In political circles, the terms “left or left-wing” and “right or right-wing” have come to identify the political, economic, social, and cultural leanings of individuals as well as parties. The right is afraid of the left and the left is afraid of the right. The terms are used so frequently today and with such negative connotations that no one bothers to understand what exactly they represent or from where they originated.
The terms date back to pre-revolutionary France. In May of 1789, King Louis XVI called together the Estates General, a legislative body of the different classes of French subjects, for the first time since 1614 to attempt to control severe financial troubles arising in France. However, the Estates General quickly fell into disagreement over its own structure and the issue of representative voting. Its members had been elected to represent the estates of the realm: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate (which, in theory, represented all of the commoners and, in practice, represented the bourgeoisie). The king’s opposition to the combined meeting of the estates and his procrastination on the issue of representation led the third estate to proclaim itself a National Assembly.
King Louis XVI
Inside the chamber where the National Assembly met, members of the Third Estate, the commoners, sat on the left side and members of the First Estate, the clergy, and the Second Estate, the nobility, sat on the right. The Third Estate consisted of revolutionaries, while the First Estate and Second Estate consisted of the nobles and clergy. Thus, the left wing of the room was more liberal seeking change, and the right wing was more conservative seeking to maintain the status quo.
As these original references became more and more obsolete, the meaning of the terms changed. The left has traditionally been concerned with the lower classes and with combatting oppression. Thus the industrial revolution in the United States saw left-wing politics become associated with the conditions and rights of workers in the new industries. This led to movements around social democracy, socialism, and trade unionism. More recently, the left has criticized what it sees as the exploitative nature of current forms of globalization, e.g. the rise of sweatshops and the “race to the bottom“, and either has sought to promote more just forms of globalization, such as fair trade, or has sought to allow nation-states to break free of the global economy.
In general, left implies a commitment to egalitarianism, support for a ‘liberal’ social policy and multiculturalism. The left as we know it today usually defines itself as promoting government regulation of business, commerce, and industry; protection of fundamental rights – especially freedom of speech and separation of church and state; and government intervention on behalf of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and the poor.
As civil and human rights gained more attention during the twentieth century, the left has allied itself with advocates of racial and gender equality and cultural tolerance. Most of the left has been opposed to imperialism, colonialism, and war and has historically supported movements for national self-determination. The contemporary left in the United States usually includes New Deal liberals, Rawlsian liberals, social democrats, and civil libertarians. Because of the extensive derogatory use of the term liberal, some segments of the American left decided in the 1980s to begin using the term “progressive” instead.
Although specific means of achieving these ends are not agreed upon by the different left-wing groups, almost all those on the left agree that some form of government or social intervention in economics is necessary.
The contemporary right in the United States is usually defined as a category including Republicans, classical liberals, religious conservatives, and some libertarians. Although often in disagreement with religious conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians define themselves as part of the right, and separate themselves from modern-day liberalism.
The American right is broadly defined by upholding a traditionalist understanding of constitutional law, protection of fundamental rights (especially the right to own firearms), opposition to governmental regulation and income redistribution, immigration control, and opposition to reverse discrimination. These stances are motivated by traditional values (conservatism), protection of freedom and the rights of private individuals (libertarianism), or doubts about the benefits or efficacy of governmental regulation.
The definitions of left and right are subject to distortion by those who would use fear to move public opinion. It is much easier to instill fear than to use a rational thought process in persuading others to change their minds. Knowledge is power and understanding the origin and meaning of terms gives power to citizens to decide which direction of the road they will take. As for my views, they are firmly left of center, and I will continue to take the path to the left when I come to a political fork in the road.