. And that's the heart of the issue about why someone like Elon might feel like being on the left means something different now than it did. I'm curious if you could talk a little bit about that. What are you seeing in terms of the changes in how people are framing left and right, and how are those definitions changing?

Hyrum Lewis: So that's the central fallacy. That's the myth that we're trying to take on, is the idea that there are these fixed poles, there's something essential called left-wing and something called right-wing, and we can place everybody on this magic line between these two sides. And you can move further to the left, or move to the right. That's utterly ridiculous.

The reason being is because what the left and right stand for is constantly changing. People in the 1950s who stood for free speech were considered radical left-wing, and people like Senator McCarthy were considered radical right-wing, because they were opposed to free speech. Fast forward here, seventy years, and now there's people making the same McCarthyite arguments — they're saying certain ideas are dangerous. Certain ideas are totalitarian. Certain ideas, we have to stop them because they do harm, they are violence. This is exactly what Senator McCarthy said seventy years ago. And yet the sides saying this have switched. So what was once considered left-wing is now considered right-wing.

So you just go through the whole range of policy issues, and there's nothing so essential to the right wing tribe today that it wasn't at some point considered part of the left-wing tribe, and vice versa. Since what the left and right mean are always changing, you can't move towards something that's constantly evolving in its meaning.

When George W. Bush moved the Republican party in a big government direction, they said he'd moved the party to the right. When Ronald Reagan moved the party in a small government direction, they said he'd moved the party to the right. So it's ridiculous. Which is big government? Is it right-wing or left-wing? We have no idea.

Adolf Hitler was a socialist and he's considered extreme right-wing. George W. Bush was the most radical expansion government president in my lifetime, and he's considered right-wing. Look at the Iraq War. Well, they said George W. Bush was right wing because he invaded Iraq, and invading Iraq is very right-wing. Well, then along comes Donald Trump who says, you know, the invasion of Iraq was a bad thing. We shouldn't have done it. Do people say, well, the Republican party has moved to the left? No, they said he's moved it even further to the right. So what does right-wing mean? Nothing. It's a completely meaningless designation. We should throw these terms out, at least substantively.

Now, when you use the term [in Tangle], as I understand it, and this is correct, is that it does refer to tribes. There is certainly a tribe that calls itself right-wing, there's no question about that. And there's a tribe that calls itself left-wing, no question about that. But what these tribes stand for is constantly evolving. So why don't we just throw out the terms right-wing and left-wing, and say Republican and Democrat. That would clarify so much, and get rid of the illusion that there's some kind of philosophical core behind what each party believes because that's simply not true.

Isaac Saul: I've also found it really hard to define left and right-wing in my work. And it's funny you say that about throwing that out and just calling it Republican and Democrat. When I started my newsletter and this podcast, I used to label the sections "What Democrats are saying" and "What Republicans are saying," and I actually abandoned that for "What the left is saying" and "What the right is saying," because I was getting a lot of criticism. People would say, "you talk about what Republicans are saying, and you have this McConnell and Romney-esque Republican, and then you have the Trump and Tucker Carlson Republican, and these things are so vastly different that we should drop this label."

I was compelled by that. I thought there was some core ideology there broader than Republican and Democrat we could capture, and one of the things that sort of pushed me over the edge to making the switch was these definitions of left and right that I ran into from Media Bias Fact Check. So I'm curious to get your reaction to them. I'm going to read them to you really quickly, and I'd love to hear what you think about this framing.

The left they define as, "Collectivism: Community over the individual. Equality, environmental protection, expanded educational opportunities, social safety nets for those who need them." The Right they define as, "Individualism: Individual over the community. Limited Government with individual freedom and personal property rights. Competition."

I can see you smiling. What do you see about those definitions that drives you mad into writing a whole book about this? [Laughs]

Hyrum Lewis: Because it's nonsense, top to bottom. The idea that the left-wing is more collectivist and the right-wing is more individualist, it's just ridiculous. Adolf Hitler was a collectivist. The right-wing believes in limited government. Look, Mussolini said everything in the state, everything for the state, nothing outside the state. State. State. State. State. State. They are both considered right-wing. Militarism is considered right-wing. Is militarism not communal? Is militarism not statist? Is militarism not big government? This just doesn't square.

When we say things, we've gotta be able to test them as propositions. That's what makes something rational. That's what makes something scientific. And when you test this definition, it just comes up against reality and is proven to be falsified. So we have to follow science and the scientific method is about hypothesis and falsification. And the hypothesis they put forward there is just easily falsified.

