The Illusion of Left and Right – Part 2

The Modern Landscape

In The Illusion of Left And Right we discovered that the terms “Left” and “Right” in politics came from the French Revolution. One important takeaway from that is that those who seek to preserve the status quo are on the Right, and those who seek radical change are on the Left. 

So how well does this principle of conservation vs. change fit with the modern view of Left and the Right? Not very well. This is a simplistic depiction of how many perceive the political spectrum today:

A common view of the political spectrum today.
A common view of the political spectrum today.

The first thing you should notice is that the Nazis are shown on the right along with Republicans and Conservatives. Does that make sense?

The goal of the historical German Nazis was to radically change the society of the Weimar Republic. They accomplished that by taking Germany from a democracy to an absolute totalitarian government where one’s only justification for existence was to serve the state and the Führer. The desire for radical change is a trademark of the Left.

Compare that to the Conservatives in the above diagram. Conservatives, among other things, want to conserve the principles of the United States Constitution with limited government power and protection of individual rights. There is a huge divide between the views of the Founders of the United States who created a government with intentionally limited power and the Nazis who created a ruthless, totalitarian regime.

The Communists, indisputably on the Left, also created a totalitarian government just as ruthless and murderous as the Nazis. By those standards we ought to take the Nazis in the diagram above and put them on the Left right next to the Communists (where they truly belong).

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The Illusion of Left And Right

What goes where?

You probably think that politics can be neatly divided into two sides. There is the Left and there is the Right. Everything has to fit in somewhere on that line. You probably think there is some clear and logical principle that will tell you where to put every political persuasion on that line.

A simple political spectrum

A lot of people do see it that way. 

The reality though is that things are not that simple. The reality of human thought and political belief can’t be captured on a single one-dimensional line. There are many dimensions by which we can measure political persuasions. 

Before we look at those other dimensions we need to understand where this one came from. It is a surprisingly simple story.

Left & Right came from where people sat.

The terms “Left” and “Right” in politics came from where people sat in the French National Assembly leading up to the French Revolution in 1789. Those who supported the rights and privileges of the King, the aristocracy, and the clergy were on the right of the president  (the “Right Wing”). Those who were on the left (the “Left Wing”), angered by those same privileges for the elite sought to establish a more egalitarian society. 

That happened over two centuries ago. So how did that work out? 

It didn’t end well.

Not very well actually. The First Republic dates to 1792. In 1793 they executed King Louis XVI. The dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror soon followed with some 17,000 public executions. As many as 10,000 died in prison without a trial. Historians don’t agree on the count in the Vendee Genocide, numbers ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. After interminable turmoil, Napoleon Bonaparte took control in 1799, and was declared Emperor in 1804. This led to the Napoleonic Wars that finally ended in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon.

The French Revolution started out with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It ended with a bloodbath, dictatorship, and wars that decimated France and Europe. 

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