Origins: The Left and the Right Today

In politics, the terms right-wing and left-wing are used as short descriptions of a person’s political beliefs. A common misconception is that the terms describe everything that a person believes about politics. The problem with this view is that it does not acknowledge just how diverse left wing, centrist and right wing movements are. Typically, the right is associated with social hierarchy, tradition, religion, capitalism and nationalism. In contrast, the left is typically associated with egalitarianism, reformism, secularity, socialism and internationalism.

The terms originate from the unique circumstances of the French Revolution. During that time, the right sought to defend a traditional France dominated by a strong monarch, a strict class hierarchy and Catholicism as the state religion. In contrast, the left was attempting to create a new France by abolishing the monarchy, the traditional class structure and state Catholicism. The French left was trying to implement the ideas of the Enlightenment, a diverse European philosophical movement from the 17th to 19th centuries that encouraged independent reasoning and fundamental freedoms of expression while challenging the political power of aristocrats and religious institutions. The terms “left” and “right” originated as literal descriptions of the National Assembly, which organized in 1789 to establish a new revolutionary French government and write a new constitution. Those who supported giving the monarch absolute veto power sat to the right of the president of the assembly, while those who disagreed sat to his left.

Hence the original issue, which divided the right from the left was the authority of the monarch, hardly a common debating topic in the 21st century, a time when very few countries still have monarchs with substantial authority. From the perspective of the world’s earliest usage of the terms, almost everyone is now a leftist. And yet the words have persisted as metaphors for the contrast between hierarchy and egalitarianism.

In today’s world, the typical associations between right and left are not always accurate. In contemporary Europe, religious voters typically support moderate right-wing parties while secular voters are more likely to vote either for the left or for the far-right. The far-right typically emphasizes a staunchly xenophobic nationalism that doesn’t resonate well with religious voters who feel connected to traditional Jewish and Christian teachings in favor of welcoming the stranger and the foreigner.

Within the contemporary left, there’s no longer the same level of opposition to the Catholic Church as there was during the French Revolution. This is largely because Catholic theology now supports ideas that it did not support during the French Revolution, such as support for religious freedom and opposition to slavery. Contemporary Catholic theology now emphasizes the need to address climate change, a preferential option for the poor, unionization rights for workers and universal healthcare. Although the Catholic Church still clashes with the left over abortion and gay rights, the left has far more room to collaborate with the Catholic Church than it once did.

In today’s world, it is best to associate the right with tradition, hierarchy and nationalism, and the left with reform, egalitarianism and internationalism. Little else should be assumed when a person uses the terminology.

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