But furthermore, I'm interested, because you listed a whole bunch of things. So, if there are a whole bunch of things in politics, why are we pretending there's just one? If the political spectrum could only model one dimension, what's the one issue there? They listed — what? You probably mentioned six or seven or eight there — so shouldn't we be using seven or eight? Why are we using one line to model a whole bunch of issues? Either there's a whole bunch of issues, in which case we ought to stop talking about left-wing, right-wing, moving right, moving left and trying to model things on a single spectrum. Or there is just one issue and that works.

But if there is just one issue, which one is it? And that's when we get into the big fallacy. People say, "well, the one issue is change versus permanence. Liberals and progressives and the left, they like change. And conservatives like to preserve.” It's just simply not true. Who was it that wanted to change the Roe v Wade decision? Who is it that wants to change tax rates to make them lower? Who was it that wanted to change Europe to create a thousand-year German Reich?

This idea that the right wing doesn't want to change things, it's just simply not true. It doesn't square with the facts. But people need this. The reason that people like this idea, that there's only one issue in politics and there's a line, [is] because they like to convince themselves that they're being philosophical. Nobody wants to be a tribal lemming. That doesn't sound good. If you went up to a politician, a Republican politician at any level, and you made a list of all the things Republicans currently believe, and you showed it to them and said "do you agree with all these things?"

They'd say, "oh yeah." You say, "well, why?" They're not going to say "because I'm a tribal lemming and I just conform to whatever my tribe does because I can't think for myself." I guarantee you they're not going to say that.

What they will say instead is, "because I am a conservative, that's my philosophy, and all those positions grow out of conservatism." So they have deluded themselves into thinking they have a philosophy, and the philosophy leads to all these positions, and then once they have those positions, they join the tribe that agrees with them in those positions.

That is exactly the opposite of what reality is according to all the studies. The reality is that people begin with the tribe, they anchor into it because of a single issue or because of family, or peer groups, or whatever. Once they've anchored into the tribe, then they adopt all the tribe's different views. And then after they have all the tribe’s different views, they believe all these different things, then ex-post, they make up a philosophy that tries to tie it all together.

Isaac Saul: So, you're scratching at this, which ties nicely into my next question. I'm going to read a paragraph from the piece you wrote in The Wall Street Journal, which I really loved. And at the end of the paragraph, you ask a question, and I'm going to give you an opportunity to answer your own question.

You wrote that, "it's true that many Americans hold their views in packages that we call liberal and conservative. Those who currently support abortion rights, for instance, are also more likely to support vaccinations, income tax increases, free trade, and military intervention in Ukraine. But the question is why? Why is there a strong correlation between these seemingly unrelated issues? And why do we find them clustering in patterns that are predictable and binary instead of completely random and pluralistic." So, Hyrum, why is this happening?

Hyrum Lewis: So the cluster and patterns happen because of what I just mentioned: the socialization. Everyone thinks that there's one issue in politics. There's a single dimension. And a few years back, [social scientist] John Bargh at Yale said, I've got it. I figured out what it is that divides liberals and conservatives. All conservative positions are about fear. If you're afraid, you're a conservative. See, that's why conservatives went to the war in Iraq, they were so scared of terrorists. That's why they created the Department of Homeland Security, they were scared, they were afraid. And they would say, giving up a little bit of our freedom is a small price to pay for security because we're scared. Ha! Got it, says John Bargh, I figured it out. That's what a conservative is. A fraidy cat. Scared.

Liberals, on the other hand, are more courageous. We shouldn't sacrifice our freedom. We're okay with a little more risk.

Then, of course, Covid-19 comes along, and it's exactly reversed. Why? It's tribal. It's completely tribal. If Donald Trump would have ordered lockdowns and said the entire country can't leave their homes, I guarantee you — and everybody knows it's true — that it would have been liberals, not conservatives, saying, "how dare he! Our reaction to the coronavirus is worse than the coronavirus itself!" So why was it otherwise? Because Trump took a more relaxed approach to Covid. So it's completely tribal.

Just let me digress here for a moment. There is a correlation, there is a slight one, but it's not as big as people think. Take abortion and tax cuts. If you ask the public at large, what do you think about abortion? What do you think about tax cuts? And then you plot it, you find a correlation that is teeny tiny. It's effectively zero. Except among college-educated whites. That's the only group that correlates.

So if you believe, hey, I'm against abortion, I think we should have less abortion. You're no more likely to believe in tax increases than you are tax cuts. They're unrelated issues, obviously. The only reason they correlate is because certain people join the right-wing tribe and say, "I'm in the right wing tribe, the right wing tribe believes in tax cuts, the right wing tribe is also opposed to abortion, so therefore I'm going to believe both those things because my tribe believes it.

