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McGill Reporter
December 7, 2006 - Volume 39 Number 08
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Political leanings explained

Q: Where did the political terms left, centre and right originate?

Tara Shaughnessy
Communications Project Officer,
Office of the Associate Vice-Principal (Communications), Development, Alumni and University Relations

Jacob T. Levy, Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory at McGill and the author of The Multiculturalism of Fear, responds:

Jack Ruttan

A: The arrangement of political ideas and parties on a left-right spectrum originated during the French Revolution, when representatives to the national assembly arranged themselves so that they could sit with those who shared their views. Those who were more sympathetic to royal or aristocratic participation in government, including constitutional monarchists, sat on the right of the chamber. Those more and more committed to republicanism stretched to the left, though the edges changed a lot over the course of the Revolution as different factions took power and the boundaries of legitimate debate shifted. What's interesting is that the disputes were so centrally over the form of government; members of the radical left and radical right could agree entirely on, for example, economic questions. Twenty-one decades later no one much likes the left-right spectrum as a general accounting of political ideologies. Views on economics, social questions, military policy and nationalism just don't always line up that way. A one-dimensional left-right spectrum does seem to work tolerably well within the political system of any stable democracies, however, and no rival metaphor has come close to replacing left-right as the default way of thinking about politics.

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