Left or right? Voters aren't easily pigeon-holed
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, May 18, 2002)

A COMPAS poll reported recently that a majority of Canadians can't say whether the Canadian Alliance stands on the right or left of the New Democrats. Pessimists will conclude that this means the voters totally misunderstand politics. Optimists will hope it means they no longer consider "left" and "right" useful categories.

Journalists have been predicting the death of those terms for decades, though we've done precious little to hasten their end. While we claim they no longer describe reality, we are loath to abandon them. They may be misleading, but they're so convenient that we use them as often as we did before we began announcing their obsolescence.

Born in the French National Assembly in 1789, the left-right classification now represents a perverse element in political thought, the habit of sorting opinions into simplistic categories. Everyone from political scientists to party organizers yields to this temptation, though for different reasons (political scientists hope to understand, organizers hope to manipulate). Whatever their motives, they reveal a crabbed, narrow view of human diversity. They assume that when they learn 10 of your opinions they can predict countless others and determine how you'll vote as well. There's a proper slot for you, and it's the job of political researchers to stuff you into it.

A major source of this practice is The Authoritarian Personality, by Theodor Adorno and three colleagues, published in 1950. Adorno, a refugee from Nazi Germany, wanted to understand the appeal of fascism. He believed that childhood experience shapes our political convictions, which are therefore best analyzed by combining the insights of European psychoanalysis with statistics-driven American sociology.

The Adorno group asked a sample of Americans whether they agreed or not with various propositions, such as "Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn." In analyzing the responses, they devised the "F-scale" (F for fascism) to identify personalities vulnerable to Nazi ideology. Various studies have since shown that it doesn't work and in fact indicates nothing except old-fashioned views. Hitler was old-fashioned, and Adorno mistakenly believed that those sharing his views (on the authority of fathers, for instance) shared his politics. Even so, The Authoritarian Personality remained influential for many years; Allan Gregg, the celebrated Canadian pollster, once called it the most impressive piece of research ever done.

Adorno's work spread the idea that each of us lives by a set of stereotyped opinions. The late Pim Fortuyn was the most recent victim of this notion. He became famous in Dutch politics for declaring that the country should accept no more immigrants because it was "filled up." His book, Against The Islamicization Of Our Culture, argued that Muslim immigrants, because of their religious views on women, homosexuals and freedom, had great difficulty integrating into Dutch society. Fortuyn's opinions weren't racist (Islam being a religion, not a race) but hardly anyone noticed that distinction.

In the Netherlands and elsewhere he was labelled a racist, a fascist, even a Nazi. But unlike Jean-Marie Le Pen (whom he disliked), Fortuyn never proposed returning immigrants to their countries of origin. And, so far as I can tell from a five-page summary of his party platform, his other opinions weren't even distantly related to fascism. He championed women's rights and euthanasia, supported Israel, favoured legalized drugs. He demanded higher salaries for teachers.

A Dutch journalist wrote in The New York Times, "Fortuyn's views were a curious mixture of right, center and left." Apparently "curious" means that he had a mind, however flawed, rather than a set of programmed responses. It's unfortunate that so few foreigners knew anything about him before his assassination on May 6, because he sounds like a one-man refutation of everything that sociology tries to teach us about political beliefs. Perhaps his own academic experience as a sociologist protected him from the fallacies of the craft.

Still, anyone in the Netherlands who indulges in oversimplification deserves our sympathy. The Dutch election this week meant a new government, but otherwise it's impossible to say what the hell happened. The Netherlands has 10 political parties, proportional representation, and inevitable coalitions. Majority government is now unknown. On Wednesday, the Christian Democrats scored what everyone called a great victory; this meant they won fewer than a third of the seats in parliament.

The clutter of choices makes deciding how to vote especially hard, and to help them the Dutch now have a Web site, The Voting Indicator. It might have been cooked up by Adorno's grandchild but in fact is operated by an independent institute for political studies. The site designers, consulting all political parties, assemble 30 propositions. An individual voter then signifies agreement or disagreement with each statement and the site's computer produces "a voting recommendation," the name of the party most closely representing that person's views. More than 1.6 million citizens went online for advice. Dutch political scientists thus assumed a new status in the electoral process. No longer limited to describing, they can now usher each voter into the category where he or she will feel most at home.

My own hope, possibly forlorn, is that most of those voters rebelled and chose a party the computer didn't recommend. But then, I rejoice at every defeat for political pollsters. I cling to the notion that all of us are most human when we are least predictable.

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