What Is the American Left?

Alan Rankin

The American left is a general term referring to the progressive and liberal segment of the American population and its related political body. Terms such as “the left wing” describe a broad range of Americans, encompassing a wide variety of beliefs and political movements. These include extreme liberals such as communists and socialists as well as mainstream groups like civil-rights activists and labor unions. In the two-party system that dominates political matters in the U.S., the American left is associated with the Democratic Party.

The left is normally associated with the Democratic party.
The left is normally associated with the Democratic party.

The political terms “left” and “right” originated with the National Assembly of pre-revolutionary France in the 18th century. Members of the Assembly who supported the monarchy and the established political system were seated on the king’s right, while those who advocated reform were on his left. When the French Revolution erupted in 1793, the king and many of his right-hand supporters were arrested and executed. The terminology, however, has survived to the present day. The “right” describes conservatives who wish to maintain the established order, while the “left” generally supports change and reform.

Throughout American history, the White House has been occupied by both the right and left.
Throughout American history, the White House has been occupied by both the right and left.

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Individuals and political groups often have beliefs that cannot be easily categorized. In general, however, the American left is identified with government regulation of business, social reform, and support for those groups and individuals who are not part of the established power structure. The American right is seen to support financial conservatism, free-market capitalism, and established religious and social orders. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, various factors have resulted in these divisions becoming increasingly contentious and even bitter in social and political discourse.

The American left has had a colorful and uneven history. In 1912, former president Theodore Roosevelt made an unsuccessful bid to return to the White House as part of the Progressive Party, a third party also known as the Bull Moose Party. In the following decades, a broad coalition of liberal activists won many political reforms, including labor rights, voting rights for women, and government-funded social programs. In the 1950s, Senator Joe McCarthy led a crushing backlash against the American left by exploiting fears of Soviet communism. In the 1960s and 1970s, left-wing activists famously demonstrated against the Vietnam War and in support of civil rights for minorities.

Even today, there is little agreement about what constitutes the American left. The Democratic Party has been strongly identified with the left since the late 19th century. Many progressives, however, would claim that as an entrenched part of the political power structure, the Democrats are more centrist than left. On the opposite end of the scale, anarchists are often seen as part of the left, along with other radical political factions. As they oppose government systems altogether, however, anarchists cannot truly be considered part of the established political framework.

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