The left-wing vs right-wing divide in politics represents general and simplified ideological differences in political positions. The left represents progressive social and economic values; and the right represents conservative social and economic values.
Key differences are:
- The left-wing ideology typically champions ideals of equality, social justice, and collective responsibility, advocating for government intervention to address societal inequalities and to provide public services.
- The right-wing ideology primarily champions social conservatism, limited government, and free-market economics, asserting the importance of personal responsibility and traditional values.
However, it’s important to note that this spectrum is not perfect, and indeed, individuals may embrace political positions that vary along the spectrum depending upon the issue and social context.
Left-Wing vs Right-Wing Origins
The left-wing and right-wing terminology can be traced back to the French Revolution of 1789, a period of profound political and social upheaval in France.
In the French National Assembly, the supporters of the king traditionally positioned themselves to the right of the president, symbolizing a defense of the existing social hierarchy and favoring limited change to preserve tradition and stability.
The revolution’s supporters, advocating for radical change, republicanism, and secularism, sat on the left.
Over time, these seating arrangements transcended their physical connotations, becoming entwined with distinct political ideologies— the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’.
These terms have since transcended national borders, serving as a lexicon for political discourse globally.
They serve to capture the fundamental ideological conflicts that underpin political debates and policy-making, from the corridors of power in national governments to dinner table conversations around the world.
Typical Ideological Stances
It cannot be stressed enough that the below examples are general, simplified, and rough outlines of political stances only.
Left-wing and right-wing politics each have their own sub-genres and niche ideologies which contradict and lead to significant infighting in each camp. Furthermore, ideologies such as Green politics and Libertarianism have a hard time being situated on this ideological spectrum at all.
Nevertheless, the below archetypes give a general overview of common left-wing and right-wing positions in mainstream party politics today.
10 Stances of Left-Wing Politics
- Economic Equality: Left-wing politics often advocate for measures to reduce economic disparities. This could include wealth redistribution through progressive taxation, where the wealthier are taxed at a higher rate to support social programs that benefit all citizens.
- Government Market Intervention: Center-left politics advocates for soft government guardrails to curb the excesses of capitalism, while left politics may more aggressively restrict the freedom of businesses, and radical far-left economic politics (e.g. those that follow Marxism) may go so far as to banning private industry altogether and create a command economy.
- Universal Healthcare: Universal healthcare is a common left-wing position. The idea is that healthcare should be a right for all, not a privilege reserved for those who can afford it.
- Labor Rights: The left generally supports strong labor rights, including the right to organize and form unions, fair wages, and safe working conditions.
- Environmental Regulation: Left-wing politics often emphasize the importance of strong environmental regulation to combat climate change and protect natural resources for future generations.
- Education Access: Many on the left believe that education should be affordable and accessible to all, with some advocating for free public education, including college and university level.
- Social Justice: Left-wing politics often focus on social justice issues, advocating for equality across racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual orientation lines.
- Immigration: Left-wing ideologies generally promote more open immigration policies, viewing immigration as a positive factor that enriches society culturally and economically.
- Progressive Social Policies: The left often supports progressive social policies, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage and the protection of women’s reproductive rights.
- Global Cooperation: The left typically advocates for diplomacy and global cooperation in international relations, often supporting multilateral institutions and agreements to address global issues like climate change and human rights.
10 Stances of Right-Wing Politics
- Limited Government: Right-wing politics often advocate for a limited role of government in economic affairs, favoring less regulation and lower taxes to stimulate business growth and innovation.
- Free Market Capitalism: The right generally champions a free market economy where businesses operate with minimal government interference. They believe that competition leads to efficiency and innovation.
- Deregulation: Many on the right believe that deregulation helps stimulate economic growth by reducing burdens on businesses and encouraging entrepreneurship.
- Strong National Defense: Many right-wing ideologies prioritize a strong national defense, including significant investment in the military and robust responses to international threats.
- Traditional Values: The right often defends traditional social norms and values, resisting rapid changes in societal structures or norms (see: family values).
- Law and Order: Right-wing politics often emphasize the importance of law and order, supporting strict law enforcement measures and punitive approaches to criminal justice.
- Lower Taxes: The right typically advocates for lower taxes, especially on businesses and high-income earners, believing that it encourages investment and economic growth.
- Strict Immigration Policies: Right-wing ideologies often favor stricter immigration policies, prioritizing national security and cultural cohesion.
- School Choice: Right-wing politics often support the concept of school choice, allowing parents to use public funding for their children to attend private schools if they wish. This is a key feature of neoliberalism in education.
- Climate Change Skepticism: While not universally true, some right-wing factions express skepticism towards the consensus on human-induced climate change, often opposing stringent environmental regulations that could impact economic growth.
