Left and Right in American Politics

As others have said many times, Left and Right are not American political distinctions. They are transplants from Europe, from the division of the post-Revolutionary French National Assembly of 1789. In the chamber of the Assembly, the nobles sat on the right and the revolutionaries on the left. In time the revolutionaries of the left took over the chamber as they beheaded the nobles using Dr. Guillotine’s invention.

The nobles of the chamber, and thus the Right, were the defenders of the feudal system. They benefited from and believed in class differences and a caste system with serfs tied to the land but not owning it, religious homogeneity, and a divine mandate of nobility. They did not favor free trade, except at times between nobles. They believed in a totalitarian system of governance led by the nobility with religion as a comfort to the people. The Estates-General, consisting of the clergy (First Estate), nobility (Second Estate), and commoners (Third Estate), who were traditionally appointed by the King, were an important part of the feudal system they defended.

The revolutionaries of the chamber, and thus the Left, believed in the natural rights of man, as defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and granted by the French nation. These rights were liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. The right of resistance to oppression was not tightly defined, nor was oppression, and this led to numerous tragedies, many involving Dr. Guillotine’s splendid device. Many were militant atheists with an explicit calling to dechristianize society,

The chaos and anarchy in France after the Revolution eventually got bad enough under the dictatorial Directory that Napoleon was able to seize dictatorial powers in a coup and establish a new kind of totalitarian state based on constant warfare in Europe.

Meanwhile, in the United States of America, the Whigs and Royalists who were in conflict through the Revolutionary War melted away after. At this time, all American political parties would have been called Liberal, as in the Classical Liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith and the American Founding Fathers. In the place rose Hamilton’s Federalists and Jefferson’s and Madison’s anti-Federalist Democratic-Republicans. The Democratic-Republicans dominated national politics for years until they broke in two over the question of slavery, with the Democrats under Andrew Jackson taking the pro-slavery side of things and the Republicans under John Quincy Adams taking the anti-slavery side and joining with the remainder of the Whigs.

All American political parties shared a belief in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (plus Property, the unwritten fourth pillar of the Declaration), which would put them on the left side of the European binary divide. Certainly no American parties, even the pro-slavery Democrats, believed in instituting an overarching feudal system in America.

Summing up, the 20th century characterization of Democrats as of the political left and Republicans as of the right is not only inaccurate, but also slanderous to Republicans and unduly kind to Democrats. Republicans do not believe in a feudal system or even a class system, unlike Democrats who divide American society into classes by oppressor and victim status and use these classes to institutionalize legal preferences for members of official victim classes. Democrats, on the other hand…

To use a more American system of classification, Republicans tend to be conservative who govern by results instead of intentions, and thus they wish to conserve the virtues of the American Constitution. This would make Republicans classical Liberals.

The Democratic party of the 20th and 21st century is a populist party that seeks out popular policies that allow it to get the support of enough balkanized subsets of the populace to add up to at least 51% of the electorate. It is a self-consciously Revolutionary party that looks to constant change and innovation guided by good intentions, and not as measured by results.

The left-right divide is no more enlightening when it comes to American politics than the mythical Fourth Estate, invented by journalists who romantically imagine they have been appointed by King Louis XIV as arbiters of taste and wisdom for the people. I have a tip for the Fourth Estate. The King is dead. Your Estate has been dissolved and passed to the hands of the hoi polloi, who no longer need your services as the arbiters of wisdom, taste, or anything else.


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2 responses to “Left and Right in American Politics

  1. Excellent description of the Democratic Party in the 10th-21 century!

  2. To make matters even a bit more complcated, consider: Edmund Burke argued before Pariament in 1775 that the American colonists saw themselves as seeking to preserve traditional English rights and liberties, which would make them, besides being classic liberals, conservatives


    And contemporary leftists of the 20th-21st American century variety are, in the models presented by progressivism, reactionary, tyrranical statists who are the very antithesis of genuine liberalism (which is why I often call them faux liberals).

    Jerry Pournelle’s Political Axes provide a useful (though necessarily incomplete, as are all political models) model of contemporary political thought along two axes: rationalism and statism. While some could reasonably argue for a three-dimensional model, Pournelle’s is nevertheless much more useful, IMO, than the extremely deceptive Left-Right model, and much more useful than the (poorly descriptive) terms “liberal” and “conservative” IMO.