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?
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?