The right-left divide is about power, not ideology

Photo by Michael on Unsplash

The origin of the concept of right and left in a political context dates back to the French revolution. In an effort to appease reformers, King Louis XVI allowed the empowerment of a legislative body to provide him with advice and consent. This was in the wake of the French intervention in support of the American revolution, and with the democratic philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others popular at the time, so the ideas of democracy were running high in France.

This national assembly was set up as a half circle. People being who we are, the representatives tended to gather together with like-minded people. France was thought of as having three estates, the first was the nobility, the second was the clergy, and the third was the citizenry. Each group received its own representation in the legislature.

From the perspective of the president of the body, standing at the front and looking at the representatives, the nobility and clergy located themselves on the right with the citizenry filling in the rest of the seats. The most radical members, called the Jacobins, who had a dislike of the nobility and clergy, located themselves opposite that group on the far left.

Due to the initial system set up in that assembly of voting by estates, the first two typically outvoted the third. You could imagine how outraged that situation would leave the much larger block of citizens, only serving to increase the influence of the most radical elements of that group.

These radical elements, then, wanted to change the status quo. The current situation, obviously, only served to protect the privileged status of the nobility and the clergy, while the representatives of the populace wanted to have an impact on policy, something that was denied to them by the way voting was set up.

In this way, then, left came to be associated with change while right came to be viewed as conservative. The nobility and clergy sought to conserve the status quo while the citizenry, located on the left of the assembly, sought to change it.

In reality, however, the division was not about some liberal/conservative ideological split. Instead, right was about protecting the power of the privileged few, while left was about distributing that power more equitably among the citizenry.

This analysis has relevance today. Some have argued that Trump represents a departure from the policies of traditional conservatives on issues as varied as trade, foreign policy, and immigration. In reality, Trump is a continuation of the right in the truest sense of the word. If there is anything his administration has been consistent on, it is his effort to maintain the power of the few over a more equitable distribution.

Consider his tax cut. At this point, there can no longer be any debate that it was nothing more than a give-away to the very rich to the detriment of the much larger middle class.

Consider also his racist positions. He is in effect protecting the privileged position of the white people who had been the majority of Americans in the past, but increasingly are outnumbered by people of color.

Consider his anti-democratic policies, such as the efforts of him and his party to reduce voting by minority members. Again, these policies seek to protect the new minority, white people, from the growing political power of people from different backgrounds.

Thus, the policies of Trump and his party represent a continuation of the essence of the right. This is consistent with the path the Republican party has been taking since the emergence of the “new right” in the 1970s.

Similarly, the left, no matter what you call them — liberals, progressives, democratic socialists — seek a more equitable distribution of power and wealth. Of course, wealth is just another form of power.

Based upon the above analysis, you can consider me a proud member of the left. I just wish the right was more honest about what their goals really are.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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