About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Right vs. Left: what's in a name?

I've always been a bit annoyed that the political “right” and “left” are so named, because it seems to me to insinuate a built-in bias in favor of the first and against the latter. After all, “right” means also good, and appropriate, and left has always been associated with sinister things or behaviors to avoid (think of the long tradition, finally now on its way out, to force left-handed people to write with their “right” hand).

Of course, the terms go back to the French Revolution, like so much else in the modern (as opposed to ancient Athenian) concept of democracy. It turns out that in 1791 (when there still was a monarchy in France), the two major parties were the Feuillants (moderate monarchists) and the Montagnards (more radical, calling for an abolition of the monarchy). During the Legislative Assembly of that year (drawing), the Feuillants happened – by chance, I assume – to be seating on the right side of the chamber, leaving the left to the Montagnards. And it is that accident of history that gave us the now permanently enshrined terms for generally conservative or progressive political parties.

And speaking of names, even the distinction between Democrats and Republicans in the United States has a rather confusing history. The Democratic party started out with the confusing (from our perspective) name of Democratic-Republican party, organized by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison against the federalist fiscal policies of Alexander Hamilton. In other words, the original Democratic party was in favor of States rights and against too much power to the Federal government, exactly the opposite of today!

It gets worse: after the demise of the federalists, the modern Republican party got started in the 1850s. Guess what they were against? Slavery! And they supported modernization – i.e. they were “progressive” in a very modern sense of the word.

How, then, did we get to the current switch across the ideological spectrum by the two parties? Because during the early decades of the 20th century the Democrats turned more populist, first by running William Jennings Bryan on the presidential ticket (yes, the same guy who worked for the prosecution against John Scopes at the 1925 “monkey trial” in Tennessee – but that's another story), and then by inaugurating the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's “New Deal” in reaction to the Great Depression (which had occurred under the Presidency of Republican Herbert Hoover).

As we all know, the fortunes of the Dems turned again during the civil rights era of the 1960s, when their President, Lyndon Johnson, supported the civil rights movement, thereby alienating the so-called “southern Democrats” (the Dixies), paving the way for eventually turning the south into that horrible patch of “red” states that it is now.

Arguably, at least from my admittedly leftist point of view, Presidents Clinton and George W. then managed to sharply shift the entire political discourse to the right: Clinton because his much celebrated “third way” was – just like its British equivalent incarnated by Tony Blair – in effect a version of moderate Republicanism cloaked with a Democratic mantle. W. because, well, we all know the fucking mess he has made, so no need to further elaborate there.

The real question, of course, is where do we go from here. I am going to be optimistic and maintain that the high days of the influence of the religious right on the Republican party are over, with some long-term damage done to the party's image and popularity. Nonetheless, whoever will inherit the Iraq quagmire as a post-W. president will have such a tough job extricating the US from it, not to mention convincing the rest of the world that we ain't such bad guys after all, that we will face years of slow adjustment, inching away from the current extreme right back toward a centrist position, in other words, back to Clinton (Bill)! Unless a truly visionary person suddenly appears on the stage and sweeps the election. Anybody out there?


  1. Why do rational people like yourself never run for (or end up in the?) office?

  2. Valera,

    for one thing, because rationality seems to undermine, rather than help, one's political chances. Besides, as tempting as it may sound, I still don't buy Plato's idea of the philosopher-king... :)

  3. "Unless a truly visionary person suddenly appears on the stage and sweeps the election. Anybody out there?"


  4. Ron Paul is not a visionary, he is a run of the mill libertarian whose only quasi-unique characteristic is being a republican who opposes the Iraq war. big deal...

  5. Being a neo-libertarian m'self, I gotta say that I find Ron Paul luaghable. His refusal to update his political philosophy to the extant reality marks him as an ideologue, and I believe we've had enough of that crap.

  6. "Unless a truly visionary person suddenly appears on the stage and sweeps the election. Anybody out there?"

    There may be visionaries out there, but our electoral system is so fixed in so many ways, by big money and big media, that they don't really have a chance to become the recognized front runner. And once one of two candidates become the "recognized frontrunner", the game for the candidacy is pretty much over. How did it happen that Hillary Clinton and Obama became the recognized front runners for the Democratic Party? Did it have anything to do, or at least much to do, with people rationally considering their proposals against their opponents, and then concluding that these are the best people for the job? I don't think so.

    These labels of "left" and "right" can be useful but imperfect shorthand for mapping political perspectives. However, U.S. politics is so skewed to the right, that what is considered "left" is hardly "left". Take Hillary Clinton's health care proposal, which the right has been screaming as so-called socialized medicine. Please! It leaves the medical insurance companies' for profit monopoly completely intact, and will likely benefit them a great deal if enacted.

    As far as I am concerned, the for profit medical insurance industry is the biggest scam ever played on the American public.

  7. "Left" and "Right" as political terms are irritating, but I find even more irritating and obfusticating is the use of the term "Conservative" to mean a member of the radical right. "Conservative" is one of those words that has very positive connotations to most people: careful, cautious, good with money, standpat. The opposite, actually, of the sort of right wing radicals that are called "conservative" or (ludicrously) "ultra-conservative."

    Extremism is not "conservative." The balance of public opinion has been pulled so far to the right that a traditional Conservative looks somewhat suspicious, and all opinions on the left are jammed up together in a big undifferentiated ball at the far end of the scale.

    When the whole scale is devoted to nuances of rightwingnut, it's hard to know what is going on. We need more leftists in the public view so that we can remember where the middle actually is.

  8. But Massimo, shouldn't a rational person hide those of his features that would prevent people from voting for him until after the election or later, opting out to gradually help our country through sound, rational decisions.

    To be a president in the US one has to put on a show regardless of how rational or irrational s/he is.

    I agree with you that rationality doesn't help win over the people, but if rational people follow that thought path and stay out of the political arena, aren't we just handing over our country and our lives to the monkeys and the wolves?


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