Why are conservatives referred to as the “right” and liberals referred to as the “left” in politics? The answer involves the French Revolution, the quick spread of information through newspapers, and the tense interlude between the two World Wars.
Political beliefs are often described as being on a spectrum from left to right. Left refers to liberal views, such as advocating for progressive reforms and seeking economic equality by redistributing wealth through social programs. On the far left, we have revolutionary ideologies like socialism and communism. Right refers to conservative views, such as maintaining existing institutions and traditional values while limiting government power. On the far right, we have nationalistic ideologies like fascism.
Vive le France
The political descriptors left and right originally referred to the seating arrangements for members of the French National Assembly in 1789, who convened during the French Revolution to draft a new constitution. From the position of the speaker of the assembly, those seated on the right side of the room were nobility and high-ranking religious authorities. Those seated on the left side of the room were commoners and lower-ranking clergy members.
The division was originally caused over the issue of how much authority the king should have. Those in favor of the king having absolute veto power sat on the right, and those who favored limiting the king’s veto power sat on the right.
The higher-ranking members of society tended to be more pro-aristocracy and generally were more reactionary in their political views, while the lower-ranking members of society tended to be pro-revolution, more radical, and more centered on the needs of the lower and middle classes. Those who sat closer to the center of the room tended to be more moderate in their views than others in their faction. The left was “the party of movement,” and the right was “the party of order.”
Newspapers reported on left-wing and right-wing views, and the terms left and right spread quickly into popular usage in France.
Over the next century, the seating arrangements in the French legislature persisted at some times and were discouraged at other times. When the French Third Republic was established in 1871, the terms left, right, and center were used in the names of political parties themselves: the Republican Left, the Centre Right, the Centre Left, the Extreme Left, and the Radical Left were the major political parties of the day.
The Interwar Years
Right and left became widely used throughout Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, the years between the two World Wars where people “wrestled with the politics of nation and class” and found these labels to be a simplified way to describe complex political ideologies. Marci Shore, professor of European history, writes, “The interwar years were a time of a polarizing political spectrum: the Right became more radical, the Left became more radical; the liberal center ‘melted into air’ (to use Marx’s phrase)” (Carlisle, 2019).
Left and Right in America
Right and left entered usage in America in the 1920s and 1930s as well, but some shied away from the terms, especially left, throughout the mid-20th century due to connotations with extreme ideologies. The 1960s saw a shift toward people defining themselves more consistently with these terms in an effort to differentiate their views from others, as both liberals and conservatives were dissatisfied with the current political consensus. We see again that left and right were used as shorthand ways of categorizing people—a person on the right sees a person on the left as the “other,” and vice versa.
In America, “left” is often synonymous with the Democratic Party, while “right” is often equated with the Republican Party. However, political views span a wide spectrum, and some may fall in between the positions of the parties or way outside the bounds of either one. The definitions of left, right, and center are dynamic and change relative to one another throughout time. The terms meant something different during the French Revolution, in the Soviet Union, during the New Deal, and in America in 2021 and will continue to shift as parties and policies realign in a changing political climate.