The theory that helps explain today’s political divide
Religion & Liberty Online

The theory that helps explain today’s political divide

Over the past few years, it’s become more and more difficult to understand political alignments. Most people still talk about the left-right political spectrum, but that no longer seems to fit our current political divide. A few decades ago, for example, we could say that those on the right supported free trade while those on the left endorsed protectionism. Nowadays, though, such lines demarcating economic views are blurred. While the left-right metaphor isn’t totally obsolete, it seems to describe a range in an increasingly narrow center of American politics.

On the extreme ends it’s easier to see how the far-left and far-right are closer together. Rather than placing them on extreme opposite ends, it’s more accurate to consider them through the lens of the horseshoe theory, a concept in political science that claims the far left and the far right, rather than being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political continuum, closely resemble one another, much like the ends of a horseshoe.

But even though the horseshow theory helps us see why both Marxists and the alt-right support, say, identity politics or single-payer universal health care, it doesn’t explain why they are so close to each other.

Recently, I stumbled upon an explanation that has helped clarify my thinking on the divide. Scott Alexander proposes a meta-theory—a theory about theories—that highlights how two broad camps now dominate political discourse.

The first theory is held by those who think political disagreements exist because politics is complex and people make mistakes, and that if we all understood the evidence better, we’d agree on a great deal more. This is the mistake theory of politics. For the mistake theorist, politics is not a zero-sum game, that is, someone “winning” doesn’t mean that someone else is losing. The second theory is that political disagreements reflect differences in interests which are largely irreconcilable. This is the conflict theory of politics. According to the conflict theory of politics, politics is full of zero-sum games.

Alexander explains the breakdown in signficant detail:

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Mistake theorists view debate as essential. We all bring different forms of expertise to the table, and once we all understand the whole situation, we can use wisdom-of-crowds to converge on the treatment plan that best fits the need of our mutual patient, the State. Who wins on any particular issue is less important creating an environment where truth can generally prevail over the long term.

Conflict theorists view debate as having a minor clarifying role at best. You can “debate” with your boss over whether or not you get a raise, but only with the shared understanding that you’re naturally on opposite sides, and the “winner” will be based less on objective moral principles than on how much power each of you has. If your boss appeals too many times to objective moral principles, he’s probably offering you a crappy deal.

He includes a long list of differences between the two camps which helps further clarify the distinctions.

Alexander focuses primarily on the conflict theorists on the political left, but this framing has helped me to better understand those who I once believed were in my own political “tribe.” I’m a conservative who subscribes to a form of mistake theory: I believe that since most liberals have mistaken view of reality they endorse “solutions” that are unworkable because they are rooted in an imaginary perspective of how the world functions.

I assumed most people on the right were also mistake theorists and was shocked over the past few years to discover just how wrong I’ve been. I was confused about why people who I thought shared my conservative worldview were willing to embrace almost any anti-conservative political policy (i.e., economic protectionism, expansion of government power, identity politics) as long as they and the politicians in power were “making liberals cry.”

I mistakenly assumed they had changed political views and had become “populists” (which is itself a form of progressivism). Now I realize they are a type of conflict theorists: they are much more concerned with winning the “war against the left” than in convincing the public to apply conservative solutions to political problems.

Naturally, as a mistake theorist I think the conflict theorists are making a mistake. But Alexander not only predicts this response but explains why it doesn’t help me connect to conflict theorists:

Mistake theorists naturally think conflict theorists are making a mistake. On the object level, they’re not smart enough to realize that new trade deals are for the good of all, or that smashing the state would actually lead to mass famine and disaster. But on the more fundamental level, the conflict theorists don’t understand the Principle of Charity, or Hanlon’s Razor of “never attribute to malice what can be better explained by stupidity”. They’re stuck at some kind of troglodyte first-square-of-the-glowing-brain-meme level where they think forming mobs and smashing things can solve incredibly complicated social engineering problems. The correct response is to teach them Philosophy 101.


Conflict theorists naturally think mistake theorists are the enemy in their conflict. On the object level, maybe they’re directly working for the Koch Brothers or the American Enterprise Institute or whoever. But on the more fundamental level, they’ve become part of a class that’s more interested in protecting its own privileges than in helping the poor or working for the good of all. The best that can be said about the best of them is that they’re trying to protect their own neutrality, unaware that in the struggle between the powerful and the powerless neutrality always favors the powerful. The correct response is to crush them.

This helps explain my confusion about why those I had assumed were my political allies now considered me an enemy. Didn’t we share the same goals? The answer, it seems, was that we didn’t. My concern was to find long-term, virtue-based political and economic solutions to political and economic problems. Their concern was with crushing the left—and crushing people like me who didn’t share in that cause.

My ultimate political goal has been, as the mission of the Acton Institute states, to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. My assumption has also been that those who didn’t share this view were simply mistaken about how much flourishing would be unleashed if this vision were implemented. While I may not be successful, I have no choice but to try to argue and persuade them as best I can.

Am I, as a mistake theorist, mistaken in my approach? The question is moot because I can’t and won’t change my “argue and persuade” approach. But I’m starting to wonder if the number of people who are even open to persuasion is smaller than I had previously imagined. Between the leftist conflict theorists on one side and the anti-left conflict theorists on the other, it’s becoming harder and harder to maneuver.

Here’s my question for you: Does this conflict/mistake divide seem to fit the current landscape? If so, what can we do—if anything—to bridge the divide?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).