But once you step outside of socialization, once you look at people independent of socialization, people who don't watch Fox News all the time, people who aren't constantly indoctrinated into this left-wing, right-wing way of looking at things, there's no correlation at all between those issues. They're completely separate. Our intuition tells us that's true. If we were just to step out of our skin for a moment and say, should your belief in abortion have anything to do with your belief in tax cuts? Of course not. They're just two completely different things. As different as buying yogurt and tortillas at the store. Just two completely different products.

The idea you have to buy them together is a silly fiction that we've sold ourselves. So the answer to your question, why do they cluster in patterns that are predictable and binary, is because of socialization. Because people join tribes and conform to their tribes.

So why don't people admit that? Because people don't want to appear conformist. They want to appear principled. They want to appear philosophical. And saying, "yeah, I just go along with my team, and I don't like to think for myself, I just like to outsource my thinking to one of our two parties." That doesn't sound very good. But to say, "I'm a principled conservative who stands for conservative principles." That sounds much better.

Isaac Saul: In all your reading and writing about this, and digesting the research, how do you see us breaking out of this? Do you think we need to change how we talk about this? Maybe I'm inferring something here, but my sense from talking to you is that you feel like this dynamic is not good. I certainly don't feel like it's good. You haven't said that explicitly, but from your tone I kind of gather it [laughs]. So I'm wondering what you think about solving this?

Hyrum Lewis: Sorry about the tone. It's a bad habit, I'm working on it. But yeah, let me be explicit about it: it is terrible.

And all the evidence says that. That's a constant refrain when I talk to people and say, hey, these issues don't naturally correlate, that there is no such thing as left-wing and right-wing, these packages of positions are not natural, they're socially constructed. People say, "well maybe, but it's a useful tool, it's helpful, it helps us organize political thinking!" People say that with zero evidence.

I've never seen a single study, I've never even heard any anecdotal evidence, to suggest that that's true. And there are thousands of studies that show otherwise. People who think in terms of left-wing and right-wing are far more filled with animosity, are less fact-based, are less able to make accurate predictions, and are less cognitively able. There are hundreds and hundreds of studies that show that when people are bound by ideology and thinking, in terms of the left-right framework, they are — let's put it as bluntly as we can: It makes them stupid and evil.

Now, that doesn't mean they're all stupid and evil people. It just means they're less cognitively able and less morally appropriate than they would be in the absence of these. I know a lot of very good people who consider themselves left-wing. I know a lot of very good people who consider themselves right-wing. I'm just saying those people would be better and smarter, and be more accurate in their political analysis, if they dropped the nonsense.

So, what can we do about it? You hit the nail on the head. Let's just stop using a false paradigm. It's as if I lived in the 19th century. And I was a doctor and doctors were cutting their patients open and bleeding them in order to balance their four humors. And I was saying, stop the four humors, stop bleeding your patients, you're killing them. And they're saying well, we need an overriding framework. No, you don't! The overriding framework of four humors is doing way more harm than good.

The framework that there's only two issues in politics is obviously nonsensical. So let's just dispose of it. Instead of talking about a political spectrum, let's just talk about issues. Why is it so much to ask that instead of saying “he's left wing,” and then going, “huh? I wonder what that means.” To just to say "he believes in abortion rights." That's pretty simple. Instead of saying she's right wing, just say, hey, she believed in the Iraq War. He's moving to the left. Well, what does that mean? I don't know. Why don't you just say, well, he no longer believes in the Iraq War.

Does it take a few more words? Sure. But a few words is a small price to pay for much more accuracy.

Isaac Saul: That totally resonates with me. In my work, I've found that my politics have undergone a great deal of change. And I've embraced a lot more nuance and started to see so many flaws with people in both the left and right tribes in a really deep way, and a clear way, that I didn't beforehand. I'm curious, what kind of impact has your research and writing had on you personally? Have you tried to change the way you react to news stories? Or your initial, knee-jerk tribal reaction? I'm sure you get asked about your personal politics all the time, but I'm curious, what's it been like going through the process of just realizing how broken this all is?

Hyrum Lewis: Well, if somebody asked me are you on the left or on the right, are you conservative or liberal, I say I reject the premise of your question. Your premise is that there's just one issue in politics and that's not true. So you're going to have to specify. If you want to know what I think about affirmative action, let's talk about it. If you want to know what I think about the income tax, let's talk about it. But that's a false framing. So that's one thing I do.

