Economic growth is pushing through, unemployment rates are back at their pre-crisis levels and democrats are gaining momentum against their incumbent right-wing opponents. People have grown tired of Manichean politics, the politics of leaving the EU versus further cooperation with the EU, of close borders versus open borders, these choices often portrayed as a choice between intellectual progressive leftism versus bigoted right-wing extremism. Rita Verdonk, a Dutch politician, once campaigned on the motto that she was ‘Neither left nor right but straightforward’, her message was unmistakably right-wing, but her slogan does catch the wrongs of the terminology, people are done with these ever-changing, over-simplifying terms. Centrist parties, much like Macron and his movement campaign on being neither left nor right as well, and win. Do left and right still mean something?
The left and right terminology finds its origin in, ironically, the French National Assembly in 1789. Those opposed to the revolution, evidently proponents of the old monarchy, sat on the right in the recently found parlement they so loathed, proponents of the revolution sat on the left. The divisions continued and later on, in a time where there were still no parties in the French political landscape, leftists came to be regarded as innovators, rightists often as defenders of the constitution. Only in the beginning of the nineteenth century did the terms gain popularity as they began to be used informally to describe one’s political ideology. One can conclude that in these times, right-wing parties protected the interests of the upper-classes, leftists tailored to the people of lower social-economic class. It is at this time, the time of industrialization and worker suppression, that the left adopted the role of protecting workers from the aristocratic upper-class, a feat of democracy if you will.
The left, in the late nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century associated with Marxism and later on social democracy, gained popularity quickly. However, income differences and worker suppression became less of an issue as left-wingers began to lose their prevalence in Europe. Optimism quickly transcended pessimism in the time after the Great Wars, it was a time of secularization and the civil rights movement. Leftists swiftly abandoned their traditional working-class voter base, rather representing intellectual, minority voters. Quickly, right-wingers managed to pick up this left-behind group and sound the voice of these socially conservative voters.
Skip ahead three decades and one finds itself in the time of pro-business conservatives such as Reagan and Thatcher, who made the best of the economic prosperity of their years. Social democrats, who embraced multiculturalism, often formed coalitions with such mildly conservative, pro-business parties, forming the basis for Tony Blair and Wim Kok in building their ‘purple’, third way cabinets. Fueled by the fall of the Soviet empire, their centrist, neo-liberal ideology caught on.
One can see that the definitions of left and right have long correlated and moved, the political spectrum is not what it used to be. The fact that the definitions of these terms are as ever-changing as political ideologies themselves is two-fisted. However, as with anything, people tend to cling to such terms, bringing themselves to the almost binary choice as described in the first paragraph, an even worse trait of these one-sided designations.
Left and right and the french elections
Besides these obvious shortcomings, globalization has rendered parties on the left and the right useless. Social democracy, which is losing its influence swiftly, was – and still is – the foundation of European politics. No longer is it possible to impose radical protectionism or drastically change foreign policy. Countries will be rapped over the knuckles by the European Union, Wall Street or any other influential institution. Ideology is compromised to the furthest extent. Macron, as well as other moderates, seems to have gained immensely from campaigning on a message that is independent of political direction. He understood that people grew tired of this diluted playing field. He also understood that, as a result, many Europeans tended to more extreme parties to break the politics of this loving consensus.
His recently established cabinet of ‘left and right’ is an excellent first step towards a new type of government that does not comply with terminology but tailors to the ballots the French have cast. Le Pen’s talking points will remain talking points. Macron and his cabinet should seek to acknowledge those and offer viable solutions, contrary to bleak rhetoric, and renew the sense of democracy that once originated in that same France. If his administration won’t, right-wing populist will be back, and win.