In modern political discourse, the left/right framework has become standardized since the debates in the National Assembly of the great French revolution of the late 18C. There was no particular meaning associated with the locational choice; like-minded folks sat with their fellows. It so happened that those more oriented towards change sat to the left of the presiding officer’s chair and those more aligned with the embedded structures (King, Church, nobility) sat on the right.
The nomenclature of political parties (not to mention their policy predilections) as they emerged in the early 19C in the US, Britain, and France varied considerably and was complicated by the rise of socialist/worker/progressive parties later in the century. Globally, a sort of vague consensus emerged about the meaning of these terms, especially given the wide variation in national political histories and groupings around policies and personalities.
Currently, France continues its revolutionary tradition, with the workers/change parties sitting to the left of the President’s chair. However, in Britain, at least, the Government/majority party sits to the right of the Speaker’s chair regardless of party, while in the US, the Democrats sit on the left of the Speaker’s chair. So, we’re past the point of straightforward political geography.
Most of the world uses the left/right distinction as the principal ideological dichotomy, although the terms “liberal” and “conservative” (both words very much in quotes) are more common here in the US. It’s hard to figure out how to categorize “Democrat” and Republican” over time. Radical Republicans opposed slavery and championed the rights of former slaves in the 1860s, but by the 1930s, Democrats were the party of the underclass, pushing for more radical change.
Political groupings such as the “Green” parties (especially in Europe since the 1970s) have pressed for new angles of political classification. With the demise of Soviet Communism in the 1990s, traditional dichotomies in the West have faced (with limited success) the need to redefine themselves. All this occurred well before the Trumpian revival of US nativism/populism hollowed out the GOP to the point of using the epithet “RINO” (Republican in name only) as a dismissive against those who, twenty years earlier, constituted the heart of the party.
In the 21C, new modes of geopolitics, COVID, radical Islam and other terrorists, the incipient climate catastrophe, and dissatisfaction with politic-economic inequality have made clear that traditional labels and mental frameworks make less and less sense. Meanwhile, the media and political commentariat struggle to find the language to describe the positions of individuals and groups that can fit in a twenty-second sound bite.
Semantic chaos is one result. But, more fundamentally, participants, whether elected or electorate, are wandering and wondering how and where they might fit. “Big tent” political parties seemed the norm in the 20C (Rockefeller and Goldwater; Humphrey and Stennis (just to take a couple of pairings from the 1960s), but the tents of both Dems and GOPs are swaying and fraying pretty badly.
This lack of coherence is pushing an even deeper level of change. The idea of the “loyal opposition,” the implicit acceptance of shared political norms—what might be called the social glue of the political system—seem to be dissolving. “Opponents” (especially from the perspective of “Trumpians” (I don’t know exactly what to call them) seem to becoming “enemies.” As such, they are excluded from the tribe and subject to unlimited exercises of power by those who have it. This is a profound change in attitude in the history of US politics. It is redolent of the troubling analysis of Carl Schmitt, whose The Concept of the Political (1932), was an attack on the essence of modern (bourgeois, parliamentary, liberal) structures of domestic power. It’s no wonder Schmitt was aligned with the Nazis on many issues, or with Fascism more generally.
When we hear that “the US is a republic, not a “democracy,” from those of a Trumpish bent, therefore, we have to wonder what kind of distinction they’re trying to make and be wary about the status of those who are not in the “Republic.”
Schmitt’s amoral, free-floating tribalism depends solely on self-definition and the contingent amassing of power. It rejects both ethics and profitability as the basis of domestic order (the precarious balancing of which has been the mission of liberalism for 200+ years). Political parties (at least in the Western, contested, sense and distinguished from the one-party models of Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and more recent authoritarians) thereby become irrelevant. The efforts of “principled” “Conservatives” (e.g., Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol) to salvage the old guard look to be washed away and even unprincipled conservatives (e.g. Mitch McConnell) are barely hanging on. They, at least, are aware of their problem. Kevin McCarthy and a host of current and wannabe Trumpian pols remind me of nothing so much as a gang of ideological zombies.
As noted above, it’s not as if these groupings had much vitality lately, anyway. Whether Trump stands by in 2024, runs and loses, or runs, wins, and dies; his grip on the GOP is of limited duration. It’s hard to see how it reconstitutes itself, especially since most of the folks with brains have been pushed out.
The Dems have a different set of problems, but they’re more “normal” problems: staleness, inadequate coalition building, and a dearth of leadership among them. Fifteen years ago, Obama came out of pretty much nowhere and solved these problems, at least for a little while. He has no obvious successor (although I kind of like a “Michelle-Buttigieg” ticket).
Whoever tries to stake a claim to leadership in the US will need to devise a new political language. Between frontal assaults and natural obsolescence, the old terms don’t cut it anymore. “Left” and “right” and a whole bunch of others can be consigned, in Trotsky’s phrase, “to the dustbin of history.”