The Sunday Magazine

Are the labels 'right' and 'left' still useful shorthand for political belief?

Three experienced political observers wrestle with the idea that the labels 'left' and 'right' have outlived their currency — and just what terms we might use in their place.
The left-right divide seems muddier and less coherent in these anxious times, even while people appear to be more politically polarized than ever. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press; John Locher/Associated Press)

In today's volatile and anxious times, the left-right divide seems muddier and less coherent than ever before — leading some observers to question whether it bears any meaning at all.

The origins of the labels 'left' and 'right' go back more than 200 years.

In 1789, in the throes of the French Revolution, France's political class had a decision to make: how much power should the king retain? 

A National Constituent Assembly met. The king's supporters sat to the president's right. Those who wanted to strip away the king's power sat to the president's left.

And thus was born the left-right political spectrum — a tidy, coherent way of organizing and understanding political ideology and values. 

On the right, people have traditionally valued free markets, individual liberties, small government, traditional family values, military power, tough-on-crime policies, restrictive immigration, restrictions on abortion, low taxes and loose regulation on business and industry.

On the left, people have worked for labour rights, minority rights, big government programs, the redistribution of wealth, open immigration, fewer restrictions on abortion, more restrictions on business and industry, tighter environmental regulation and dovish foreign policy.

In the middle, people who seek moderate versions of left and right positions or pick and choose from policies on either side of the spectrum.

The left-right political divide was far more muddled in the aftermath of the French Revolution. And it remains even more so today.

Consider that many Americans flirted with voting for either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in 2016 — the most radically right-wing and left-wing presidential hopefuls in decades.

Or that far-right, xenophobic political parties in Europe also tout left-wing economic policies. 

There are social conservatives who loathe big business; U.S. Republicans who fear their party has been taken over by far-right, anti-trade zealots; Democrats who fear their party has been taken over by Wall Street; and NDP governments in B.C. and Alberta at each other's throats over the environment and the oil industry. 

The political spectrum, and where people and parties stand on it, is confused, complicated and full of contradictions.

Three experienced political observers spoke to The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright about just how meaningful the labels left and right may still be — and what terms we may adopt to replace them. 

  • Christopher Cochrane is an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto. He's the author of Left and Right: The Small World of Political Ideas.
  • Laura Stephenson is an associate professor and chair of the undergraduate program in political science at Western University. She's the co-author of Fighting for Votes: Parties, the Media, and Voters in an Ontario Election and the co-editor of Voting Behaviour in Canada
  • Kristen Ghodsee is a Professor of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her books include The Left Side of History, and Red Hangover: Legacies of 20th Century Communism

Click 'listen' above to hear the conversation.