But you mentioned change, how you've changed a lot of your positions. I'm just going to flatter you a little bit here. That is a sign of an open mind. Karl Popper, who I consider the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, said that's the essence of rationality. What we are tempted to do naturally and what our lower brain wants us to do is to cling to a certain belief, grab on to a belief, and then defend it at all costs. You may have heard of the scout mindset versus the soldier mindset. But the soldier mindset is more primal. We like to grab on to a belief and then defend it at all costs.

Rational people, on the other hand, are scouts. And they live with ambiguity and they live with the idea that well, all the evidence isn't in and I'm willing to change my mind. So falsification, the ability to change one's mind in the face of new evidence, is the essence of rationality. So you know you're a rational person if you find yourself changing your mind in the face of new evidence. So that's a compliment to you.

Am I as open-minded as you? Maybe not. I try to change my mind in the face of new evidence. Maybe I'm not as good at it. But just keeping that in mind, that neither of these two tribes has a monopoly on truth, because they are just bundles of unrelated political positions, makes us far more likely to look at them in a more objective way. I'm not saying anybody can be objective. Of course, nobody can be completely objective any more than anybody can be completely honest. But that's not an excuse to lie. We have a moral responsibility to try to be honest and to try to be objective.

It's as if we went to the grocery store and they were sitting out in the front with two carts of groceries for us and said, what do you want, Cart A or Cart B? Now, you'd probably pick the cart that had more of the products you like, naturally. We all would. That's how it is when I go into the voting booth. I pick Republicans sometimes, pick Democrats other times. Sometimes I'm just trying to balance power between the two. But what I try not to do is to pick the cart of groceries, and then after the fact delude myself that all of these groceries are related, they all share an essential characteristic, and make up a fairy tale about how they all are essentially, philosophically bound. That's what our ideologues and pundits in America today are doing. They're inventing fairy tales after the fact to try to explain why all these unrelated positions are related when in fact they are not.

Just buy the cart of groceries because you have to. We have a two-party system. There's party A and party B. Republican. Democrat. Buy whichever cart you think is better. But please don't delude yourself into thinking that everything one cart has or everything one party believes is part of some righteous philosophy. That is self-delusion of the first order and it's tearing our country apart.

Isaac Saul: I feel like for people who are closely following politics, processing this idea is going to require a lot of unlearning of what's out there and what we're used to. What advice do you have for people confronting the reality that their gut reaction is going to associate with their tribe? I certainly see that all the time. I think the product of what you're discussing is that it's really easy for both sides to point out the hypocrisy of the other side, which we see a ton of, and nobody really wants to take responsibility for their own. If you're talking to a party line Democrat or Republican voter who wants to have an open mind, who wants to break free of this trap of seeing everything in left versus right terms, what is some practical advice on how they can do that?

Hyrum Lewis: I think you're already doing it. I'd say go to your website, because you said you try to pick things from both sides of the political spectrum. I would just change the language there. I would say just pick things from both political tribes, because there's no political spectrum. There's no one issue that's distributed. That's not true. But there are two political tribes. So read things on both sides of any given issue.

So let's say you are strongly in favor of tax cuts. I would seek out the strongest possible argument for tax increases and what those might be. Maybe that will persuade you, maybe it won't, but at the very least you'll open your mind up a little bit more.

Maybe your strongly pro-choice and you strongly believe abortion rights are paramount, maybe read the strongest arguments you possibly can from the pro-life side. And then instead of straw manning, steel man, or pass the ideological Turing test. If I was that person, I'm going to explain their position in ways that if they were sitting right in front of me, they would nod and say you got it exactly right.

So if you can't do that, then you're being tribal, you're being a lemming, you aren't being rational. If you can do that, then you have thought through both sides, you have the best possible argument for both, and your position is much more justified, and you can say, yes, I'm not being tribal.

So, your website and your podcast, and these things which try to provide multiple perspectives on issues, are a great way to do that.

Currently, we also have scholars doing research without any checks and balances. That's kind of like going into a courtroom and having two defendants but one lawyer that's representing both of them. In the courtroom, what we have is we have pro and con attorneys. We have an attorney for the defendant, we have an attorney for the prosecutor, and they're both working as hard as they can. They want to win. They're literally invested in presenting the strongest possible case.

Well, what if we brought that to academic research? That's what Philip Tetlock, who is a hero of mine, is trying to do. He created the Adversarial Collaboration Project at Penn. What if we had someone who said, I believe in the minimum wage, but in order to make my research more careful, and to find my blind spots, I'm going to bring in somebody to help me design the study to set out the falsification parameters, and so forth, who is against the minimum wage. And then we're going to work together and we're going to establish ahead of time what it will look like and then we're going to conduct the research.

The quality of research would increase many, many, many fold. My field, especially, would benefit. History has gotten so ideological and so monomaniacal that I think much of the research that's coming out of the history profession is largely worthless.

