The words “left wing” vs “right wing” is today used as metaphors for liberals and conservatives, though they were originally used to designate the physical seating arrangements of politicians during the French Revolution.
The delegates were deeply divided over whether or not King Louis XVI should have too much authority, and as the debate got underway, the two main camps dug in their heels.
The more conservative, aristocratic supporters of the monarchy gathered to the right, while anti-royalist revolutionaries sat on the presiding officer’s left.
“I attempted to sit in various sections of the hall and not to take a specific position so as to maintain control over my thoughts, but I was forced to give up the left or else face constant heckling from the galleries.”
- Concepts such as authority, hierarchy, order, duty, traditionality, reaction, and nationalism are emphasized by the right-wing viewpoint.
- According to political pundits, right-wingers are conservatives, right-libertarians, neoconservatives, imperialists, monarchists, fascists, reactionaries, and traditionalists.
- The party’s basic policies are: minimal government involvement in people’s lives and economy, nationalism, individual liberty, religious conservation and tradition, support for religion and equality for all without special protection for minorities, less regulation of the economy, pro-business promotion of small businesses.
- They are traditional in issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and immigration.
What exactly is the meaning of the political labels “left” and “right”?
The narrative begins in France in the summer of 1789, according to Patrice Higonnet, a professor emeritus of French history at Harvard University. As the French Revolution heated up, an enraged mob was storming the Bastille. The National Assembly was formed to serve as the revolution’s government. And a primary purpose of the assembly was drafting a constitution.
The assembly discussed one of the most pressing issues, how much power the king should possess. According to David A. Bell, a professor of early modern France at Princeton University, one of the major debates was over how much power the king should have. Would the king have an all-powerful absolute veto? Those who believed the king should have an absolute veto sat on the right of the president of the assembly, while those who thought he should not have their left. In other words, those who preferred to stick to the old were on the correct side, and those that wanted more change were on the wrong.
“So, these groupings were termed the left and right, and that’s where we trace their origins,” Bell explains to TIME.
In the following legislatures and parliaments, the seating pattern was copied. “It quickly became common language,” he adds. “These phrases were used in newspaper articles about the national assembly.”
How do ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ spread?
The French Revolution was the most famous revolution in history, and its language eventually traveled across the world — but not immediately.
According to French historian Marcel Gauchet’s essay “Right and Left,” the transition from right and left to dominant political labels took “more than three-quarters of a century,” stretching over three decades until the first decade of the twentieth century.
“The Bolsheviks were enthralled by the French Revolution. They were very aware of carrying out its legacy — and elevating it to a higher plane,” Marci Shore, a Yale University professor of European cultural and intellectual history, says in an email to TIME. They regarded it as a historical step that would eventually lead to communism.
How do ‘left’ and ‘right’ enter American politics?
The words have been in use since the 16th century, according to Harvard historian Henry George Liddell. According to Michael Kazin, a professor of U.S. politics and social movements at Georgetown University, the phrases were first used in American speech only in the 20th century — and a Google NGram search finds that the terms left-wing and right-wing began to be used with greater frequency in American English only in the 1950s.
“The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ entered everyday political discourse in the United States during the McCarthy era, when they were used to describe Americans who supported or opposed the aggressive anti-communist policies of Senator Joseph McCarthy,” Kazin
What caused the change? Political parties, which have historically been dominated by geographical and economic concerns, began to consolidate around a common set of principles.People on both the right and the left began to reject the old political consensus, according to Burns. Conservatives sought to promote a new set of ideas, rejecting the intellectual underpinnings of increased government. Student protestors also challenged what they saw as “hegemonic liberalism,” as Burns puts it, and the Vietnam War.
While some conservatives have shifted from strong and total support for the Second Amendment to acknowledging a ban on assault weapons, many people still believe in the right to bear arms.States that want to ban weapons as a way of reducing gun violence generally argue that guns don’t kill people; it’s individuals who do. Every citizen should be allowed to defend himself, they claim, and the right to bear arms is protected by the US constitution.
Those on the left, on the other hand, almost always back gay marriage and a variety of gay rights causes like workplace and corporate non-discrimination and adoption.
The majority of those on the right believe marriage is only a societal institution based on the joining of a man and a woman, and gay unions as an anomaly.The right also supports religious employers’ (particularly Catholic hospitals’) right to refuse to hire gay people.
On the other hand, far more people on the left believe that marriage is a civil institution based on a man and woman’s union, and that homosexual relationships are an anomaly. People on the right also want organizations (particularly religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals) to have the option of declining to hire gay individuals.