WARWICK, UNITED KINGDOM — The just-concluded French presidential election seemed to suggest that the old left-right divisions are as potent as they have ever been — and certainly in their birthplace. But are they?
The modern political spectrum is an artifact of the seating arrangements at the French National Assembly after the revolution of 1789. To the right of the Assembly’s president sat the supporters of king and church, while to the left sat their opponents, whose only point of agreement was the need for institutional reform. The distinction capitalized on long-standing cultural associations of right- and left-handedness with, respectively, trust and suspicion — in this case, of the status quo.
In retrospect, it is remarkable that this distinction managed to define partisan political allegiances for more than 200 years, absorbing both the great reactionary and radical movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
But the decline in voter turnout in most of today’s democracies suggests that this way of conceptualizing ideological differences may have become obsolete. Some have even argued that ideologies and parties are irrelevant in an increasingly fragmented political landscape.
But one division that looms on the horizon could reinvent the right-left distinction for the 21st century: precautionary versus “proactionary” attitudes toward risk as principles of policymaking. In social psychological terms, precautionary policymakers set their regulatory focus on the prevention of worst outcomes, whereas proactionary policymakers seek the promotion of the best available opportunities.
The precautionary principle is the better known of the two, and increasingly figures in environmental and health legislation. It is normally understood as the Hippocratic Oath applied to the global ecology: above all, do no harm. By contrast, the proactionary principle is associated with self-styled futurists, for whom being “human” is defined by our capacity to keep ahead of the game when taking calculated risks, whether by benefiting from success or learning from failure.