The past decade has been a dizzying time for people accustomed to defining their political world in terms of left and right. We lived through an apparently right-wing administration that was almost constantly at war with basic civil liberties, that doubled federal spending while slashing taxes, and introduced vast new bureaucracies and entitlements.
So what the heck are left and right supposed to mean in the first place? The term dates to the French Revolution when the most radical revolutionaries seated themselves on the left side of the parliament and the delegates most reluctant to embrace social changes sat to the right. Over history, “left” has come to describe political positions that favor dramatic government interventions aimed at remaking society. “Right” has referred to a preference for gradual, organic change that respects tradition, culture, and individual liberty.
What made the Bush era so jarring for many is the way the Bushites took the party “left” in the classical sense – pursuing radical, heavy-handed reshaping of the basic social contract and concentrating power in the hands of the executive. This was done in the name of conservativism, but there was nothing traditionally conservative about it. There is no such thing as a “radical conservative.”
The Party during this time very aggressively purged traditional conservatives, recruiting bare-knuckled revolutionaries wherever possible. As a consequence, there are very few genuine conservatives, people in the mold of John McCain or George Bush Sr., left in the party. There is very little left of the old right around which Reagan built his model of government. The Party is now far-right in its rhetoric and deeply leftist in its tactics.
So how did we get here and does it mean that right and left are dead as meaningful political distinctions?