Far Right and Far Left Coming Together – With Infographics!

In one of the Stage’s most popular posts, I asked if the “far right” and “far left” are really just two peas of the same pod.  On the face of things America seems divided between two hostile cultures. Yet look beneath the surface and a different picture emerges: underneath partisan rhetoric are two parties united in a plutocratic, establishment consensus. “There are two groups who consistently oppose this “pragmatic” consensus“, I noted in the post, “the far left and the far right. These two groups, seemingly divided, are united by their “radical” opposition to many otherwise unquestioned aspects of America’s standing political regime.[1]

This week one of the “unquestioned aspects of America’s political regime” has received unusual attention: the runaway expansion of the ‘classified state’ and its clients, seen quite vividly in the extensive powers given to the NSA by the American people. A recent Pew opinion poll suggests that a slight majority of Americans support these measures [2], but an outspoken minority has ensured that the controversy surrounding the NSA leaks has made front page headlines every day this week.  The mainstream press is now turning its attention to who these contrarian rabble rousers are.

Nate Silver (who blogs for the New York Times) focuses on the United States House of Representatives:

Image Source: Nate Silver. “Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries.” New York Times. 11 June 2013.

His explanation of the info-graphic is worth reading:

Take, for example, the House’s vote in May 2011 to extend certain provisions of the Patriot Act — including the so-called library records provision that the government has used to defend the legality of sweeping searches of telephone and e-mail records. The bill passed with 250 yes votes in the House against 153 no votes, receiving more of its support from Republicans. (In the Senate, the bill passed, 72-23, winning majority support from both parties.) However, the House vote was not well described by a traditional left-right political spectrum. 

In the chart [above], I’ve sorted the 403 members of the House who voted on the bill from left to right in order of their overall degree of liberalism or conservatism, as determined by the statistical system DW-Nominate. Members of the House who voted for the bill are represented with a yellow stripe in the chart, while those who voted against it are represented in black 

The no votes are concentrated at the two ends of the spectrum. The 49 most liberal members of the House (all Democrats) who voted on the bill each voted against it. But so did 14 of the 21 Republicans deemed to be the most conservative by DW-Nominate. 

By contrast, 46 of the 50 most moderate Republicans voted for the Patriot Act extension, as did 38 of the 50 most moderate Democrats. [3]

This pattern – the pragmatic center upholding elite consensus while the radical wings unite against it – matches that described in the earlier “Far Left and Far Right” note. Despite all of their verbal animosity, the Tea Party and the Progressive Caucus voted together. When the data is plotted on a two dimensional spectrum the pattern is even easier to see.

Image Source: Nate Silver. “Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries.” New York Times. 11 June 2013.

Silver then notes:

You can find similar patterns in certain votes on policy toward the financial sector — for example, during the various bailout votes that were cast toward the end of 2008. More recently, votes on the federal debt ceiling have taken on some of the same contours.

What is the link between the financial votes and those on the surveillance state? In both cases, members of Congress were asked to trust the assertions of elites that significant harms would result if the bills were not enacted: terrorist acts in the event that the Patriot Act was not extended, or financial calamity in the event that the bailout was not passed or the debt ceiling was not raised.

As a matter of practice (but not necessarily theory), convincing someone that a future crisis must be averted requires a higher level of persuasion than making the case for a policy that is claimed to ameliorate some extant problem. Members of Congress who are members of their party establishments might be more inclined to trust testimony from financial or national security elites, and therefore might have been easier to pitch on these bills. (Emphasis added). [4]

There is a large constituency in both parties that distrusts the national elite and supports radical reformation of our political system. At this time they are a minority. They may not remain so in the future. Few would have guessed in 1895 that the Progressive movement would (from the bottom up) capture dozens of municipalities, states, and ultimately both national political parties before a decade had gone by.  Indeed, the progressive movement is the most important model 21st century reformers have. [5] Entire posts could be devoted to the lessons the progressive movement’s success can teach us; today I will mention but one, relevant to the info-graphics presented above: resist the temptation to make this a one party affair. 