Table of Differences
Here are some general differences reflecting mainstream understandings of the categories of left-wing and right-wing, understanding that there is signficant overlap and nuance between the two camps that cannot be surmized in one table.
|Left-Wing Ideologies||Right-Wing Ideologies|
|Economic System||Often supports socialism or social democracy: wealth and resources are shared more evenly across society.||Often supports capitalism or free-market economics: individuals and businesses largely control economic activity.|
|Government Role||Generally advocates for larger government to provide social services and regulate economy.||Typically advocates for smaller government and less regulation, except in moral or cultural issues.|
|Social Equality||Advocates for equality across all social groups and classes; typically supports social justice initiatives.||More likely to believe in a natural social hierarchy; typically emphasizes individualism.|
|Social Issues||Tends to support progressive stances on social issues: e.g., marriage equality, pro-choice, etc.||Tends to support traditional stances on social issues: e.g., marriage as between man and woman, pro-life, etc.|
|Environment||Generally advocates for strong environmental regulations to combat climate change.||May support environmental regulations, but not at the expense of economic growth or private property rights.|
|Defense and Security||May favor diplomacy and international cooperation over military action; may support reduced military spending.||Generally supports strong defense and military, may prioritize national security over international cooperation.|
|Immigration||Typically supports more liberal immigration policies, may advocate for easier paths to citizenship.||Typically supports stricter immigration policies, often prioritizing national security and cultural continuity.|
Spectrum of Right-Wing Ideologies
Here are some brief explanations of a handful of right-wing ideologies. Note how some focus on economic freedoms, while others focus on cultural issues to a greater extent:
- Social Conservatism: This refers to a position where traditional values, such as the primacy of the nuclear family, religious and cultural traditions, and respect for authority are believed to serve society well.
- Small-c conservatism: The term ‘small-c’ conservatism is used to refer to the philosophy of conservatism, wherein there is a reluctance to enact changes out of gratitude and respect for what we have, our functioning institutions, and our cultural norms, which are seen as serving a positive purpose, and could be lost if change occurs too rapidly.
- Economic Liberalism: Despite the phrase ‘liberalism’ here, it is a right-leaning position which argues that the economy should be liberalized. By this, economic liberals (and neo-liberals) believe that removing restrictions on the free market will stimulate economic activity and lead to greater prosperity worthy individuals in a meritocratic environmentca, as well as society as a whole (‘the rising tide lifts all boats’).
- Right-Wing Populism: Ascendant around the world, this perspective is characterized by skepticism of democratic and global institutions, desire for strongman authoritarian leadership, an insular political stance (e.g. ‘America First’), and a desire to return to an imagined past where the world was more orderly. Many small-c conservatives would reject this position is conservative, as it actually supports radical change. Nevertheless, the radical change it advocates is toward social traditionalism which is generally seen as left-wing.
Read Related: Liberalism vs Libertarianism
Spectrum of Left-Wing Ideologies
Here is a brief (perhaps too brief!) overview of some left-wing ideologies. Note how social democracy embraces economic liberties to a far greater extent than socialism and communism do not:
- Center-Left Social Democracy: This refers to a European-style democratic system built on a desire to sustain a form of regulated capitalism that both encourages entrepreneurship and curtails capitalism’s excesses through regulation to prevent a slide into extreme social inequality. It believes capitalism is the ideal economic system, but it should serve the interests of society (and society should not end up existing to serve the capitalist machine). It aims to use progressive taxation to deliver equitable access to essential services such as healthcare and education. It also tends to embrace global economic and social cooperation, often giving it the monicker of ‘globalist’.
- Socialism: Unlike social democracy, socialism is anti-capitalist. It attempts to establish equality of outcome by creating free essential services to everyone and nationalizing the means of production to prevent exploitation of labor and resources (industries that socialists nationalize include oil production, telecommunications lines, etc.). It doesn’t go as far down the scale of leftism as communism because, generally, it still tolerates regulated small businesses. For more, read my guide on socialism pros and cons.
- Communism: An extreme version of socialism, communism does not tolerate any private industry, tends to pay the same wage to all citizens regardless of their job, and believes in the rule of the working class. The government serverely restricts economic liberty and controls all facets of economic life.
This article has given a rough outline of key concepts that generally reflect left-wing and right-wing positions, where the left is more concerned with equality of opportunity and outcome, while the right is more concerned with protection of tradition and economic freedoms (which may lead to social inequalities and distorted meritocracy, which the right tend to be more tolerant of). At the risk of sounding like a broken record, do note that these differences are far more nuanced in real life, as people take varied stances on different topics depending on the context and situation, and many people don’t fit neatly into one side of the aisle of the other (I certainly see merit in values and solutions proposed by both sides of the aisle at different times!).
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]