It’s often forgotten that the idea of the political spectrum—of politics having a left and right—has a physical origin. It comes from the seating arrangements at the National Assembly of 1789, the first year of the French Revolution. The terms we still use are remnants of how men once arranged themselves in a room according to their political opinions.
The Baron de Gauville wrote at the time:
Those of us attached to their King and their Religion positioned ourselves to the right of the presiding member, in order to avoid the shouting and the indecent language coming from the other side.
He tried sitting elsewhere—“in order to be the master of my opinion”—but found too much mockery on the left side to settle there. On that side, noted Adrien Duquesnoy, the delegate from Nancy, sat “men who no doubt hold exaggerated opinions at times but who in general hold a very high idea of liberty and equality.”
By 1814, “right” and “left” were being used in France to describe political ideologies. As the historian Marcel Gauchet observes,
A great deal of water flowed under the bridge between the Revolution, when people hesitantly spoke of the assembly as divided between a “right side” and a “left side,” and the Restoration, when the terms were permanently enthroned in the parliamentary lexicon.
Nonetheless, the terms “were not firmly established until the beginning of the twentieth century.” Gauchet criticizes them as dualist, “a simplifying symbolism.” They are a binary, perhaps a false one, and their capacity to define political life has been strained for a long time. One problem is that the simple, diametrically opposed terms conceal differences inside the categories and similarities across them—which is to say that at crucial times they can obscure more than they clarify.
Years ago, when I saw Diego Rivera’s murals of factory workers in a thicket of machinery, funded by Henry Ford’s son Edsel for the Detroit Institute of Arts, I finally understood why an avowed communist would have associated with the world’s leading capitalists. In the Thirties, communists and capitalists shared a vision: the future would be urban, industrial. They differed only on the administrative details. In times to come, we may perceive at last what groups that considered each other rivals or enemies had in common.
In a similar vein, there are groups we treat as homogeneous whose differences matter greatly. Surely this is true of the American right at present. The right has become radicalized since Ronald Reagan and the rise of the incoherent ideology that urges dismantling the state but building up the military, that preaches a gospel of austerity while running up deficits. It embraces authoritarianism and heavy-handed policing and elevates individual rights—but not those of women. It plays at folksy populism while serving the economic elite at everyone else’s expense.
Today, Donald Trump is leading the party to the brink. Many have peeled away along the route. Polls show that 12 percent of educated white voters over sixty have swung to the Democratic Party since the election, and support for Trump among white evangelical women has dropped 13 percent over the past year. As of early May, an almost unprecedented thirty-eight Republicans in the House and four in the Senate had announced that they would not be running for reelection this fall. From Alabama to Wisconsin, traditionally Republican seats have been won by Democrats.
Conservatives including Bill Kristol and George Will, along with writers for such publications as National Review and Foreign Policy, have loudly opposed the Trump Administration. What they object to is an extreme version of what they loved in more moderate forms.
Trump’s ideas have been championed by another part of the right, the so-called alt-right, an openly white-nationalist cult of anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny. This movement began to surface, in part, during the Gamergate controversy of 2014, when women criticized video game culture as misogynist. Anita Sarkeesian, one of the leading voices, found herself the object of a vast, years-long digital harassment campaign. There were death threats and doxing, and the hullabaloo is considered to have brought together a host of young men who went on to populate the alt-right. Mike Cernovich and Milo Yiannopoulos were relative unknowns until they glommed on to Gamergate. As the alt-right grew, its misogynist core remained.
But the center matters, too. Max Boot, a fervent anti-Trumper affiliated with various conservative institutions, seems to see himself as a centrist now. This spring he wrote:
Both the center-left and center-right are mobilizing and—best of all—they are cooperating, because they realize that their policy differences fade into insignificance at a time when our core institutions and norms are under assault.
Sometimes I think of the new far-right coalition as the Confederacy. This makes the rest of us, I suppose, the Union. In a crisis, differences are set aside and strange alliances form; what you have in common with someone matters more than what you might disagree on. Which is to say that this country is in a crisis, and in this crisis the old terms may no longer be the best ways to define who people are.
The term “liberal” is both loaded and vague. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, liberalism “seems to fracture into a range of related but sometimes competing visions” when you try to define it and establish some clear parameters for what the word might describe. The term has to do with freedom and generosity. Historically, liberalism was about two things—individual rights and free markets. Of course, there’s a conflict built in: the freedom of the market depends on the rights of the powerful, which often lead to the savaging of the rights of individuals. This is sometimes called neoliberalism, a word that has been used so widely and sloppily that it has lost all meaning. Neoliberalism chooses the free market over human rights. Mainstream Democrats often want both sides to coexist, and embrace them while denying the contradictions.
Another term that comes from the same root is “libertarian.” Libertarianism also evolved from classical liberalism, and with their antiauthoritarianism and hostility to government, libertarians have sometimes been mistaken for part of the left. But in most ways, they fit in with the conservatives. Libertarians are overwhelmingly white men, the beneficiaries of generations of privilege that have made them believe fervently in individual autonomy and self-reliance.
