Posted: 17 August 2011 Updated: whenever: whatever
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The terms left wing and right wing come from the French Revolution, as explained here and here. The basic idea is that left-wing political views are associated with egalitarianism and the erasure of social hierarchies, promoting social change to bring these goals about. Conversely, ideas to the right are considered to be associated with support for social hierarchies and the preservation of that social order.
Taken to extremes, left-wing movements advocate violent revolution to accomplish that social change, government control of all of society, complete elimination or re-education of the existing upper social strata, and the abolition of private control of property. These are extreme forms of socialism that, in my opinion, are utterly impractical and if implemented strictly wouldn't survive for long. These movements often develop along hierarchical lines despite their professed belief in the elimination of hierarchies, and historically have involved cults of personality revolving around dictators, with party members being the privileged class. Brutal repression of opposing political viewpoints is virtually guaranteed. Citizen subservience to the state is strictly enforced.
Taken to extremes, right-wing movements advocate violent resistance to any proposed social change, promote an oligarchical control of all society, the enslavement and exploitation of lower social strata, and support total private control of all property. These are extreme forms of fascism that, in my opinion, are utterly impractical and if implemented strictly wouldn’t survive for long. These movements already promote a hierarchical system, so also are prone to cults of personality associated with dictators. Party members are, again, the privileged class. Brutal repression of opposing political viewpoints is, again, virtually guaranteed, with subservience of citizens to the state a mandatory situation.
Thus, the extremists either to the left or to the right may start out as naïve idealogues but if they come to power, it likely will be the cynical demagogues in their ranks who will seize that power through the use political ideology to secure power and wealth for themselves and their supporters. From the point of view of most of society, extremists on the left and on the right are difficult to tell apart. They may have different slogans but when regimes have extremist ideological roots, the end result often involves savage treatment of their people. Their slogans always include "If you're not with us, you're against us."
It's pretty evident to me that there are good and bad aspects to both egalitarianism and social hierearchies. What seems to be an ideal situation is to be somewhere in between these extreme views. This is what's meant by the term "centrist" – a perspective that shuns the extremes of both left and right. The political spectrum then encompasses, in simplified terms, leftists, centrists, and rightists (Fig. 1). Another subdivision of the spectrum could be extremists at both ends, with a spectrum of centrists (from liberals on the left, through moderates in the middle and conservatives on the right) occupying the middle.
Figure 1. The political spectrum, subdivided in alternative ways.
In today's world, however, as explained in my essay about liberals, contemporary "conservatives" consider "liberals" to be radical left-wing zealots. I'm pretty certain they don't see themselves as radical right-wing zealots, of course. They see themselves as "centrists" I'm sure. Thus, any left-leaning ideas on the part of a liberal have been interpreted by conservatives as far-left ideology that elicits feelings of revulsion and fear. Therefore, in the limited perception of many contemporary conservatives, the centrist political spectrum has been narrowed and shifted a bit to favor the right (Fig. 2). Liberals like Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama are now extremists, in this view.
Figure 2. The revised political spectrum through the eyes of many 'conservatives' in this nation.
I should also say that today's liberals are feeling a bit persecuted, perhaps with some justification. During the administration of GWBush and Crime, Inc., I suppose I saw Bush on the very far right of center. His administration stopped short of fascism, although some of his neo-con advisors (Carl Rove or William Rumsfeld, for instance) may have stepped over that line! I think it's clear that since WWII right up through the Lyndon Johnson administration, the left side of the center was dominant in our politics and it seemed that most of the nation was inclined toward being more egalitarian, perhaps to repair old injustices to the working class and downtrodden elements of our society of all sorts (blacks, Asians, native Americans, etc.). These were prosperous times and I suppose there was a greater willingness to share the wealth than currently exists. It seems to me that with the election of Richard Nixon, we saw the beginnings of a change in American politics to lean more to the right, with time. Of course, following the Civil War, the Republicans were hated in the Deep South (i.e., the former Confederate states). That the south would vote solidly Democratic was a given for a long time. This began to change with Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat who was a champion of civil rights! This was clearly seen as a betrayal of the racist ideology that still smoldered in the Deep South, so their transformation from Democratic to Republican became inevitable. That same solid support that once was given by the south to Democrats to help their electoral success is now given to Republicans.
The fact that Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were from southern states may have been just enough to overcome the handicap of their Democratic party affiliations in an increasingly Republican Deep South. Where the Republicans once stood for civil rights, they now stand for bigotry - not officially, of course, but in the minds of many of their constituents. Their capitulation to the christian nationalists (including the neo-cons, of course) is nearly complete. The existing Democratic "leadership" is so inept, it can't even manage to achieve a compromise with the Republicans. The failures of the Obama administration make it seem likely that Obama will be another 1-term Democrat. The GOP is putting together a rogue's gallery of potential candidates consisting mostly of christian nationalists of one sort or another. It isn't clear whether any of them can be elected. However, at this time of crisis in America, it seems we've become so deeply divided politically, we've demonized the opposition and one simply can't compromise with a demon! Our 2-party political system has become a trap, where many of us feel we can't possibly imagine voting for either side! This likely favors the christian nationalists - moderates and liberals are disenchanted with Obama and unwilling to vote for any GOP candidate, so they may not vote at all or will vote for a third party candidate (with zero chance of being elected), whereas the GOP constituents may be so "loyal" they'll vote for whomever wins the GOP nomination. I fear for this nation if we elect another christian nationalist administration!
A final note concerning theocracies and where they fit in the political spectrum. I see them as most closely aligned with extremists to the right (i.e., Fascists), since the clergy are inherently a privileged class and an essential part of their social hierarchy. The masses must be subservient to the ideological dictates of their religious leaders. It's not coincidental that most modern "conservatives" in America also are deeply committed to religious belief - religion and right-wing politics meld rather seamlessly. Christian nationalism is most naturally a right-wing movement and its intentions to install a theocracy here in American are at most only thinly disguised. If you want to see what that might look like here in America, consider the regimes in the islamic theocracies of the Middle East as a model for what America could come to be.
Update: It's been brought to my attention that the left-right model of politics is an oversimplification - a one-dimensional model. In 1969, David Nolan developed a 2-dimensional model now called the Nolan Chart that offers a somewhat more complex view of politics: the degree of government economic control and the degree of government personal control. I agree, and suspect that even this is an oversimplification of political reality. That is, it seems to me there are many more than 2 dimensions to consider within the political "spectrum". This is all well and good, but falls outside the confines of this essay: if someone is going to use the left-right version of the one-dimensional political spectrum (pure egalitarianism versus rigid social hierarchies), it's simply wrong to characterize "liberals" as "far-left".