In many political conversations, you’ll hear the terms “right” and “left” tossed around to refer to a person, group, or movement’s general attitudes toward governmental policy. But what do they mean?
It can be confusing, mostly because people have intentionally made it confusing. For instance, libertarians like Rand Paul who seek to shrink the size of government and abolish unconstitutional entitlement programs are often shamed for their supposed “far-right” agenda — the same accusation hurled at a certain dictatorial chancellor of Germany from the 1930s and 40s who blew up the size of government and stumped for the socialist redistribution of wealth. How can two such opposing groups fall under the same umbrella on the ideological spectrum?
The simple answer is, of course, they don’t, but American academia has done some impressive mental gymnastics to make you think they do. Virtually every university’s introductory political science course teaches about the ideological spectrum with communism on the left all the way to fascism on the right, with socialists, liberals/progressives, moderates, conservatives, libertarians, and reactionaries in the middle. This model is nonsensical, as I’ll describe, and no one knows where it came from. But it’s all a ploy so Leftists can say that Hitler was a right-wing extremist and thus every American conservative is just shy of full-on Nazism.
So why is this crazy? Several reasons. First, this left-right scale is a hybrid of the American spectrum and the European spectrum. While the American version delineates the size of government (total government control on the very left and zero government at all on the very right), the European graph was originally created to distinguish between communists and anti-communists (usually fascists). Applied more generally, this scale ranges from globalism on the left to nationalism on the right.Under these pretenses, Hitler was obviously a far-right extremist, but in the European sense, not according to the American definition.
And why doesn’t the European model account for the size of government? Because not a single European nation, including our allies, understands or respects the notion of small government and unalienable rights. That concept is an American novelty.
As for the rest of the hybrid scale, which I’ll call the status quo model, the idea is that the varying ideologies represent each group’s attitudes toward change — liberals/progressives want to effect change or “progress” at a liberal pace, moderates want to do so at a moderate pace, conservatives want to conserve the status quo, and reactionaries want to go back to the way things were before (the status quo ante). Then communism, socialism, and fascism are randomly thrown on the edges with libertarianism sprinkled across the middle — none of which has anything to do with attitudes toward change. If that makes no sense, you’re normal.
The status quo model’s usage of the terms “liberal,” “progressive,” “moderate,” “conservative,” and “reactionary” is derived from varying sources, starting with the French Revolution. Those who supported the revolution were called progressives, because the wanted to progress to democracy, and those who opposed them were dubbed conservatives, because the wanted to conserve the monarchy. After the revolution was under way, those who still opposed were called reactionaries, who wanted things to go back to the way they were.
During the American Civil War, the Republican Party was divided into two camps: abolitionists and conservatives. In this case, conservatives didn’t seek to uphold the status quo but advocated for slow, gradual change to policy without toppling the established order.
At the turn of the 20th Century, American Leftists began the progressive movement under William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, campaigning on big government, a progressive income tax, and the shift from a constitutional republic to a democratic one. But after the tremendous economic success of liberty-minded Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s and the cataclysmic failures of progressivism in the 1930s under Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, progressives needed to rebrand. FDR adopted the title of “liberal,” which had for centuries indicated a lover of liberty like Coolidge and our Founding Fathers, reappropriating it to reference a liberal pace for change.
Additionally, FDR dismissed his opponents as “conservatives” who were stuck in their ways. Soon after, conservatives like William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater embraced the appellation, using it instead to refer to their commitment to conserving founding ideals such as natural rights, economic liberty, and cultural morality.
Finally, seeing that “liberal” had turned into a dirty word after decades of failed policy, Hillary Clinton began reclaiming the label of “progressive” circa 2008. And of course, through it all, “moderate” has meant the middle ground, the lukewarm fence-sitters that the Lord vomits — those who want change, but not too much; those who like natural rights, but not too much; those who want freedom, but not too much.
So that’s where each of those titles currently stands, but the Left insists on picking and choosing. They use “liberal” in the FDR sense and “progressive” in the Hillary Clinton sense interchangeably, which is fine, but their uses of “conservative” and “reactionary” date back to the French Revolution, where conservatives want to preserve the status quo and reactionaries prefer the status quo ante.
That might work in referring to an isolated issue, but how does that apply to a broader ideology? Does that mean that conservatives want to uphold Medicaid, government spending, and Roe v. Wade? Heaven forbid. And what would reactionaries like to return to exactly? A time before the Great Society or before the Civil Rights Act? Are those who oppose the 16th and 17th Amendments necessarily of the same ideological framework as those who curse the 13th, 14th, and 15th? That’s totally ridiculous. And of course, if full communism were ever achieved in the United States, would that mean that progressives would actively try to move even further Left (if such a place exists), conservatives would praise Marx, and only reactionaries would support antiquated ideals of capitalism? And if we went from communism to capitalism again, would reactionaries suddenly long for communism while conservatives clung to capitalism and liberals pushed for even more economic freedom?
None of that makes any sense, and it suggests that political ideologies have no consistent foundation. The only sensible way to delineate between the Right and Left in America is with the standard American spectrum from total government on the left to no government on the right. That scale goes, from left to right, totalitarians (which, as mentioned, can be communists, fascists, or others), socialists, liberals/progressives, moderates, conservatives, libertarians, and anarchists. Reactionaries don’t belong on this list at all.
As you may have guessed, that means that according to this model — the only sensible model — Hitler was indeed a far-left extremist, but that doesn’t mean that every liberal is responsible for or an acolyte of Hitler, any more than conservatives should be blamed for anarchist terrorists. America’s Overton Window has traditionally extended from liberals to conservatives, and more recently it has expanded to include socialism and libertarianism. Within that margin, you and I might disagree, but that doesn’t mean either of us is a danger to our country, and it certainly doesn’t make anyone Hitler. But at least it allows us to make sense of our differences.
There are many more factors and scales that contribute to your entire political ideology — isolationism to interventionism, globalism to nationalism, Marxism to monarchy, libertinism to puritanism, etc. But when we talk about right and left and someone’s basic placement on the ideological spectrum, this is what we mean.
To conclude, here’s an over-simplified example I like that demonstrates the American ideological spectrum. A child wants to paint a picture, and the following parental strategies reflect political philosophies from left to right:
Totalitarian: parent paints picture for child
Socialist: child holds paintbrush in hand but parent holds child’s hand and forces every movement, essentially painting it themselves
Liberal/progressive: parent steps in every time child makes a mistake and fixes it
Moderate: parent lets child paint but stands behind giving directions the whole time
Conservative: parent covers the floor to protect against any major spills, then lets the child paint on their own
Libertarian: parent tells child, “You figure it out”
Anarchist: what parent?