So adversarial collaboration. Talk to people who don't agree with you. Find out what they think. Repeat back to them what they think in as clear terms as you can, until they're saying, yes, that's exactly what it is. I would say that's the best thing you can do, is incorporate adversary collaboration into your life.

Isaac Saul: So we're coming up on time here. But I have one last question that is a two part question. I'm pre-empting a lot of the listener and reader feedback I expect I'm going to get. But I'm curious, from your perspective, and based on your research, about two things: One, if there is a subset of issues that animates this tribalistic response far more than others? I assume abortion is probably one of them.

And two, if your research indicates that one tribe is more tribalistic than the other? Which I know both tribes accuse the other tribe of being all the time. But I'd be very interested if there's any science behind that and what we understand about it.

Hyrum Lewis: I haven't done a lot of that research on polarization, but the scholars who have say that the right-wing tribe is more polarized. But people misread that. Again, it's the fallacy of the political spectrum. They say, oh, the Republican party has moved further to the right than the Democratic party has moved to the left. People misinterpret that. They think it means that there's this fixed philosophy called right-wing and the Republican party has moved towards that fixed philosophy. Complete nonsense.

What the polarization literature shows is not that anybody's moving right-wing or left-wing on a spectrum. It simply says that they are more lockstep. That's all it means. They use a tool called DW-NOMINATE in the political science literature. And what it does is just simply uses an anchor person, and then sees how people vote with that person, and which party is more unified. And it turns out the Republicans are more unified, they vote together more often. But that doesn't mean they move to the right.

If the Republicans vote for a big spending bill, for big government, and they vote for it in larger numbers than the Democrats, then that's considered right-wing. Is that because big government is a right-wing principle? No, it just means that this is a Republican issue and the Republicans are more unified on that particular issue.

So, to answer your second question, the right wing tribe is more unified. But that doesn't mean that they've shifted philosophically or that they moved towards a fixed set of principles. That's the fallacy.

Are there issues that animate one side or the other more? The answer to that is that it's historically contingent. It'll depend on time. If you go back to the 1940s, what was considered right-wing was nothing more or less than the size of government. It really was. There was just one big issue at the national level, and that's why the political spectrum is so entrenched.

People might be wondering, "gee, if there's all these issues, there's literally hundreds of issues, there's abortion, there's affirmative action, there's taxes, there's the war in Iraq, there's aid to the Ukrainians, there's diplomacy in China, there's hundreds of issues. Why do we just use a one dimensional spectrum? What's wrong with us?" And the answer is because once upon a time, the spectrum worked. Starting around the turn of the century, people started modeling politics in terms of more government or less government, and modeled it on a spectrum.

And up until the late 1940s, that worked pretty well. The New Deal was the one big issue and you were either left-wing, in favor of The New Deal, or right-wing, against The New Deal. Small government, big government. That was the one issue. What did you think about race? Didn't matter. In fact there were Ku Klux Klan supporters who were considered left-wing because they supported The New Deal. And people who attack their racism were considered right-wing because they were only going against New Dealers. You go back and look at the historical record, it's really, really fascinating. So there was just one issue, so you could model it on a spectrum.

Well, over time, of course, that changed. We brought in more issues. It started in the McCarthyite era. It started with McCarthyism. Then in the 60s, we started to get social issues, civil rights, all these other things. And as those came online, then politics got more complicated than just big or small government. But the problem is we kept the same model. Politics had become multidimensional, but kept pretending it was unidimensional. The landscape has changed but our map stayed the same, and that's the problem of where we are now.

So what issue animates both sides the most? It's going to depend on the time and place. Once upon a time, it was big versus small government. But obviously, in the age of Bush and Trump, that has nothing to do with right-wing ideology anymore. So it's going to be different issues animating them now. I think the anti-woke thing is the most animating on the right-wing tribe right now, and race seems to be the most animating on the left-wing tribe right now.

Isaac Saul: Hyrum Lewis, I love it. You've given me a lot to think about. I'm going to have to rework my entire company now, or something. [Laughs] Thank you so much for the time. If people want to keep up with your work, where's the best place to do that?

Hyrum Lewis: I've published a lot of stuff in the past. I'm not on social media for a number of reasons, but I'm happy to correspond with people directly if they want to email me. But our book is coming out in the next few months and I hope they'll read that and hopefully that'll answer a lot of your questions.

Isaac Saul: Thank you so much for the time. Let's keep in touch, keep preaching the good word. I think it's really really important. And I look forward to having you back on sometime.

Hyrum Lewis: Thank you, Isaac.


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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.