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Is the Left-Right Distinction Still Useful?


Since the French revolution, the distinction between left and right organizes the political universe into opposing camps. When the States General met on May 5, 1789, the nobility took the place of honour to the king’s right, while the representatives of the Third Estate sat to the king’s left. Since then, being on the right has meant being closer to tradition in defence of the existing order; being on the left, on the contrary, has been associated to progressive views, suggesting that the existing order should somewhat change. Despite its appeal, this distinction became common in political usage and public debate only in the early 20th century. Today, left and right still suggest progressivism and conservatism, respectively, in the US and Europe, but with significant differences. Indeed, one wonders whether the distinction is still useful.

Neither left nor right, just problems to be solved

On one hand, an army of intellectuals and politicians of various cultural backgrounds argue that the left-right distinction is obsolete. In their view, the only thing that matters is the ability to solve problems, which are neither leftist nor rightist. This perspective is typical of populist movements, which generally blend elements attributed to either left- or right-wing ideologies. For example, some of these movements support strong social welfare programs and state intervention, but also restrictions on immigration, law and order and strong national borders.

On the other hand, the left-right distinction is increasingly used in political disputes, to categorize people in an attempt to de-legitimize them. As Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio suggested in his very fortunate book (Left and Right, The Significance of a Political Distinction, The University of Chicago Press, 1996), the left-and-right distinction can be useful for descriptive, axiological or historical purposes. From the axiological perspective, the left-right distinction expresses negative value judgements. For example, Joe Biden considers himself a moderate democrat, but has been described by Trump as a “Puppet for the radical left”. Similarly, all candidates assigned to Trump’s camp have been labelled as far right. Placing one’s opponent either on the far left or the far right of the political spectrum clearly presupposes that this placement has a meaning that can be easily understood by voters. In other words, it is believed that voters need the left-right distinction to categorize people in the political arena. Yet, the axiological use of the left-right dyad corrupts its descriptive use.

In fact, the left-right distinction sheds light on the fundamental differences between political ideologies and helps to clarify the trade-offs central to the political process. Maintaining that there is neither left nor right, but only problems that need to be addressed, is perhaps coherent with what politicians believe “the common man” feels. But it supports the dangerous idea that technocrats can solve all the problems of modern democracies.

At the core of the left-right distinction

The distinction between the left and the right provides a clear way to cluster similar approaches to issues such as economic policy-making, social welfare, national security, and summarise the arguments that each side makes in support of their positions. In this way, the distinction is a useful tool: it eases public debate and clarifies complex issues.

However, the need to divide the political universe into two opposing camps may also produce paradoxical results. For example, the three parties that currently oppose the Italian coalition government are said to be on the left. Yet, at least two of them deny any meaning to the left-right criterion.

This example contributes to explaining why the distinction has proved enduring. Politics is by its nature antithetical, and the development of democracy has generally led to the polarization of parties around two main blocks. It is the dyad friend or foe that matters, in politics as in many other spheres of human life, coupled with the principle that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, whereas the enemy of my enemy is, of course, my friend.

Photo by Marco Oriolesi

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