The term right wing originated with the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1791. The royalists sat on the right side of the chamber while their opponents were seated to their left on an elevated section called the Mountain. Between them sat a mass of deputies, known as the Plain, who did not belong to any particular faction.
The Right, representing aristocratic, royalist and clerical interests, supported the monarchy. The Left called for a limited monarchy and a unicameral legislature. But these labels took on new meanings during the course of the French Revolution. Although originally advocates for moderate reform, the powerful Jacobin clubs became increasingly radicalized as popular figures such as Maximilien Robespierre, Louis St. Just, and Jean-Paul Marat, whose inflammatory rhetoric led to the execution of King Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror, gained influence. Eventually, anyone who defended the monarchy was regarded as a member of the Right.
Since the beginning of the French Revolution, right-wingers typically have resisted calls for revolutionary change. The earliest and perhaps the most famous and influential of them, English statesman Edmund Burke (1729–1797), furiously denounced the armed doctrines of the revolutionaries in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). He appealed to custom, tradition, religion, prescriptive rights, and social hierarchy. Many subsequent critics of the Revolution acknowledged their intellectual debt to Burke. They believed that the Revolution threatened not only traditional institutions and arrangements but the very foundations of European civilization itself.
What it meant to be a right winger would vary depending on the country, culture, and the particular issue. English conservatives, for example, opposed the Utilitarians, or Classical Liberals, who favored free market economics and minimal government. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the positions were reversed. As the Left embraced socialism, the Right became defenders of the free market.
For nearly two centuries, these competing groups battled each other mostly over questions of economics and class. The Right defended the propertied interests of the privileged classes while the Left sought to equalize wealth and property. For the most part, they debated the extent to which wealth should be redistributed through government intervention. In the early-twenty-first century, cultural and social issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, secularism, and multiculturalism, have come to play a more dominant role in Left-Right political struggles.
Although there is little consensus over what is meant by right wing, most persons of the Right would subscribe to a basic set of beliefs. The Right gives greater primacy to liberty than equality. Social hierarchy is not only the natural order of things, but desirable. Human nature is fixed and cannot be perfected. Original sin or inherent defects of character explain our proclivity toward violence and evil. Members of the Right generally value religion (usually Christian) as a civilizing force. Culture matters more than either politics or economics. With the exception of the authoritarian Right and radical libertarians, right-wingers detest both collectivist and extreme individualist ideologies. Believing that humans are social creatures, right-wingers hold that people find meaning and purpose in their existence through membership in strong, viable groups such as family, voluntary associations, church, and local community. They equally condemn all efforts to either collectivize or atomize society. Because of the importance right-wingers place on cultural, ethnic, and national particularity, they oppose globalist and multicultural ideologies as inimical to rooted communities. Aware of the limited capacity of human beings for reason, right-wingers believe that traditions and prescriptive institutions are more reliable guides to general happiness and harmony than most proposals for change. They would agree with Samuel Johnson’s famous observation that “most schemes of political improvement are very laughable things” (Boswell 1980).
The Right can be divided into three basic categories: reactionary, moderate, and radical or extreme. The reactionary Right longs nostalgically for the ancien régime. They are aristocratic, authoritarian, and often pre-Reformation Catholics. Such views are rarely heard in the early-twenty-first century.
Most members of the moderate, democratic Right can trace their intellectual lineage to Burke, the father of modern conservatism. They reject the Jacobin philosophy of universal rights and the extreme individualism of the Utilitarians, and stress the importance of family, tradition, and religion as indispensable mainstays of civilized existence. Moderates favor limited constitutional government. In U.S. politics, the democratic Right can be broken down further into paleoconservative, neoconservative, and libertarian camps. The paleoconservatives are a group of traditionalists or Old Rightists who support minimal government, traditional institutions, and an isolationist foreign policy. They oppose liberal immigration policies. The neoconservatives are mostly Jewish intellectuals who moved to the Right in response to the excesses of the Left during the 1970s. They propose big-government conservatism with a welfare-state component, foreign policy crusades to spread democracy and human rights, and liberal immigration policies. Although defined as right-wingers by the popular media, the libertarians do not share many of the philosophical principles of the Right. They place a greater faith in human rationality and tend to be extreme individualists. Most problems, they believe, can be resolved through the free workings of an unregulated marketplace. Minimal taxes, small government, and laissez-faire economics are the hallmark positions of the libertarians.
Included as well under the rubric of right-wing is the Religious Right, a collection of Christian groups that share a common concern with the decline of moral values in U.S. society and crusade against abortion, same-sex marriage, and the secularization of public school instruction. Also affiliated with the Right are a variety of singleissue groups such as anti–gun-control advocates and tax protestors.
The radical Right groups share few opinions other than extreme nationalism, nativism, and a tendency to spin conspiratorial theories. The John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-fascists, and militia groups are a few representative examples. Most oppose immigration and are racialists such as Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National movement in France. Others, such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Peoples Party, and neo-Nazis, are overtly racist.
Like those on the Left, who prefer to be called progressive, people on the Right generally do not apply the label right-winger to themselves. More frequently, the Left labels its opponents as right-wingers to distinguish themselves and to define those on the Right as outside of the political mainstream.
SEE ALSO Capitalism; Cleavages; Conservatism; French Revolution; Hierarchy; Inequality, Political; Jacobinism; Ku Klux Klan; Left and Right; Liberalism; Liberty; Monarchy; Neoconservatism; Political Parties; Property; Religion; Sin; Socialism; Tradition
Eatwell, Roger, and Noël O’Sullivan, eds. 1990. The Nature of the Right: American and European Politics and Political Thought since 1789. Boston: Twayne.
Kirk, Russell. 1986. The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. 7th ed. Washington, DC: Regnery.
W. Wesley McDonald
right wing • n. (the right wing) 1. the conservative or reactionary section of a political party or system. 2. the right side of a team on the field in soccer, rugby, and field hockey. ∎ the right side of an army. • adj. conservative or reactionary: a right-wing Republican senator. DERIVATIVES: right-wing·er n.
RIGHT WING. SeeRadical Right .