The American left and right

The American Left-Wing and the American Right-Wing Explained and Compared

We explain the American political left-wing and right-wing by looking at the different factions that make up American liberalism and American conservatism.

TIP: For more insight, see: What is liberalism?The history of the Democratic and Republican parties, The basic types of political parties, the political left-right, and liberalism and conservatism. See also, left and right as naturally occurring systems.

TIP: See an essay on terms and labels and the problems with identity politics. Try to avoid reacting emotionally to a term without fully appreciating the definitions we are trying to provide. We are seeking to define complex terms that mean different things to different people to help us all better understand modern American politics, thus there are lots of emotional traps to fall into.

Understanding the American Left-wing – American Liberalism

The American Left-wing – Modern American Liberalism: The social justice ideology of collective liberty, social equality, and necessary government. They tend to favor inclusive big groups and use big government to ensure social liberty and equality, much to the dissatisfaction of the political right. It is dominated by social liberal values of justice, and traditionally conservative values on government (as one can’t have social justice without big government, authority, and a power structure). It sometimes embraces classical liberalism in terms of individual liberties, and almost always stands against social conservatism. They tend to increase both social spending and taxes. This can lead to a chain of events in which the country is locked into overspending and lacking additional revenue sources. This group is typically dominant in the North and cities, and is typically favored by [roughly speaking] “young people, non-whites, non-Protestants, the highly educated, and businesses and investors that rely on international business.”[1][2]

  • Social Liberals: The general term for the American left (generally what we can call “the New Left” globally). When used in comparison to classical liberalism, it indicates a progressive form of liberalism focused on social equality.
  • Progressive Populists (“Progressives”): A populist movement focused on progressivism with which a large portion of the left identifies. It shares classist stances with the progressive right populists (such as aspects of trade protectionism).
  • Unions and Left-leaning Workers: The left in the employment sector. A bridge between progressives and neoliberals. Not all Unions are left, but Unions are historically favored by the left-leaning factions of American history.
  • Left-leaning traditional conservatives: Those who are socially or fiscally inclined to the left, but conservative in their views on authority and power structure.
  • Left-leaning capitalists: The CEO’s, supervisors, and investors of the left.
  • Hollywood liberals: The left as portrayed by the Media, especially news outlets and celebrities. Most of the media is left, so this includes most of “Hollywood.”
  • Elite liberals: The influential elite left who aren’t on TV, but are at the fundraisers.
  • Neoliberals: A term that describes a mixed-market economically minded “establishment” globalist liberal. Like the Clinton family. Learn more about neoliberalism and globalization.
  • The Religious Left: Those who see religion as calling for social justice. Can be puritanical at an extreme, like Prohibition, or can be more centered like the global phenomena “the Christian Left” (like Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany).
  • Human Rights advocates (Humanists): Those who advocate for women or minorities. This includes the more radical progressives on the left who fight for figures like Snowden and the left-leaning Hacktivists. A humanist might embrace true Utilitarianism as a first principle, opting for a moral view of politics.
  • Green Environmentalists: Those who advocate for the environment. The environment is a big issue for most of the left, although reasons for this vary.
  • The Libertarian left: Those who are left on social issues but don’t want a big government solution.
  • Socialists: Those whose beliefs favor Marx rather than social liberalism. Marx’s big government can be very conservative… but it is still “left”. Communism isn’t a plank of most left-groups, but more-so, it certainly isn’t a plank of the right-wing. It is properly placed in this group, at the bottom of the list, for a reason (similar to how fascism will be placed in the right-wing group below… at the bottom of the list).

TIP: Other ideologies related to the American left include humanists, utilitarians, and more. Did we miss something? Comment below.

