The Idea that the American Left and Right are Synonymous with the Political Left and Right in General is False
Sometimes in America we use the terms left-wing and right-wing to describe the general ideology of our two broad ideological voter groups (where Democrat, left, and liberal are all used interchangeably and so are Republican, right, and conservative). This works semantically in America, in that we generally understand what everyone is talking about, but it is not historically or philosophically accurate.
In other words: The American left and right aren’t synonymous with the political left right. Rather, the American left and the American right are each “big tents” that contain a broad spectrum of left-right political views.
Those political views actually span the left-right spectrum (not just the X axis, but Y axis as well). Meanwhile, all the other terms we noted above each have a very different and specific meaning and their own complexities to consider.
- The American left contains a range of members and factions who have views, that differ per issue, ranging from social liberal, to classical liberal, to neoliberal, to classical conservative. These members and factions sometimes even vote for different parties (but generally vote for the Democratic Party).
- The American right contains a wide range of members and factions who have a wide range of views, that differ per issue, ranging from social conservative, to classical conservative, to neoliberal, to classical liberal. These members and factions sometimes even vote for different parties (but generally vote for the Republican Party).
TIP: See a description of liberalism and conservatism in their different forms. Generally we can equate the term liberalism with left, thus we can denote a classical left and social left. Likewise, we can equate the term conservatism with right and denote a classical and social right. In this sense the American let and right each contain different factions who hold a range of classical and social left-right political views that can differ per issue (and differ between action and rhetoric as well).
The main difference between the American left and right (and to some extent what we call the global left and right), and what likely confuses people, is found in what these two big tents do not have in common.
That is, social liberalism (something that is mostly found on the American left and social left in general) and social conservatism (something that is mostly found on the American right and the social right in general).
In modern terms we may think social liberalism to be the defining aspect of what it means to be “left” and social conservatism to be the defining aspect of what it means to be “right.” That isn’t fully wrong, but it isn’t a complete view of things.
The reality is classical liberalism (left) and classical conservatism (right) are also valid ideologies that can be described with the left-right political moniker.
Further, social liberalism and social conservatism are both evolutions of the classical forms, each drawing aspects of classical liberalism and classical conservatism themselves!
This complicates things a bit, but it is none-the-less accurate.
Today a conservative American right-winger may fancy themselves a classical liberal because they want the free market and not government planning and taxes to “handle it,” and thus they might think classical liberalism is a right-wing ideology (they are taking a classical liberal view, they are right wing, so classical liberal must be rightwing). However, they are making the mistake of projecting their own ideology onto history (it works the other way around). The reality is simpler. They are “American right” holding a mix of ideological planks on different issues, some of which are classical left-wing liberal.
Further, wanting to dismantle a social safety net is not inherently “classically liberal,” it has classical liberal elements, but it is socially conservative in many ways as well. If the king is a tyrant, and you want freedom from tyranny and power to the people, you are a classical liberal. If the king is caring for the poor immigrants, and you want the money going to barons and native population instead, you are being socially conservative. It doesn’t matter that the ideology used as a lever in both cases is classically liberal (in that it is calling for freedom from government).
Likewise, a liberal American left-wing may fancy themselves as “a liberal – period” due to their social liberal / social left stances, but to the extent that they are favoring using the state to ensure their policies, they are actually bing classical conservative. Now social liberalism may be inherently classically conservative in its use of power, but regardless, its use of the state is philosophically right wing.
History didn’t change, the American left-winger simply embraced a classical conservative plank when they devised their plan of taxation and state planning.
I say this, Mises says this, Freedman says this. We say this because it is true (not because we agree on much else).
History and philosophy are like a rock, they don’t change. Meanwhile, it can be very hard to find a pure political ideology that perfectly matches up with everything we want as humans. Thus, most people will have stances that span the political spectrum and differ per issue.
This is so true that the dominate ideologies of today, social liberalism and social conservatism, are inherent mixes and evolutions of the old and more pure forms.
Still, neither today nor in 1776 have the two big American tents we call left and right been comprised of only a left-wing and right-wing. The terms are just placeholders for a wide range of policy stances and ideological beliefs.
What we call the American left and American right are just broad terms that describe two general groups, one that errs toward the conservative right and one that errs toward the liberal left in general (but actually is far more complex than a single term can describe).
In other words, the American left isn’t just “liberal left – period” and the American right isn’t just “conservative right – period,” these groups and political ideology is more complex and nuanced than that. The same goes for Democrats and Republicans. Even two members of a very specific group, Christian democratic socialists for Bernie Sanders for example, will have ideological differences that can be described using left-right terms (where one is more left, in terms of specific issues, and the other more right).
It makes sense to simplify things in general discussion, but we shouldn’t mistake that with history and philosophy which are more specific, nuanced, and unchanging.