Why are Democrats ‘Left’ and Republicans ‘Right’? The Surprising History of Political Affiliations
The terms right and left refer to political affiliations that originated late in the eighteenth century (1789–1799) in relation to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France. During the French Revolution of 1789, the members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king and supporters of the revolution.
The aristocracy sat on the right side of the Speaker, which was traditionally the seat of honor, and the commoners sat on the left. This gave birth to the terms “right-wing” and “left-wing” politics. The Left had been called “the party of movement” and the Right “the party of order.”
During the French Revolution, the National Assembly was divided into supporters of the king and supporters of the revolution. ‘Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848’ (public domain)
As noted above, “left” and “right” were not used to refer to political ideologies but only to the seating plan in the legislature, but after a while these seating plans began to define the spectrum of the representatives’ political ideologies, classifying them in stark opposition to each other. Those terms gradually replaced the terms “reds” and “the reaction” or “republicans” and “conservatives” that were commonly used until that time. In a first reaction, the Right opposed the seating arrangement because they believed that deputies should support private or general interests but should not form factions or political parties. The Right mostly denied that the left–right spectrum was meaningful because they saw it as artificial and damaging to unity. The Left, however, seeking to change society, promoted the distinction.
However, it was during the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871 that the political parties formally adopted the terms “left” and “right” to define their political beliefs.
The Representatives of Foreign Powers Coming to Greet the Republic as a Sign of Peace (public domain)
The original “Left” mainly represented the interests of the bourgeoisie and supported republicanism, secularism, and civil liberties. The rising capitalist class typically represented much of the working class, poor peasantry, and the unemployed. Their political interests in the French Revolution lied in opposition to the aristocracy, and so they found themselves allied with the early capitalists. The Left fought for the equality of advantage or opportunity, in support of the claims of the disadvantaged. The size of the working class increased as capitalism expanded, and began to find expression partly in trade unionist, socialist, anarchist, and communist politics, rather than being confined to the capitalist policies expressed by the original ”Left.” Left-wing generally referred to more “liberal” or “progressive” views based on the belief that people were basically good and the government had a responsibility to care for all its citizens to some degree. In conclusion, left-wing politics became some form of socialism.
The original “Right” was always the party sector associated with the interests of the upper or dominant classes. This party supported aristocratic or royal interests, as well those of the Church. The conservative right defended entrenched prerogatives, privileges, and powers that the “Left” had attacked. The Right was more favorable to the aristocratic position, to the hierarchy of birth and wealth. Right-wing usually referred to more “conservative” or “regressive” views. It was characterized by a belief in the natural selfish nature of humans and the view that achievement is equivalent to worth. Right-wing politics became either anarcho-capitalism (libertarian wing) or some form of fascism (authoritarian wing, although many neo-Fascists would describe themselves as taking a third position, between capitalism and socialism).
According to the simplest Left and Right distinction, communism and socialism are usually regarded internationally as being on the left, opposite fascism and conservatism on the right.
In British politics the terms “right” and “left” came into common use for the first time in the late 1930s in debates over the Spanish Civil War.
British parliament 1793 (public domain)
The terms “left-wing” and “right-wing” are also widely used in the United States and are generally associated with liberal and conservative, respectively.
However, in modern days, as the capitalist economies developed and the aristocracy became less relevant and mostly replaced by capitalist representatives, the terms have been redefined depending on the country. For example, in American political parlance the word “Left” may refer to liberalism and be identified with the Democratic Party, whereas in a country such as France these positions would be regarded as relatively more right-wing, and “Left” is more likely to refer to socialist positions rather than liberal ones. Whether something is considered Left or Right depends on one’s point of view.
Top image: The Seat of Justice in the Parliament of Paris in 1723 (public domain)
By Theodoros II