The Origin of Left-Right Terminology in Politics

Politics are a complex thing. So complicated in fact, that many people struggle to keep informed. The world runs at an exhilarating pace and even if we confine ourselves to our own countries in terms of political agendas and elections, it’s still a lot to take in. That is one of the reasons why we like to generalize politics into handy left-right terminology to summarize both our own views as well as the parties we vote for. But where does this terminology come from and what does it mean?

Taken as the words they are, left and right are arbitrary terms for direction. However, we are using them for expressing political orientation as well, which makes it even more vital to remember this: they are words to describe a direction, not a definitive destination. The left-right terminology in politics isn’t fixed, it’s dynamic and ever-changing.

The use of directional modifiers actually started in France during the French revolution where people would, at some point, start to characterize the available parties based on the section they held in parliament, left for the commoners and right for the aristocrats. Today, we don’t just go for the random seating positions of the parties but connect two political ideologies with it – communism and fascism. Those are the outermost extremes we like to put at the left and right end of our political spectrum.

Left-Right Terminology: A Complicated Simplification

The left-right terminology has prevailed over time even though our world has become infinitely more complex since we first started to use them to describe the political landscape. Even back then using two words to describe politics was already a crass oversimplification and yet it is still both a helpful and effective way to use in politics. That being said, it also runs the danger of misguiding voters and harming the basic ideology of democracy itself. Identifying and categorizing all political action on a scale running left-to-right has made it simpler to gain a general oversight of where we and others stand, but then again, it means way more than it used to be.

You don’t need to go back more than a couple of decades to see how drastically the perception and use of left-right terminology have changed around the world. Political talks were often simply revolving around economics – those who were in favor of an equal distribution and high interventions from the state were left, the rest was on the opposite end. Those who were defending the status quo with all its morals and a high emphasis on religion were on the right, the rest was more leftwards orientated.

Layers of Politics

This definition has stayed true until today, but there have been many more layers added to it. We weren’t aware of Global Warming back then. This environmental consciousness spawned a completely new type of party, the greens, that weren’t really covered by our definition of the political spectrum. They settled somewhere left of center and quickly caused more parties to appear on the right opposing them. This is just one of the many things that have transformed and added to what we today perceive is either left or right in politics.

The takeaway is one important thing – the left-right terminology is not fixed, it’s dynamic and ever-changing. It’s a direction and even though we may feel the term is fixed, it only ever expresses a tendency that can be changed. It can change through emerging or contemporary issues, like mass immigration, it can even change from country to country.

Differences in Perception and Definition of Left-Right Terminology

What’s considered center-right in Germany may, in many regards, represent a left-of-center party for US standards. Germany in itself, with a strong social system, would be unthinkable for the conservative-leaning population in the US. Then there are the rather left-leaning Southern European states, which may have derived from their past influences with right-wing ideology, or the Eastern European countries that have completely different definitions of what is left or right based on their past and how well that worked out for them.

And even if the left-right terminology was fixed, they only describe the ends of the spectrum. How much space and gradations are there in between and how do those change? We like to keep it simple and identify with left or right, or maybe center if we really can’t choose where we belong, but as simple as that may sound, it isn’t. It’s as complicated of a model as the one it tries to represent. We like to put things in boxes, and using hard, clean-cut left and right labels may help simplify things for us, but we must not forget that politics is a human endeavor about global conflicts. Nothing is ever that simple.

About Andreas Salmen

Born and raised in Germany, learned a job in IT and Business and ultimately decided that this wasn't exactly where my life was going to end. Left everything behind to become a writing backpacker instead. The world's crumbling away anyway so why not write about it and get a few good Instagram pics on the way, am I right?

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