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Teaching The Political Spectrum

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It varies from state to state and from school to school, but it is usually somewhere around ninth or tenth grade that students are introduced to the concept of the “political spectrum”: the difference between left-wing and right-wing, between conservative and liberal, radical and reactionary. It is a necessary lesson: Students need to have a basic understanding of what these terms mean when they listen to politicians and pundits on the nightly news use them to discuss the issues of the day. But it is a lesson that can confuse students. Parents and teachers need to be prepared to help them work their way through the maze.
For most high school students, a basic explanation of the spectrum will be adequate. It will be sufficient for them to know that right-wing means those who want to preserve the current political and social order, to keep things as they are, the “status quo.” And that left-wing is a description of those pushing for change. They will be satisfied to hear that “left” and “right” originated as descriptions of where the political factions sat in the 18th-century French Parliament, with those in favor of radically changing France from its monarchical system sitting on the left of the chamber and those seeking to preserve the monarchy in one form or another on the right.
They will also be satisfied when they hear that “conservatives” (those who want little or no change in the status quo) and “reactionaries” (those who would like to return to older ways of doing things) — are “on the right.” Also, that “liberals” (those who want to change the status quo, but in a slow and peaceful manner) and “radicals” (those who call for sudden, even violent, change) — are “on the left.” As a basic benchmark, this all makes sense.
The problem with this standard presentation of the spectrum is that some, more curious, students will soon find it inadequate. They will come across descriptions of Ronald Reagan as a “conservative,” alongside analyses of the “conservatives” in the old Soviet Union who resisted changes designed to move the country away from its totalitarian form of Communism. They will ask how a strong anti-Communist such as Reagan and militant pro-Communists in the Soviet Union can both be called “conservative.”
Or perhaps they will read about the Progressive movement in the United States and how it pushed for a version of the Social Security system in the early years of the 20th century. They will find the leaders of the Progressive movement described as “radicals” in the newspapers of the time. This may leave them scratching their heads because they will also hear conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats these days running for office on the promise that they will “save Social Security.” Which is it — radical or conservative or liberal — to favor Social Security?
The simplest way to help those confused in this manner is to inform them that these labels on the political spectrum change in meaning, depending upon the time and place when they are applied; that they are relative, rather than value-laden, terms. Value-laden terms are those that describe something good or bad in every instance. “Vile,” for example, is a value-laden term; it always describes something evil. “Generous” is a value-laden term; it always describes an admirable character trait. “Liberal” and “conservative” are not like that. Their meanings change as the context changes.
For example, a “conservative” in the court of the French King Louis XIV would favor the preservation of an absolute monarchy — the status quo at that time and place. On the other hand, a conservative in the United States when Ronald Reagan was in office would favor representative government and a free-market economy. Likewise, George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s political views would have been thought to be radical by the British Parliament during the time of the American Revolution; the supporters of American independence would have disagreed.
This means that when students are reading works of history, they must be constantly on the alert when an author uses any of the terms on the political spectrum. They must ask themselves what kind of government and political policies the historical figure is facing at that moment in history. It well may be that the person in question would be called something very different at another time in history for holding those same views.
There is another question that can arise over the terms on the political spectrum, specifically over the term “conservative.” It comes up when students hear modern political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity describing conservatism as a “belief in the free market, small government, law and order, traditional values, and a strong national defense.”
More than once during my teaching days, I have had discussions with students who asked how this definition makes sense. They ask why conservatives do not trust the central government to regulate American businesses, but do trust it to regulate a woman’s right to an abortion, to censor “obscene” books and films, and to maintain a powerful military and CIA with the power to conduct intelligence operations that gather information on individual Americans? Are conservatives for big government, or against?
The answer? There are two different types of conservatives. There are the “economic conservatives,” those who seek a minimum of government regulation of business activity. They trust the free market to find the best level of wages, prices, and decisions about production. They see government intervention as counterproductive and as a threat to freedom. Their intellectual roots are found in the work of the British economist Adam Smith.
Then there are the “social conservatives,” those who believe that the government has a role in preserving a healthy and moral society. They see nothing wrong with the government establishing rules about abortion, obscenity, and drug use. They favor giving to the police and the military the authority and the power to establish restraints upon immoral and antisocial impulses that would tear society apart. The social conservatives trace their origins to the work of the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke, especially his analysis of the reasons for the bloodshed and tyranny that followed upon the French Revolution.
These two forms of conservatives have been able to work together since the 1960s as a political coalition against liberalism, which provided an ideal common enemy. American liberals seek to regulate business, but also push for legalized abortion, an end to censorship and less restrictive policies on recreational drug use. The short answer to why the social conservatives appear to be more favorably disposed to government power than economic conservatives are is that they are so disposed.

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.

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