Understanding the American Right-wing – American Conservatism

The American Right-wing – Modern American Conservatism: The traditional values ideology of individualism, classical American values, and a limited safety net. They may use government, but it will often be to deregulate, to ensure law and order and religious values, and to roll-back spending social justice programs. Is dominated by social conservative values on justice and classically liberal values on government (as it constantly has to fight back against the social justice programs of the left, thus constantly needs to deregulate). It often embraces classical conservatism to ensure against things like ACORN or Planned Parenthood or to up military spending and almost always stands against social liberalism (that is its main thing). They tend to decrease social spending and decrease taxes, but they offset this by increasing other types of spending (thus their net effect on the bottom line is no different than a Democrat theoretically, but in practice has sometimes been worse). This group is typically dominant in the South, rural areas, and has an older white Protestant base.[3][4]

  • Social Conservatives: The general term for the American right.
  • Nativist Populists: A populist movement focused on protectionism and nativism which tends to attract right-wing thinkers.
  • Paleoconservatives: A Paleocon is a social conservative and nativist populist who stands against neoconservatism. The portion of the Republican base which identifies as right-wing but strongly favored Trump over Bush in the primary is in this category.
  • Right-leaning workers: Workers who are anti-union and anti-left.
  • Right-leaning Traditional conservatives: Those who are socially or fiscally right, but otherwise have conservative views of authority and power structure.
  • Right-leaning capitalists and employers: The CEO’s, supervisors, and investors of the right.
  • Hollywood Conservatives: Reagan, the Duke, Trump, right-wing radio, and Fox News.
  • Elite Conservatives: The posh elite right who aren’t on TV, but always at the fundraiser.
  • Neoconservatives: A term that describes a mixed-market economically minded “establishment” globalist liberal. Like the Bush family.
  • The Religious Right: Those who see religion as calling for enforcing restrictions.
  • The Anti-Communists: Those who are first and foremost against Communism. Was more popular in the era of the Duke, but this is still a thing.
  • Libertarian Conservatives: Those who are right on social issues, but don’t want a big government solution.
  • Constitutionalists: Those who are strict constitutionalists, but with a mind that that allows for militias and deregulation. In this respect, they tend to cherry pick the founding documents.
  • The Far-right “fascists”: The far-right groups like the KKK, tend to be male-dominated nationalist fraternities in any country.
  • The Alt-right: The new young hybrid of far-right radicals, fascists, Constitutionalists, and Libertarians. This group might be seen as a left-wing version of right-wing since it relies on a liberal environment to be right-wing. Arguably includes right-leaning Hacktivists and other such alternative right-wing groups. It is a mistake to think these Breitbartians are just the old run of the mill blonde hair blue eyed racist nativist. They are no more racist than Barry Goldwater as they don’t see themselves as racists. Even when they say things like “thugs” and “law and order,” they are the progressives of the right. They are not statists, and they specifically do not see themselves as being the same as the far-right fascists even if the American left sees this through a different lens.

TIP: There are also some neutral political entities like “big banks” and “big business,” where there is political interest, but not partisan interest. That is its own essay but is related certainly to the concept of the general will and cronyism.

How Two Big Tents and a Need for a Majority Create the Two Major Parties: The Democratic and Republican Parties

Each liberal and conservative political type can be thought of as a “big tent” that houses different factions and political ideologies. This is true even though the right has elements of liberalism, especially radical classical liberalism, and the left has elements of conservatism, especially pro-government classical conservatism.

Typically factions have enough in common to form a coalition. In America, those coalitions are the Democratic Party and Republican Party.

  • The Democratic Party includes left-leaning groups except for left-libertarians, green, and socialists factions who often form their own parties.[5]
  • Meanwhile, the Republican party typically includes right-wing groups except for right-libertarians, constitutionalists, and the far and alt-right who often form their own parties.[6]

Both big tents have a “base” and a rotating cast of citizens who will identify with or vote with the party. In Trump vs. Clinton, Trump attracted part of the working left and part of their fringe right, helping to push him to victory. Meanwhile, some of the progressive left failed to rally behind Clinton. The opposite occurred in Romney vs. Obama. In both cases, one could argue populists carried the vote.

See our page on How to Understand the Left-Right Political Spectrum for a broader view on the political left and right including the history of the terms and how to understand them outside of American politics.

