Robert Salyer’s “A Primer on the Right” lays out the implicit foundational principles for the modern Right and Left. Whether or not the reader agrees with his definition, it is surely in everyone’s interest that we think more seriously about the fundamental divides which mark 21st-century politics.

A Primer on the Right: The Challenge of the Modern Right and How It Relates To the Contemporary Left, by Robert Salyer (103 pages, 2020)

The unique claim of Liberalism in our time has been that, if only various pathologies could be eliminated in political affairs, humanity’s future, if not exactly rendered dispute-free, would become ever more collaborative. Yet with the emergence of the Trump White House, BREXIT, the creeping respectability of Russian nationalism, and the worldwide resurgence of a religious impulse with its implications in political affairs, the exclusionary impulse seems not only here to stay but innate. If so, this poses an existential challenge to the Enlightenment tradition, to the continued vitality of liberal democracy, and to the Liberal experiment writ large. As America’s cold civil war keeps heating up, those hoping to peacefully resolve differences with their neighbors must address first principles vis-à-vis political theory. Hence Robert Salyer’s A Primer on the Right: The Challenge of the Modern Right and How It Relates To the Contemporary Left. This slender volume of political theory lays out the implicit foundational principles for both the right and left, and then attempts to explain how those principles play out in response to various “hot-button” issues.

To give the reader an idea of the thesis, the following examination of the left’s egalitarianism is based upon the striking claim that the commitment to equality is rooted in a denial of objective truth with respect to the Good:

Without the capacity to ground hierarchy or a structure of values on objective Truth, equality replaces inequality as the default. This result was made the more inevitable by the fact that, while what constitutes the Good may always be up for debate post-Enlightenment, the same has not proven necessarily true as to what constitutes Evil. We do not know the Good, but we do seem to know universally what we don’t like: Pain and deprivation. We are for nothing. But we are against pain and deprivation, and these are universally equal concerns. Goods, on the other hand, are for the post-Enlightened man, simply subjective.

In contrast, for the Right the existence of positive divine archetypes requires no justification, so it will not foreswear pursuing the Good. On the island of the blind, the one-eyed man is king by right. The Right refuses to justify nature… being… beauty… love… identity… Thus, by extension the Right rejects equality, equal consideration, as an à priori premise of Man. Critics of the Right have objected, not surprisingly, that this belief in objective, knowable, truth is a prescription, not only for inequality, but also for endless conflict, as well as oppression. Anyone who claims to have the Truth would be morally self-empowered in seeking to impose it on others.

The Right asks in turn however, how is this more sanguinary than modern conflicts where objective Truths and Goods are absent as goals? How are wars fought to liberate a people from oppression (at least ostensibly), or fought pursuant to some kind of Hegelian dialectic, less bloody? Or how is the Right’s position more sanguinary than the age-old conflicts driven simply by natural egocentrism—the only principle remaining when metaphysical Truth is banished? Moreover, if nothingness and agnosticism are the only alternatives, then conflict and war are indeed preferable for the Right.

Whether or not the reader agrees with the Primer‘s definition of Right and Left—much less with the conclusions regarding the relative merits of their positions—it is surely in everyone’s interest that we think more seriously about the fundamental divides which mark 21st-century politics.

Author’s Note: For full disclosure the author happens to be my brother, an attorney with a penchant for political theory. I try to let the book speak for itself.

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