The theory goes something like this:
Political values form some sort of line, and this line has a ‘left wing’ and a ‘right wing.’
Left Wing<---------------------------------------------->Right Wing
Theoretically, this line should be able to encompass anyone’s political beliefs, such that everyone could be plotted somewhere on this line. The extreme right has traditionally been associated with fascism, and the extreme left with communism. The term left wing refers to those people (or that group of people, although they aren’t exactly a unified force) who fall somewhere on the left-hand side of this line, although I have yet to encounter any consensus about how far left people have to fall to be included, or how close to the centre someone’s views must be to warrant their exclusion. Nevertheless, political affiliation is born.
I suppose the reason we bother with this whole line idea is that there are some nearly universal commonalities about the views held by those in each respective wing. We here in the left wing tend to believe that the role of government in our society is considerably more extensive than people on the right wing might find desirable. Left wingers (or lefties, so as to prevent confusion with a variety of hockey forwards) tend to have high levels of support for a wide variety of social services including welfare, health care, social security, and public education - that whole range of government activities that makes up what we refer to as the social safety net. Support for this type of program indicates support for at least some form of government redistribution of wealth, so that the wealthy pay taxes that fund programs to maintain a decent standard of living for the impoverished.
One of the all-time great American political philosophers, John Rawls, describes societies using the terms “maxi-max” and “mini-max,” where the former describes a state where the maximum attainable level - something like standard of living - is as high as possible (which takes a form something like complete free-market capitalism would, in theory) and the latter describes a state where the level of the worst off is as high as possible. This latter description fits quite well with most lefty conceptions of what society should be, with an interventionist state to ensure that the worst off are taken care of. Here’s where the degrees of leftiness kick in, however. If we think back to our line, we see that some people fall further to the left than others, and those people are likely to support more intervention and redistribution than people whose views fall closer to centre.
The most common explanation I have encountered (and use myself) for this support of redistribution has to do with how the wealthy acquire their position; namely, through using (some say exploiting) the labour of those worse off than they are. For example, consider how the profitability of a corporation like Walmart would be affected if, for some reason, they no longer had access to goods produced by workers who are paid virtually nothing, or a huge pool of minimum-wage workers in North America. In order for those at the top of Walmart to become and stay wealthy, they rely on poorer people below them. Lefty political theories suggest that those richer people have a responsibility to those poorer folk on whom they rely, and that responsibility is fulfilled through the paying of taxes to fund social programs (as described above).
This w/u would be grievously incomplete if I left things at this without any discussion of liberalism. The ideas of state intervention and redistribution I’ve mentioned were the bread-and-butter of the traditional left wing. The new left (think Bill Clinton and Tony Blair), however, are increasingly concerned with liberalism, a term perhaps more accurately labeled social liberalism. Social liberalism is based on the idea of more freedom and rights for everyone. A fine exemplar of social liberalism in recent history was Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-74, 1980-84), who famously quipped, “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” a statement that nicely encapsulates the social liberalist perspective. In true social liberalist fashion, Trudeau went on to pass Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which constitutionally enshrined rights for indigenous peoples, all religions, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations. These are the kind of laws that liberals love, in the same way we love public schools and multiculturalism.
As social liberalism expands, it has begun to include ideas like the legalization of marijuana and prostitution, as well as various other harm-reduction strategies for dealing with a huge range of social issues. If you live in a country with elections, chances are you have a left wing political party of your very own.
Here are some left wing parties by country:
- The New Democratic Party - Canada
- The Democrats - USA (Some lefties feel that this is a centrist party, rather than a truly left wing one. Their claims are well founded, since many Democrat policies reflect a centrist orientation rather than a leftist one. On the other hand, many - most that I've encountered - Democrat supporters consider themselves lefties).
- Liberal Democrats - UK
- Your party and country here (send me a msg. so I can include them on this list!)
If you have any comments or suggestions, please send me a msg. As this node covers an incredibly broad topic, many people may rightly feel that I have misrepresented their views. If this is the case, please let me know and I'd be happy to work with you to rectify the situation, which would probably be more productive than simply down voting. Thanks.