By George Friedman
On June 20, 1789, toward the beginning of the French Revolution, a meeting of the emerging National Assembly was held at a tennis court in Versailles. Various factions sat together. The supporters of the monarchy sat on the right. Supporters of creating a democratic republic sat on the left. In between were a variety of factions of many shades of monarchy and republicanism. This was the origin of the terms left wing and right wing. And they have been used ever since to describe global politics. Over the years, the terminology has confused more than it has enlightened.
It didn’t work all that well in the French Revolution either. Napoleon was an officer in the revolutionary army and eventually became the army’s leader. He had enormous support from the public, but appointed himself emperor, to great public enthusiasm. To this day, his tomb in Paris is honored by Republican France. Now, was Napoleon right wing or left wing? That question can’t be answered, nor does it need to be. He was Napoleon Bonaparte and he did what he did.
The concept of the “left” has morphed from being purely an idea about how the government should be run into being the party of the poor and the working class. European socialism can make a reasonable case for being the heir to the French revolutionary republicans. But there were conservatives who opposed free market capitalism and also were concerned with the working class while trying to preserve the existing society. Some of those were called leftists by rightists who didn’t want to help the working class. And then there were leftists like Lenin who claimed to have created a revolution for the workers and then unleashed a reign of terror on them.
Consider that Milton Friedman was a great economist who developed a theory of the relationship between money and economic growth. He was also a deep believer in a limited government that does not intrude on private life. Adolf Hitler believed deeply in state control over all aspects of life. Both Friedman and Hitler were known as right wing. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at their conversation had they both been at Versailles, as part of the “right.” Or consider two leftists, Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin. You could argue that they were different points on an ideological continuum. I’d argue that Stalin and Hitler inhabited the same parallel universe, and Roosevelt had more in common with well-known right winger Dwight Eisenhower.
It is not surprising that a happenstance political taxonomy created more than two centuries ago is insufficient for contemporary politics. There are very few monarchists left around. There are many people claiming to be democratic republicans, but meaning very different things by it. Everybody claims to speak for the poor and few do anything about it.
The reason this matters is that most people in a democratic society see themselves as belonging to a faction, rather than adhering to an ideological consistency or their own views on the budget deficit. People are drawn together by common values, but it is sometimes difficult for them to define what those values are. They are drawn into political factions based more on social forces than a clear ideology.
Many poor white people are attracted to Donald Trump because they know others who support him and his message resonates with their collective sensibility. Many older white professional women are drawn to Hillary Clinton because they see her as one of them. Many millennials are drawn to Bernie Sanders because others they know are drawn to him and because he says things that resonate with the group. Obviously, everyone doesn’t work this way. Some sort things out themselves. But many, and even most, do it this way.
As I wrote a short while ago, a member of my staff who traveled broadly in Europe and knew many British citizens said she had never met anyone who was in favor of leaving the EU. Since the majority turned out to favor Brexit, this means she only associated with people who agreed with her. And it is likely that they agreed with her on many other issues as well. Political life has always been about belonging and sharing values. But in practice, this is not about having values and then joining a faction, but about joining a faction and then absorbing its values.
For most of us, navigating the complexities of policy issues is impossible. There are so many, they are so nuanced, and frequently they are presented in incomprehensible ways. The idea is that in a democratic society people study the issues and decide which candidate is right. But this is a caricature of what happens, given the impossibility of the model presented.
How do we decide where we belong politically? It is frequently by where we were born, who our friends are and our shared emotions about events. But there still must be a roadmap that tells us where we are. If one pole of our political position is the shared values of the people we know, the other must be some shorthand to tell us how we differ from others. Right wing and left wing are no longer useful and indeed haven’t made sense for a century.
Consider Trump and Sanders. Both claim to speak for the lower classes that have suffered abuse by banks. Both believe that the economic policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have harmed the United States and that free trade has harmed the American worker. Each wants to reduce U.S. military involvement overseas. Sanders is on the left. Trump is on the right. Therefore, the young, who are attracted to the left, support Sanders. The older generation, who are attracted to the right, are drawn to Trump. Again, this does not apply to every voter, nor does this address the important issues. It certainly doesn’t address personality. But it does show how the roadmap and the social grouping interact.
The roadmap is needed, but it cannot be drawn from a tennis court in Versailles in 1789. There are no monarchists, and most people at least claim to be supporters of democracy and the republic. The real division today, I would argue, is between those who regard the nation-state as the most desirable political order and those who believe that economic and political integration with other countries is most desirable. On this continuum for example, it would become clear that Trump and Sanders are nationalists, regardless of how they express it, and Clinton is an internationalist along with, for example, Mitt Romney.
Leaving out personality and character, the various factions of the United States have the ability to place themselves on this roadmap. Nationalist and internationalist are coherent distinctions that apply to many of the issues and policies being discussed now. It is an ethical distinction and even an aesthetic one. Left and right make no sense in this distinction. Someone concerned about jobs going overseas would not be a leftist, but a nationalist. Someone who believes that international connections create jobs would not be a rightist but an internationalist. A social group organizing around left and right would not serve the purpose of guiding the cohort. Nationalist and internationalist might do it.
I am not arguing in favor of any groups or for or against any of my examples (well except against Hitler, Stalin and Lenin). The point of this is not to advocate for a position, but to facilitate a discussion about how we choose who to support politically and how we distinguish between the policies and values of candidates in the United States and Europe, and perhaps elsewhere as well.