Speaking about politics peacefully is a statement that almost sounds unreal.

“All around the country, there are going to be people who are gonna be shouting at each other over the Thanksgiving (and Christmas) table, because in their mind, ‘Oh, I’m left wing or right wing,’” said Verlan Lewis, coauthor of The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America and a professor at Utah Valley University.

Hyrum Lewis, the book’s principal author and a professor at BYU-Idaho, discusses with his brother, the country’s current political spectrum and the effects that labels like “left” and “right” have on the nation’s political environment.

“ … what usually happens is left and right become a way for people to name-call,” Verlan said.

The hostility that this spectrum creates can be seen all over social media and the news, but the system has not always been in place.

“One of the things we point out in the book is that this left-right framework is actually relatively new, certainly in world history, but even in American history, which is a new country. It’s only been around for about 100 years,” Verlan said.

As the brothers explained different facets of this flawed framework, they gave a few ideas on how to overcome the habitual use of terms like left and right. These ideas include: recognizing that the myth exists, finding identity in healthy places, using accurate labels and going granular when talking about politics.

Finding identity in healthy places

The framework of left and right provides people with political identities that are inaccurately mistaken for social identities. This leads to the current division we face with two political tribes — liberals versus conservatives, left versus right.

“What we show in the book, is that these identities actually end up doing a lot of harm, because it totalizes people into these either-or camps of heroes and villains,” Verlan said. “You’re either one of the good guys or the bad guys. And so this creates a lot of hostility between these two groups that are convinced the other group is wrong about everything, and their own group is correct.”

So what about party titles, such as Republican or Democrat? Verlan said that because labels like this represent a genuine set of policies and ideas, they are accurately used.

To explain this, the brothers often use a metaphor involving a red and a blue shopping basket. Each shopping basket has a variety of items in it and you must choose between one or the other. Verlan said:

Well, a rational person, if they showed up at the grocery store and saw the red basket and the blue basket, what would they do? They’d start searching through each basket trying to find out what’s in each basket. And neither basket’s gonna have everything they wanted. But one basket is going to have more of the things that they wanted than the other one. And they will make an informed choice — a rational choice — to choose one basket rather than the other. That’s what a rational person would do. What an irrational person would do was pick one of the baskets and then say, ‘Hi, everything in my basket is superior to everything in the other basket, because there’s some essence binding together everything in my red basket or in my blue basket.’ And that’s kind of what the delusion of the left-right spectrum is.

Along the same idea, Verlan referenced a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints devotional by President Russell M. Nelson. In the address, President Nelson spoke on the importance of identity.

“If you identify yourself by your political affiliation, you will instantly be categorized as having certain beliefs — though I don’t know anyone who believes everything that their preferred political party presently embraces,” President Nelson said.

Both President Nelson and Verlan cautioned individuals to be careful with the labels they use for themselves and others and to be aware of how those labels can alter perception. Verlan suggested a solution to this part of the problem.

“Find meaning in other groups or tribes that are healthier,” Verlan said. “And there’s lots of places you can find belonging, like church groups, for example, or social service organizations, or your local neighborhood associations.”

Breaking it down

In the book, the brothers refer to granularity as another way to be involved in politics more peacefully. Granularity in politics is addressing individual issues instead of lumping all issues into two sides.

“We can talk about specific policies and be meaningful, but the second we delude ourselves that there’s just one issue in politics, and they’re either on the left or the right of that one issue, now we are turning our brains off and we’re starting to talk about nonsense,” said Hyrum.

Hyrum explained that when political issues are addressed granularly, people are more likely to work out their own opinions and be invested in finding the truth of the matter instead of simply villainizing the other side of an issue.

Referencing the Twelve Apostles’ question, “Lord, is it I?” when Jesus Christ said that one of the apostles would betray him, Hyrum encourages people to look inward instead of looking for faults in others. He explained that this should be the approach as people seek for productive dialogue about politics.

“Since I’m right about some things and wrong about others, my goal has to not be ‘to destroy the bad guys who were wrong about the one big issue,’” Hyrum said. “My goal has to be to try to find out where I am wrong, and try to correct those things … We’re not shouting down people who disagree and canceling them and trying to get them fired and take away their jobs. Whatever it happens to be. Instead, we’re using them as allies in the truth-seeking process.”

Hyrum and Verlan Lewis receive the "Read this Book Award" at the FreedomFest 2023.

Hyrum and Verlan Lewis receive the "Read this Book Award" at the FreedomFest 2023. Photo credit: Franklin

About the book

The concepts that the brothers write about are ideas they have discussed together for years. In 2020, Hyrum began writing. He says that he brought Verlan onto the project to provide support for some of the arguments being made from a political science perspective. They published the book in January 2023.

“(Hyrum) did most of the writing, but I was happy to be a co-author with him on this project he had,” Verlan said. “He was kind enough to bring me along on the project.”

In July, the brothers received an award at the FreedomFest.

Since the book was published, they have traveled around the country, speaking at forums and conferences with their peaceful insights.

The Myth of Left and Right: How the Political Spectrum Misleads and Harms America can be found in BYU-I’s David O. McKay Library and on Amazon.