Explaining the Left-to-Right Political Spectrum

Explaining the Left-to-Right Political Spectrum

Breanna Reynolds, Writer and Head Political Contributor

What does it mean to be politically left wing? What does it mean to be politically right wing? What is a centrist? What does it mean to be a liberal, conservative, leftist, or libertarian? What do they believe? Why do they believe that? What do they have to do with the two political parties?

The United States has some wonky politics and the average American, in my humble opinion, is politically underdeveloped. The origins and meanings behind various political philosophies are rarely taught in schools. This leaves generation after generation of young adults hopeless when it comes to making decisions that will not only impact them in their personal lives, but the future of the country as a whole.

The idea of having a political “left” and “right” originates from the French. The main issue in many old French politics was how much power the king should have. People who believed the king should have absolute power sat on the right side of the assembly. People who believed the king should not have much power at all would sit on the left. This became popular in the USSR. The Bolsheviks often idealized the French revolution. In their terms, if you leaned left you embraced the thought of a global workers revolution, if you were right wing you were more nationalist. Most of Europe caught onto the terms after World War One. 

Being on the left wing of the political spectrum is generally defined by beliefs in equality, progress, and internationalism. Being on the right wing of the political spectrum is generally defined by beliefs in hierarchy, nationalism, and tradition. It’s a rather simple explanation but as you get more specific into things it gets more complicated. 

Liberalism is well known for having originated in the Enlightenment. It is defined by beliefs in individualism and freedom. John Locke, who is often credited for the foundation of liberalism, laid the groundwork for the separation of church and state and believed that rulers needed the people’s consent to rule. Thomas Paine claimed in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense that the government was a “necessary evil” needed to secure the right to freedom and liberty. Adam Smith, the founder of capitalism, has a very well known quote from his book The Wealth of Nations meant to define natural liberty. “Every man, as long as he does not violate the laws of justice, is left perfectly free to pursue his own interest his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man.”

In modern day, liberalism is often confused with leftism. Leftism, often confused with just being considered left wing, is its own philosophy with its own history. Liberalism inherently supports capitalism. Leftism inherently supports moves against capitalism, whether that is intervening in a capitalist economy or supporting an anti-capitalist system like communism or socialism. 

At the same time, it’s important to remember that nothing is clear cut and that these words are things we’ve come up with to help explain the ideas around us. Not everyone belongs purely to one political philosophy. Joe Biden is a liberal, he supports NAFTA and was against universal health care. Bernie Sanders is also a liberal, but he supports an end for private health insurance meaning that he’s left leaning. People like Bernie, AOC, and Ed Markey all follow liberal principles with leftist undertones, they’re usually referred to as being progressives

Liberalism, being the current basis of the constitution and our society in general by proxy, can easily be leaned towards the left or the right. Ronad Reagan may have complained about liberals in his day (“the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s that so much they know isn’t so.”), but he was one. Reaganomics calls for unrestrained capitalism and completely open markets. Reagan  decreased taxes on the rich, fought against welfare, and was anti-union. He was a right leaning liberal. 

The thought of Reagan being a liberal leaves a lot of questions about conservatism. Though you can mix conservative beliefs with liberal beliefs, conservatism began as a rejection of liberalism. The ideology can also be traced back to the French revolution. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Irish statesman and father of conservatism, believed that the violence seen in the French revolution outweighed any good within liberal ideals. It’s a reactionary ideology, meaning it’s based around the return of a previous society. The best example of modern conservatism I can think of is Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and author. Peterson often compares humans with lobsters, saying that our evolution developed natural hierarchies in a similar way. 

Libertarianism is another popular label in the U.S. It’s very close to liberalism in its core ideals, liberty and freedom. The biggest difference between the two is that libertarianism specifically highlights wanting as little government as possible. Though the term has been around since the late 18th century, I’d prefer to focus more on modern libertarianism. Originally, it was used by anarchists and socialists who wanted to separate themselves from authoritarian regimes and the negative connotations about anarchism. They would call themselves “libertarian-socialists”. It’s hard to tell exactly when it started to become more well known for being used by the right-wing, but the American Libertarian Party was started in 1971. 

This is far from an explanation for all political views, but it’s a basic crash course. Every country I can think of has a political system that involves the left-to-right spectrum even though not all are centered around it like in America. For example, Ireland (both the North and the Republic) has leftists and conservatives, but their politics mainly revolve around their relationship with the UK. If you want Northern Ireland to be unified with the Republic: you are a republican or a nationalist, or if you want Northern Ireland to stay with the UK: you are a loyalist or a unionist. Two well known Republican parties in Ireland are Fianna Gael (Fee-uh-nuh Gayl), a center-right party, and Sinn Fein (Shin Fin), a left-wing and democratic socialist party. 




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