“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats [Republicans] and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.” — Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824. ME 16:73

TIP: I agree with Thomas Jefferson in feeling that these two tents are aspects of the human condition manifesting as political parties. Jefferson talked about the ideological class divide in the passage above, but other aspects of general left-right ideology can be said to apply as well. In America, a majority is needed to win elections so people coalesce into two big groups as a two-party system. The other party is not the enemy (although radical fringe groups can sometimes break this rule, even they should be understood with a clear head, as they are likely arising as a reaction to something that needs to be addressed by the Center). They are a political opponent, but on a deeper level, they are a necessary part of what keeps us a superpower. We need varied opinions on many levels, including on a military/economic level. It is vital we find common ground and compromise. We can’t get rid of one of the two groups as it will just pop back up again.


  1. Modern liberalism in the United States
  2. Liberalism in the United States
  3. Conservatism in the United States
  4. Timeline of modern American conservatism
  5. History of the United States Democratic Party
  6. History of the United States Republican Party

"Understanding the American Political Left and Right" is tagged with: American Politics, Left–right Politics, United States of America

What do you think?

PermReader on

” …progressives of the right” – this is about Alt-right with their project of the white ethno – state -haha

Thomas DeMichele on

Right wing populism, a sort of right-wing progressivism or a progressivism of the right wing ideology. What do we want, populist right wing change, when do we want it, now, who are we, we are right wing progressives.

That is what I’m getting at here.

Tea Party is not Bernie Sanders, but both have a populist tinge. The puritanical right and the prohibition left share planks.

James on

The term ” Right wing, ” originated around the time of the French revolution and was used as the label for the wealthy plutocrats and other elitists of the time who sided with the French monarchy, against the common people of France who were demanding a sociopolitical change, based upon the principle of human equality and the belief that every individual has a Right to life, liberty and justice.
By definition and default, to be Right wing, means to be opposed to the idea that every human being is an equal as a human being, and therefore has, or has been endowed with the same Rights as every other human being. While you as a Right winger, might claim to somehow be” progressive,” by definition and default, if you actually do adhere to Right wing ideology, the only change you would approve of, would involve the reversal and or destruction of democracy and a return to some form of rule by elites, whether the ruling elites be wealthy Capitalists, Plutocrats, Oligarchs, Monarchs or mob bosses !
It so happens that the French revolution, ”although the results of that revolution were less desirable and much different than the results of the American revolution”, was inspired by the American revolution, and fueled by many of the same issues which ignited the American revolution. This means then, that despite what American Right wingers might wish to believe, and despite what American Right wingers might claim, Right wing ideology, again, by definition and default, is incompatible with the ideas, ideals, principles and values this the USA was founded upon . Yes, the truth is still true even when the truth hurts, and is not something you are willing to accept.

T on

The KKK was founded and supported by the left, not the right.

Thomas DeMichele on

The KKK was founded and supported by social conservatives (whether they would consider themselves left or right is maybe up for debate; I think I would call it a left-right mix). So for example, the same sorts of ideological groups that supported the southern Democrats who became the confederates also then later, at least parts of them very roughly speaking, also created and supported the KKK. Demographically true, politically accurate enough to say what we mean.

I feel like we all logically know that when we say KKK we think about the South and the Confederacy and maybe supporters of Hitler and such, so it is hard to think we are also talking about a bunch of liberals living in NYC who we are worried might be too big of fans of Marx or something too. And this is why by modern terms I might say something like “although the conversation is complex, the parties changed over time to a degree that some call it a switch.”

Hope that makes sense. I think what I said points out the truth, but what you said does not enough.

Seth Gentry on

Actually what you call the switch only came about with LBJ’s reluctant civil rights act which only happened because he saw an opportunity to secure the black vote for a generation (which he actually stated). The first black man elected to office was inspired by Lincoln (who was the first republican president). The Republican Party has always been a champion for equal rights and the factual history is very clear. What is not clear is the distortion of history or rather the omission of information being fed to our students in social studies classes. Hopefully this clears everything up.

Thomas DeMichele on

Well I agree on your points mostly, but things did still “switch” and the parties are made up of different factions. So it’s a little less cut and dry than that.

Seth Gentry on

Thank you! Convenient that the Democratic Party seems to brush their foundation in slavery under the rug!

Thomas DeMichele on

No one wants to own that one for sure. But it was for sure the Democrat-led south. Very clear from history that this is the case. It is how to see that in the context of history and what has changed that turns a short conversation into a long one.