2016 has been an election year. A year of “crazy” decisions, even stranger candidates and outcomes, and shocking results. It has also been a divided year, with people from either the right or left being completely unable to even comprehend how the other side could vote that way. The American election, Brexit, and even the Austrian election have been riddled with division, scandals, hate, blame calling, and a failure of understanding of both sides. What is even more interesting though is the rapid resurgence of the right-wing in all cases, and how completely surprised the left-wing has been on all occasions. I have read some fantastic articles explaining why people have chosen Trump, Brexit, or what-have-you, but the general feeling is that liberals cannot understand “how anyone could be so stupid, racist, sexist, eurocentric etc.” to vote for a populist. So let’s get an overview here.
First of all, what do left-wing and right-wing really mean? The term originates from the French parliament during the French revolution.
The parliament was split into two parties, the pro-monarchy and the pro-republic more or less. These parties sat on the right or left wing respectively as seen by the parliamentary president. Gradually, right-wing came to mean conservatist, supporting current regime, aristocratic, federalist, etc., while left-wing became associated with social change, welfare, and central rule. In the modern times, the two party system of the United States has reinforced and influenced these concepts even more, with the Republicans and the Democrats becoming the defining paragons, at least in the public mind.
There are two problems with this: First of all, false narratives easily get assigned to the opposing party (all Republicans are either rich snobs or incestuous rednecks; all democrats are unemployed hippies or trust-fund students). This is not true at all, and demonizing the opposition limits your perspective while blinding you to the problems of your own party. In fact, the Democrats and Republicans were, at least ideologically, both much closer to each other than to either extreme until about 50 years ago.
Secondly, and more importantly, left and right wing are merely shorthand combinations of the primary political orientation axes. Each axis is an issue which divides voter opinion. Some of the main axes are:
State governance——-Central governance
This is my own wording, but I think that this covers most of the big issues. Looking at these axes, we see some extremes which easily fit into our mind-set of right and left-wing politics. But we also see some which we don’t strongly associate with either American party. Also, none of these axes are mutually exclusive whatsoever. It is very possible to be an urban, religious, environmentalist who believes that a free-market (i.e. minimal tax and minimal goverment intervention) is the best path to social equality. The converse is also true.
Lumping people into only two groups only serves to ignore the range of political interest.
In fact, many of the extreme-right wing parties in Eastern Europe are the biggest proponents for social welfare, while the secular left wing promotes a free market system. Even within the Republican and Democratic parties we see that there is a huge variance on primary goals, secondary goals, and the methods needed to reach them.
An individual voter will also apply more weight to certain issues: for example, an environmentalist will probably rather choose a candidate promoting solar power over one campaigning for state rights. It is very rare in a multi-party system that a voter will find a party advocating his or her views perfectly, and almost impossible in a two-party system. (At least for all issues.)
Let’s apply this thinking to the United States voters. How do you vote for this?
Something that is often neglected by us outsiders is the decentralization of the state and federal government. Seeing as how many of the states are both huge in territory while being relatively low in population, it is easy to see how people would prefer that more power lies in the hands of their (more) directly voted representatives than in federal government. At least in the last years, the Democrats have been pushing for more and more federal laws and governance. Trump has been relatively consistent in advocating that more decisive issues be decided at the state rather than at federal level. One extreme at least secured.
Right-wing parties also tend to have stronger support among rural populations, a fact which is amplified by America’s electoral college system. (As the higher population centers have proportionally weaker votes.)
Religion. Ah, the big talking point in American politics. I have seen so many Christian voters in conflict over this vote. While the Republican party generally does a lot more to cater to the religious voters than the Democrats, many Christians were thrown by Trump’s eligibility as a moral candidate. While the press (and partially Donald’s twitter feed) portrayed an image of a bigoted, misogynistic racist, this is hardly more than the instant insults given to any right-wing voter. Pro-life! Misogynist. Against illegal immigration? Racist. A pastor doesn’t want to marry a gay couple? Religious fanatic. And after all these years are name-calling, regardless of how justified they may be, we see that their effect has worn off. With most of the popular culture such as movies and tv being at least slightly left, a culture has been created where right-wing sentimentalities cannot be publicly presented. And then surprise, surprise: all of these voters suddenly show up supporting Trump! This is unfortunately a part of democracy: everyone is entitled to vote, even when their views contradict your own. Slandering the other side achieves nothing except alienating those who you should be working together with. Only open, calm discussion can allow us to solve conflict without polarizing voters into one extreme or the other. Acting out of fear or hate causes situations like the rioters protesting the rise of violence under a Trump presidency. Yet they are the ones causing violence?
And there are so many other issues dividing this and other votes and so many legitimate ways people could orientate themselves: gun-laws, foreign involvement, job creation, etc. and the list goes on and on, completely regardless of the current candidate. And while I find Trump to be absolutely ridiculous and potentially dangerous in the extreme, it just goes to show how little confidence the voters had in Clinton and the liberal ideology.
There are also two other minor influences which go hand-in-hand to affect voter decision: media bias and the halo effect. The majority of American media outlets have a strong bias towards at least one candidate. This plays into the second influence: the Halo Effect. The Halo Effect is a psychological phenomenon in which an initial positive impression causes you to subconsciously assume other positive traits. With left/right axes, we often assume that someone who aligns with our interests on one issue will also align with us on others. And if one issue is particularly relevant to us, we will also often overlook other conflicts of interest.
Finally, there is a practical element: while focussing on minorities is a great way to win their votes, if the majority (white Americans) feel under-represented they will eventually choose an alternative, even if the candidate is terrible.
To sum up: left and right are terms used to define the extremes on a large range of political issues. These issues are not mutually exclusive; the left/right dichotomy may not apply adequately to the grouping and it is plausible and consistent to hold “contradictory” beliefs over multiple issues.
I hope this helps to understand how some of your friends and acquaintances are holding such “ridiculous” views!
P.S. The real question is how we are continually faced with such terrible candidates to choose from, this is a major failure from the political parties.