"I'll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here: "I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.' "I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.' "Hey, wait a minute, there's one guy holding out both puppets!'" -- Bill Hicks
In 1789, members of France's new National Assembly took up sides in the debate over whether to support the King or the Revolution. Champions of the King sat to the right of the assembly president, with fans of the Revolution to his left. Thus was born from an arbitrary seating plan the concept of a political spectrum that ranges from extreme radicalism on the "Left" to reactionary conservatism on the "Right."
A comprehensive history of the terms and their use over the last two-plus centuries may exist, but I have been unable to find one. Worse, I can't really locate a satisfactory definition. The general understanding, in the United States at least, is that "Left" is roughly synonymous with "liberal" and "Democrat," while "Right" goes with "conservative" and "Republican." This is too loose to be useful. It begs the question: Very well, then, what is a liberal Democrat, or a conservative Republican?
Here are the Cambridge Dictionary's definitions of political Left and Right:
"The Left: The political groups that believe wealth and power should be shared between all parts of society."
"The Right: Political parties or people that have traditional opinions, and who believe in low taxes, private ownership of property and industry, and less help for the poor."
The problems here are many. What if I believe that low taxes and private ownership (principles of the Right) lead to wealth and power being shared between all parts of society (the goal of the Left)? What if I hold to traditional opinions, but believe that one of those traditional opinions is that I should help the poor?
The terms are sometimes used in a more social than political context, made synonymous with "open-minded" (the Left) and "close-minded" (the Right).
If I'm cool with vegetarianism and bisexuality, I'm on the Left, though maybe not so far to the Left as someone into veganism and transgender surgery. But where do you put a gay Republican on the spectrum? Or a meat-eating socialist? Certainly Left-Right, if it has any pertinence at all, must stick strictly to its political application.
The original meaning did contain a kernel of consistency that today's fuzzy definitions have lost. To support the monarchy meant championing centralized authority. To oppose it, to be on the Left at that time, amounted to a call for freedom from such authority, encapsulated in the cry of the revolutionaries: "Laissez-nous faire," or "Leave us alone," which later was applied to economics and came to indicate unregulated Capitalism -- supposedly a phenomenon of the Right.
For nearly a century, the terms more or less stayed within their semantic origins. In 1870s Republican France, the Right favored centralized power in the form of a strong executive, while the Left favored the dispersal of authority among the legislature. But by the time I grew up in the late-middle 20th century, the Left-Right spectrum consisted of Fascist dictatorship on the Right, Communist dictatorship on the Left, and things like freedom and democracy lurking somewhere between. This made no sense to anyone I knew, outside a few orthodox Marxists for whom Communist dictatorship was somehow a different animal altogether than Fascist dictatorship. To be one of the millions murdered by Stalin, it was averred, was not at all like being one of the millions murdered by Hitler. Apparently, they were not only dissimilar, but opposite phenomena.
Many conservatives have complained that the dictatorships of the 20th century we call Rightwing, topped of course by Hitler and Mussolini, were in their ways just as Leftist. After all, the Nazis were originally termed "National Socialists" and Fascism employed social programs identical to those called for in the Communist manifesto. Conservatives have not been alone in seeing all socialism as the same. In 1933, socialist writer George Bernard Shaw praised the rise of Adolf Hitler, calling him "Uncle Adolf" and "a good socialist." He continued to do this until some political theoretician or other pulled him aside and explained that "socialism" is a political condition that arises from class struggle, not from national identity, and therefore that "National Socialist" was a contradiction in terms. Shaw, somewhat reluctantly, withdrew his support of the Nazis. (A side note: "Socialism" itself has suffered semantic distortion, morphing from a wing of Anarchism into an economic system almost universally identified with totalitarianism.)
By now it should be clear that "Left vs. Right" has become a shell game for politicians, enabling them to hide what they truly are beneath an ideological cover that presents them as something else to the public. Here's how it works:
In a literal shell game, someone is duped into guessing which of three shells hides a pellet. Through sleight-of-hand, the person running the game makes sure the dupe will always guess one of the wrong shells. The political shell game needs only two covers under which to hide policy. A policy's actual character -- its justice or injustice, its correspondence with law, etc. -- is hidden beneath the veneer of the preconceptions that come with Left and Right.
For instance, the Left is perceived as anti-war, pro-civil rights, and supportive of unions. A president who wages illegal wars, prosecutes medical marijuana users and ignores his country's greatest union struggles is by definition a Right-winger. And yet, how many of us would call Pres. Obama a Right-winger? I'd venture very few. We have all been trained to consider him a man of the Left. That he launches aggressive, undeclared wars, arrests whistleblowers, supports corporate interests and signs legislation making legal the arrest of citizens without trial is irrelevant. That his foreign policy is pretty much indistinguishable from that of his predecessor, a president universally decried as a Rightist, is not important. All that matters is that we call him a Leftist. Being oppressed under Obama is actually the opposite of being oppressed under Bush.
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