Australia is two weeks away from another national election, featuring Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (Labour) versus Tony Abbott (Liberal). I won’t bother you with the details, which almost everyone agrees are not that compelling. But it does provide an opportunity to muse about the broad division in politics between the left and the right—a schism that seems pretty universal, across the western world at least.
These two positions are natural responses to the two great fears that have dominated political thought for thousands of years. The first is the fear of the rabble—the unwashed hordes—the lawless thugs—violently taking what we have struggled hard to reap, build and create. The second is the fear of the leaders—the aristocrats—the powers in charge— stealthily taking what we have struggled hard to reap, build and create.
There are good historical reasons for both fears.
In times gone by, the most efficient way to amass great wealth was simply to steal it. Get yourself an army, the more impoverished and violent the better, offer your men pillage, rape and looting, and off you go up and down the countryside, taking whatever you please. If you are extremely successful, you will eventually be hailed as a great conqueror (Alexander the Great, Cyrus the Great, Caesar, Attila, Genghis Khan, Timor the Lame, Pizarro, Cortes, Napolean, Queen Victoria, Hitler, etc etc)—at least for a while, until your fragile imperial structures collapse. Or not—if you are competent and perhaps lucky.
On a smaller scale, the peasantry can simply revolt without the coherence of an army. Sometimes people just get fed up with suffering inequalities and injustices at the hands of their betters. With these kind of insurrections a lack of clear direction might mean that countries descend into civil disobedience, lawlessness, and lack of respect for property that can last generations.
At the other extreme, there is an almost opposite fear. In the absence of social upheaval or external military conquest, there are good reasons to worry about the abuse of power by those in charge within the society. This can take the form of a feudal hierarchy, where a small cohort live the life of luxury at the expense of the peasantry, which is almost everyone else, or in the more modern form of a dictatorship, where a strong and ruthless leader at the head of a vested minority seizes power, brutally eliminates any effective opposition, and sets about taxing and bleeding the citizenry. Both situations have been historically very common and are still with us today.
Another more subtle variant occurs in our modern democracies, where the rule of law forbids the more extreme forms of exploitation of the masses, but where the ruling classes have none-the-less figured out how to slowly and surely tighten their grip on power, and accumulate ever more wealth and influence at the expense of the proletariat. The techniques are well-known and indeed obvious: the wealthy and powerful go to the best schools, meet the right people, obtain the positions of decision-making, and then naturally steer the legal structure in directions which favour them and their class. This kind of insidious transfer from the poor to the rich seems almost to be a kind of natural law in stable economies. See the history of almost any western country since World War Two.
So which side of politics is someone likely to be on? Usually it’s a pretty good guess, if you can find out the income and assets of the person in question. Belong to the top 20%? Then you are most likely a die hard Republican (USA), or Conservative (Canada) or Liberal (Australia) etc. Belong to the bottom 30%? Then you are most likely a die hard Democrat (US), Liberal or NDP (Can) or Labour (Aus) supporter etc.
And if you are in the middle somewhere? Then you probably and rightly fear both the poor and the rich taking your fair share. In that case you will be pulled and pushed by both groups—the right wingers trying to convert you for patriotic reasons or for fear of outside groups, and the left wingers trying to convert you for moral reasons. And there will be other parties, like the Greens here in Australia, that try to occupy more of that middle ground, but who find it very difficult to actually gain power, without either the support of the rich or the working classes/peasantry.
Naturally this is all very simplistic, but sometimes simple explanations have something to tell.