If reform is to be complete, comprehensive, and permanent it cannot be a partisan endeavor. Decentralization, dismantling America’s security theatre, and killing crony capitalism must be kept as far away from the “culture wars” as possible. If these reforms become the mantra of a single party instead of the starting point of both then they will not last.

It is time the radicals learn to work with their opposites across the aisle. 


[1] T. Greer. “Far Left and Far Right – Two Peas in a Pod?“The Scholar’s Stage. 10 April 2013.

[2] Pew Research Center. “Majority Views NSA Phone Tracking as Acceptable Anti-terror Tactic.” (Washington: Pew Research). 10 June 2013.

[3] Nate Silver. “Domestic Surveillance Could Create a Divide in the 2016 Primaries.” New York Times. 11 June 2013.

[4] Ibid

[5] Lest this sentence be a stumbling block to some, let me clarify: I do not advocate a return to the programs or policies  that the progressive movement championed (though its hostility towards corruption is much needed in this day and age), but suggest that we should study and imitate the methods progressive reformers used to spread their movement across the country and alter existing political structures at every level of American society.  

Leave a Comment


As someone who defends the NSA, I will shoot myself in the foot here, and point out that the poll you mentioned is only about one half of what came out about the NSA's intelligence gathering. The poll only references the phone metadata, which for me makes perfect sense. As someone who tries to defend the NSA, I would prefer those who argue against it to see the difference between the PRISM and the "telephony metadata" we've got our hands on recently. The telephone side of things, to me, looks well balanced, with a large number of checks and balances in place that make it constitutional (but right is something you can argue about). The PRISM program is something we all know much less about, so it is unlikely that we can find answers one way or another on that.

I will believe we are making real progress when honest "progressives" start to see the crony capitalist nature of the government, and realize it does not reflect their values. We need a Tea Party of the Left. When Occupy started I went to two meetings, and had some hope this would happen. But the old-timer Lefty professional activists immediately hijacked it and the whole thing was a waste of time. But this post is a hopeful sign.

Agreed. You point to an important problem: how do you stop reform movements from being hijacked by the elite? I don't think it is a problem unique to the Left. If there is evidence that the Tea Party has not been co-opted by the people they were supposed to be against, I'd love to hear it.

Rand Paul's 2010 fund raiser with the Republican Senatorial Committee was a watershed moment in this regard. Transformed from the nation's most prominent outside insurgent into an establishment figure. A lot of the Tea Party has changed like that – from outsides angry against the establishment to shock troops in the culture wars.

The culture wars are the real source of the problem. It is what keeps a far-left/far-right coalition from forming, and it allows rentiers to stamp out or co-opt dissent fairly early on. Here is what I wrote on this point a few months ago:

As in the antebellum, today's hyperpartisanship has its uses. The issues are real enough, and the cultural divide between each party's demographic "base" is wide. Politicians take advantage of this with over-the-top rhetoric, turning all issues into a cultural crusade against the radicalism of the progressive left or the bigotry of entrenched conservatism. The accuracy of these attacks is unimportant. The antebellum party system allowed Southerners to define themselves as 'Whigs' or 'Democrats' instead of 'slavers'. The current system serves its purpose just as well, allowing plutarchs to define themselves not in terms of power or privilege, but as part of a culturally cohesive group that represents 'real' America. With partisan issues taking the fore, politicians, lobbyists, and corporate big wigs can plunder the American economy and strip American citizens of their liberties in a decidedly bipartisan fashion. [9] And thus the greatest structural faultline in America's body-politic and the most dangerous challenge to the integrity of her republican institutions and the liberties of her citizenry continues onward without public comment. And all of this without a gag rule.

T. Greer. “Ominous Parallels: What Antebellum America Can Teach Us About Our Modern Political Regime.” The Scholars Stage. 26 February 2013.

Thus the brilliance of America 3.0's call to decentraliza the culture wars off of the national stage. Economic/institutional reform won't happen if current identity politics reigns.