A Brief History of the Left and Right in America

The Library
A section of "The Library" by Bernard Zakheim, one of the Coit Tower Murals.

Ever wondered where the terms Left and Right came from? Let’s break it down.

First, we were all royally screwed—when wealth and political power rested with royalty, the aristocracy, and assorted hangers-on.

In England, the Norman royalty and aristocracy were the descendants of invaders who took the country by force. They built fortifications to protect themselves and subjugated the people of England, Ireland, and Scotland—many of whom eventually fled to America and settled in the Appalachians, where the culture reflects its founders’ enduring distrust for authority.

In the 18th century, people rose up against royal rule and demanded democracy. In France, leaders gathered in a hall to begin the process of self-rule—those still allied with royalty and aristocracy sat on the right side of the hall, and those aligned with the liberals and democracy sat on the left.

The terms “Left” and “Right” stuck. Over time, they’ve accrued more layers of meaning, but the original significance of these shorthand terms remains relevant to this day. The Left represents democracy, equal rights, and shared prosperity. The Right represents aristocracy, social authoritarianism, and imperial aspirations aimed at enriching a few at everyone else’s expense.

It’s important to note that while many credit Greece with inventing democracy, self-rule via voting existed earlier in many non-Western cultures. The American version of democracy was largely inspired by what Europeans saw in the First Nations of North America. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, saw native governments as models for how Europeans might have lived before the rise of monarchies.

Absent royalty, American wealth and political power began to accrue to merchants, bankers, land developers, and industrialists. In the past, royalty enriched the aristocracy through land grants and such. Now, elected representatives could enrich the new aristocracy—and themselves—through mutually beneficial schemes, flat-out bribery, and eventually anticipatory bribery. Royal favors were replaced by crony capitalism, which has grown increasingly sophisticated and global, often superseding national authority.

The original project of the Left was to free people from the injustices of royalty and aristocracy. But the industrial revolution (and later global super-capitalism) created entirely new forms of highly concentrated political power. The Left has struggled to respond.

Even as its methods evolved, the Right’s worldview persisted: The ideal society is one in which a tiny ruling elite is served by subjugated masses with limited rights—be they slaves, child laborers, low-wage workers, or 1099 contractor-entrepreneurs. This view has been especially pernicious in the Deep South.

During the industrial revolution, the Left responded with bans on child labor, antitrust laws, minimum wages, unionization, the weekend, and—in the Great Depression—Glass-Steagall and Social Security, among other things.

In the 1930s, a majority of Americans blamed the Right for causing the Great Depression, and as a direct result of that blame, the Left completely dominated national politics for the next three decades, starting with the unprecedented three-time election of FDR.

During this period, the Left made hugely successful and enduring investments in public infrastructure—schools, bridges, libraries—nearly every city in America has at least one public resource built during this era. (It’s this infrastructure that is now crumbling after decades of the Right defunding government to “starve the beast.”)

After WWII, the GI Bill helped empower a generation to attend college and buy homes, further expanding the middle class. Working with FDR, the middle class got a New Deal—a deal the Right has worked tirelessly to roll back ever since.

The right includes monarchists, imperialists, fascists, neoconservatives, neoliberals, reactionaries, social authoritarians, right-libertarians, and religious fundamentalists.

After dominating national politics for decades, the Left (notably Democrat Lyndon Johnson) forcibly ended Jim Crow segregation in the South (and de facto segregation everywhere else). Suddenly, the public resources created by liberals—schools, parks, hospitals, trains, buses, public spaces and resources of all kinds—would be shared with African Americans.

In response to the notion of sharing prosperity with blacks, white Americans, especially Southerners, defected from liberalism and the pursuit of the Greater Good.

Liberalism was about freeing and empowering people, but when Democrats extended that empowerment to people of color, many former New Deal Democrats—like Ronald Reagan—rejected the Left and joined the Right. In the US we called these folks neoconservatives; the rest of the world called them neoliberals.

Note: The name neoliberal might sound confusing or wrong, but the label makes sense when you consider the history of liberalism. In the beginning, liberals wanted to spread egalitarian power partly through free markets that anyone (not just the aristocracy) could take part in. Today’s neoliberals also want free markets—but they want them completely decoupled from any egalitarian or moral considerations. They argue that when markets are unregulated (so they can control them) the outcome is inherently virtuous. This places a false halo on the (controlling) interests of the aristocracy.

With the end of Jim Crow, the Right saw an opportunity to finally return to power with something called the Southern Strategy. Using coded language, the aristocracy got whites (mostly in the South and Far West regions) enraged about race (civil rights, integration, affirmative action) and cultural issues (hippies, gays, etc).

Against all economic logic, white working-class folks in these regions aligned themselves with the aristocracy. What many whites didn’t seem to realize was that we couldn’t systematically disempower working people of any color without also affecting white working people.

Over the last four decades, working-class white people have unwittingly aided the Right’s backlash against the New Deal—and been devastated by wage stagnation, usurious debt burdens, and the destruction of the social safety net. Unbelievably, the middle class is no longer the majority economic class in America. And economic inequality has reached such dizzying heights that 62 people now own as much as the poorest half of the population of Earth. America’s political spectrum has shifted so far to the Right, that the American Left is now the center.

Clearly, Democrats are not without blame for what’s happened to the classes of people it once staunchly defended. Robert Reich recently covered this subject in a piece called “Who Lost the White Working Class?” Read it.

We’re lucky. We live on the Left Coast. Here, aristocratic power has much shallower roots than in the East—one reason why the Right has never had a strong power base here. Absent a legitimate threat from the Right, we’re free to examine our own internal conflicts on the Left.

Until recently, Left Coast power and wealth had only loose connections to Wall Street, but the rise of tech stocks has changed that. In Left Coast cities, new extreme concentrations of wealth are causing suffering and displacement. Yes, the middle class is under tremendous stress across the country, but if we’re so damn smart, why can’t we fix it here?

Many of us believed in the power of free markets to deliver egalitarian power to the majority—and to reduce the power of aristocracy and oligarchy. Some Left Coast residents (such as Bill Gates and other tech CEOs) still preach the same free market dogma as if nothing has changed, but many of us now refuse to drink the Kool-Aid of unfettered global super-capitalism.

Today, Left Coast cities and states are rolling out promising changes—the foundation for a new New Deal.

We’re rewriting campaign finance, reestablishing living wages, localizing organic food production, embracing clean energy, creating new local currencies and ways to finance and organize businesses—including B corps, cooperatives, and platform cooperatives—to build an economy that’s more ecological and equitable, from the ground up. It’s revolutionary.

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