Liberals and leftists are frequently portrayed as mild and strong versions of the same thing, the same end of the spectrum—left and lefter—but in crucial ways they are opposites. This became especially clear during the past two years. Liberals demonstrated a faith in the country’s official ideals and institutions and a willingness to defend them. That means participating in electoral politics that the left sometimes spurns.
Under the liberal rubric are many subcategories. There are some who see no past sins in the US government and the Democratic Party. Others see plenty, but in 2016 thought that key issues were best advanced by electing a Democratic president and then pressuring her. This may be the population that drowses during Democratic administrations and wakes up during Republican ones.
Liberals can perhaps be imagined as those who defend the rights that were originally achieved by radical movements—unions, universal suffrage, equal access, affirmative action, reproductive choice. Another faction seems both more visionary—imagining the transformation of fundamental values and ways of living—and more pragmatic, since it is often made up of people of color, women, and the poor figuring out how to survive. Its core is those who are underrepresented or on the margins. Radicals question fundamental concepts about power, hierarchy, social structure, internal dynamics, and processes in ways the more conventional liberals do not. One of the curious phenomena of our time is white leftists sneering at non-whites for being merely liberals. And yet some of the most radical political movements of the past half century have been powered by black, indigenous, Latino, and Asian people, from the Combahee River Collective to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to Idle No More and Black Lives Matter.
If the right is split between conservatives and the alt-right, the left now seems to me to be fissioning as well. An old-school left is focused on economics and antiauthoritarianism, often convinced that the US government is so appalling that any regime or leader who opposes it deserves a free ride. This faction is dismissive of electoral politics and scornful of anything that is incremental or impure. It seems to be dominated by white men whose views are amplified in ways that make them appear to speak for more of us than they do or should. This is of course true of white guys generally—the ones who signed the Declaration of Independence, the ones who own most of the media, from the Washington Post to Fox News, the ones who fill the majority of our elected offices. But it’s grating on the left, where things are supposed to be different. It would be nice to have a left made up of people “who no doubt hold exaggerated opinions at times but who in general hold a very high idea of liberty and equality,” as Adrien Duquesnoy wrote.
Today, it is not unusual to see men who identify as socialist attack women who identify as feminist, sometimes the same men who dismiss race and gender equality as trivial “identity politics.”
Gender itself has much to do with political orientation. In almost every recent presidential election, men have been more likely to support the Republican and women more likely to support the Democratic candidate. One side of the left “that called itself ‘the left’ too often preferred to stay stubbornly unreconstructed, in particular in regard to gender,” wrote L. A. Kauffman, a longtime organizer and author, describing the divisions forty years ago.
Women tend to be more enthusiastic about social welfare. The linguist and philosopher George Lakoff echoed this inclination, asserting that liberals imagine the government as a “nurturant parent” who should meet our needs while conservatives see it as a “strict father” who keeps us in line through menace and punishment. Indeed, a 2013 study concluded that women were twice as likely to say that giving to charity was the most satisfying part of having wealth.
Michael Kimmel, the author of Healing from Hate, points out that what we don’t talk about when we talk about right-wing extremism, from the Islamic State to the alt-right, is that right-wing extremists are mostly men. He sees a connection between seemingly disparate phenomena, including Christian and Islamic fundamentalism; the march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year; and Elliot Rodger, who in 2014 killed several people, including two sorority sisters, in an attack that was supposed to be revenge on women for not meeting his delusional expectations. Both Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland, Florida, shooter, and Alek Minassian, the Toronto killer, revered Rodger. Kimmel writes,
These young men feel entitled to a sense of belonging and community, of holding unchallenged moral authority over women and children, and of feeling that they count in the world and that their lives matter.
Experiencing threats to the lives they feel they deserve leads these young men to feel ashamed and humiliated. And it is this aggrieved entitlement—entitlement thwarted and frustrated—that leads some men to search for a way to redeem themselves as men, to restore and retrieve that sense of manhood that has been lost.
Joining up is a form of masculine compensation, an alternative route to proving manhood.
Kauffman tells a contrasting narrative about gender and our present politics. Last year she wrote:
There are numerous qualities that distinguish this organizing upsurge from past waves of protest in the United States, but the most striking and significant is its composition: the resistance, by and large, is women. Women, of course, have long played key but under-acknowledged roles in the great movements of American history, from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s to Ferguson and Standing Rock. With the anti-Trump resistance, though, the preponderance of women is so noteworthy and significant that failing to name it obscures the movement’s basic nature—and distorts the larger political conversation surrounding it.
Meanwhile, a lot of young people are criticizing the limitations of gender identity and sexual orientation. Their questions are a testament to the limited usefulness of any categories or binaries. If left and right defined seating arrangements in 1789, what seems most true in 2018 is that no one is sitting still, that we have stood up and walked away. We are drifting and milling and marching toward some unknown shore.