The Real Identity Politics

The True Meaning Behind the Left and the Right

by charlie hurd

In contemporary political culture many people toss around the phrase: “the division between the Left and Right. This vague term in America just refers to people who identify as liberal or conservative. Often these labels can be used as insults–such as a liberal calling somebody a “right-winger” or a conservative calling somebody “a radical leftist”. It has become commonplace in political discourse for someone to disparage their opponent by labeling them as an extreme of whatever political ideology they identify with. This is especially prevalent on internet political communities who alter definitions of such terms to fit their own agenda. For example, Barack Obama has been known by many different labels during his tenure as a president. He was known by right-wing conservatives as a “communist dictator leftist,” while people who identified themselves far on the left labeled him as a “right-wing corporate sellout.”

‘The Left and Right’ are umbrella terms that can group Centrist Democrats alongside Anarcho-Communists while lumping Christian Conservatives right next to free market Libertarians. ‘The Left and Right’’ labels tend to simplify complex ideological terms by tying together many individual political sects into two opposing categories. The meaning of the ‘Left and Right’ has changed dramatically since the terms were first coined.

The ‘Left and Right’ distinction originated during French Revolution in 1789 when members of the National Assembly sat in the left and right sides of the assembly hall. To the right were supporters of the king and to the left were the supporters of the revolution. During the years of change in France, sitting on the left always indicated an opposition to authority while those who sat on the right were supporters of monarchy. These terms were not used as indicators of political opinion until around 1914 in France when they started to be used as insults. Being on the left indicated that you were a socialist while being on the right indicated that you were a conservative. These terms spread throughout Europe and became especially prevalent during the Spanish Civil War when the Spanish republicans joined forces with the anarchist revolutionaries to fight against the fascist and Spanish nationalists led by Francisco Franco. Instead of using the makeup of the different groups fighting to name the two armies, the terms ‘Left and Right’ became a simple way to talk about the political divide in the war. This solidified the meaning of the sides. The left was known for support of working class causes and egalitarianism with the right being associated with traditionalism, duty and authority. These terms were prevalent in the United States during in the 20th century and evolved to what we know today.

Not only has the meaning of this distinction changed, but the power of the terms ‘Left and Right’ has grown. These two categories of political belief have become a new type of identity politics in which citizens with extreme opposition to one another will come together to support their side regardless of their own political differences.

Two major providers of political content on the internet are Noam Chomsky and Stefan Molyneux. Both consider themselves anarchists but are almost ideological opposites to one another: Chomsky being an Anarcho-syndicalist (left) and Molyneux being an anarcho-capitalist (right). They both share the position of being against authority while economically they couldn't be more different. During the 2016 election they both did something surprising, they came out in support the candidate that was on their side of the spectrum. Chomsky urged leftists to vote for Clinton while at the same time speaking of his disagreements with her. Chomsky’s differences with Clinton are immense. Chomsky is a socialist while Clinton is a capitalist. Chomsky is anti-interventionist while Clinton supports Obama-era foreign policy. There is a very similar case with Molyneux and his numerous political differences with Donald Trump, but because of the broad brush of ideology, both ‘extremists’ conceded to vote for a candidate which neither truly supported.

This broad brush of ideology is a powerful force. The political identity of someone can interfere with their true opinions and make them support causes which they do not entirely agree with. Identity can be more powerful than ideas when it comes to the political spectrum.

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