The political spectrum across the developed world is often divided along the lines of Right versus Left. This dichotomy dates back to the French Revolution when members of the General Assembly clambering most for change and radical action sat to left of the chamber while those who urged caution sat to the right. Since then, this duality has become part of the standard taxonomy for nearly every political movement.
These days, politicians are either ‘Right-wing,’ ‘Left-wing,’ or more occasionally, ‘Moderate.’ George Bush was right, Obama left. The Tea Party is right wing, while the Green Party is left wing. Anarcho-syndicalists are leftists, while anarcho-capitalists are right-wingers. Everything and everyone is either left or right, liberal or conservative, Bolshevik or Bourgeois, and people fight long hard verbal wars over who belongs in which category.
Yet, it seems to me that these are very poor classifications. At the outset, it beggars belief that all of humanity’s political movements can be classified in one of two categories, or that the same can be charted on a simple unidimensional political spectrum. And, on closer examination, it appears that this is just the case you can’t reasonably classify every politician or political philosophy as either right-wing or left-wing.
For starters, how does one even define these terms? Just looking at what constitutes right vs left and you find that it varies from decade to decade and from country to country. In Europe, laissez-faire markets are considered ‘liberal’ but in the United States, they are ‘conservative.’ The term ‘Right-wing’ in America refers to Republicans in general, but in Germany it’s reserved almost exclusively to Neo-Nazi groups. ‘Conservatives,’ in the United States talk a lot about the US Constitution, while ‘conservatives’ in Spain talk a lot about the monarchy. There’s no consistency. But it’s more than that though. When you really drill the matter down, you find that most issues just don’t fit on a left right spectrum.
Take marriage for example. Recently in this United States there has been a lot fuss over whether homosexual couples should be issued civil marriage licenses. Similar debates have been occurring in other countries as well. In general, those who oppose same-sex marriage are considered right-wing while those who favor it are considered left-wing. The former support traditional marriage norms while the later prefer a more inclusive approach. So far so good, but tell me: How does one classify a supporter of polygamous marriage licenses? On the hand, it’s more inclusive to support it, so one would think that it’s a left wing position. On the other hand, the majority of support for it comes from otherwise right wing, radical Mormon groups. Further, feminists who are classified as left-wing, generally oppose polygamy on the grounds that it is usually at the expense of women. Yet you still can’t classify polygamy as right-wing because it’s certainly outside of the scope of ‘traditional marriage.’ Is this because polygamy is actually a ‘moderate’ position and between the right and left? Or perhaps, is it a radical position outside of the scope of left and right? The later obviously.
And you can apply this approach to other related issues. Bestiality? Group marriage? Abolishing civil marriage? Which of these are strictly right-wing and which are strictly left-wing policies? What about a person who supports same-sex unions, but opposes mixed-race unions? How about the reverse? There is no consistent way to classify all possible positions on marriage on the left right spectrum. The same with economics1 military, social issues, and so forth.
So why are the terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ so widely used? Well, at one point it made more sense. In the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe the Right were those who favored the established order, while the left favored revolution and broad social change of one form or another. Most of Europe was governed by centuries old monarchies and aristocracies at the time and the established gentry were the Right. The Left were those political dissidents clamoring for changes such as representative government, civil liberties, free markets, socialism, nationalism, etc. As such, French Republicans, Italian Unificationists, and Russian Bolsheviks could all be members of the Left, despite the fact that they had little, if anything, in common. At the same time, popes, kings, and magistrates could all be considered part of the right despite the fact that few of them had much in common either.
As time wore on however, left wings movements survived long enough to become the new right wing, and new ideologies formed which became the new left. Many new ideologies became throwbacks to older ideologies, and some ideologies fused both new and old ideas in novel ways. There were some movements which were both restorationist and revolutionary. It got to the point that the old rationale for the terms didn’t apply anymore but people would still apply them to the two largest factions in their respective countries, whatever those factions happened to be because it was easier than inventing new, more descriptive labels. As such ‘right’ and ‘left’ ceased to have any meaning except as labels for regional political factions.
These days, the terms right and left, and in American politics the terms conservative and liberal, have mostly become labels with which to brand political opponents. For example: “The American Right opposes gun proliferation, Hitler was right-wing, therefore gun proliferation is evil like Hitler.” Never mind the fact that the Nazis approach to gun control looked more like the American Left’s and that really, neither the American ‘Left’ nor the American ‘Right’ looks much like Nazism at all. “You’re a right-wing nutcase!” “You’re typical liberal!” These accusations mean next to nothing concretely and are concerned solely with factionalism, which at the end of it all, is a waste of time if you want to understand matters and solve problems.
So anyway, I try not to use them.
- If being pro-business and anti-tax is right-wing and being anti-business and pro-tax left-wing, what about a policy that gives businesses tax money for a specific purpose? ↩